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March 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 6

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Collaborative Learning for Equity

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Student learning communities give all students access to deeper learning.
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Collaborative Learning for Equity

Learning is a social endeavor. We have all learned from our peers as we interacted with them to reach new levels of understanding. But not all students have access to a learning community; some miss the opportunity to engage in the discourse and problem solving that occurs during collaborative learning. Lack of access to a learning community perpetuates inequity.
The conditions required to promote collaborative learning among students extend beyond putting students into small groups and assigning each group a task. For students to work as a team, not simply as individuals with varying goals and skills, the group they're part of needs to grow into a learning community.

What's Good for PLCs Is Good for SLCs

Professional learning communities (PLCs) have been used for decades to promote teachers' collective efforts to improve schooling. As anyone who's ever been a member of a PLC knows, it isn't sufficient to put teachers in groups, designate a meeting time and task for them to complete, and hope for the best. For a group to operate at optimal levels, participants need inquiry cycles, supportive relational conditions, the tools to activate their learning, and methods for reflecting on their practice. These conditions help ensure equity in teacher voice and teacher action.
As a profession, we've learned so much about how teachers can work together to effect change. Let's apply these same principles to create student learning communities (SLCs) that fulfill the promise of equitable classroom practices through opportunities to learn.1
Effective SLCs share the following characteristics:
They Use Tasks that Demand Collaboration. When the task presented to a group encourages a "divide and conquer" approach, with individual members peeling off to do a portion of the assignment and then combining their work at the last minute, collective learning is sacrificed. Members who are less skilled or who have knowledge gaps won't benefit from contact with others under these circumstances. Tasks should be designed with interdependence in mind; completion of the task must require that all members work together.
This can be challenging with distance learning—but it's possible. In the video accompanying this column, high school mathematics teacher Staci Benak from Health Sciences High in San Diego, California, discusses task design approaches that encourage meaningful collaborative engagement of her SLCs in virtual breakout rooms.
They Create Supportive Relational Conditions. The social cohesion of a team is the sense of belongingness that members feel with each other. This is different from friendship. Members of a student group don't need to have close personal affiliations, but they need to have a sense of mutual trust and a commitment to the task.
Such bonds can be developed by thoughtfully constructing SLC teams and ensuring they have opportunities to get to know one another over a period of time. Keep the groups heterogenous in terms of skill levels. However, never place only one student who has a knowledge or skills gap on a team with a lot of hard-charging students. The needs of that student will be overlooked as the achievers take over. "Don't worry, we got it" isn't going to help that student learn from the task and can contribute to his or her sense of isolation.
Groups Share an Understanding of Success. Provide time for SLC teams to review the success criteria for the task and plan how they'll accomplish it. Learning goals should be clearly stated so that teams can calibrate their progress and reflect after they complete the task.
It's useful for students to revisit their individual learning goals for the unit and link them to the group's goals. A teacher can start this conversation with the entire class and have groups continue it. The extra minutes it takes to do this upfront can prevent the ready, fire, aim phenomenon of rushing to execute a task without really thinking it through—and interrupt the tacit goal most groups have about task completion: just get it done—perhaps well.
They Reflect Together on Their Process. Team unity is deepened through participants' collective reflection about their contributions to the task. This shouldn't become a "rat out your partner" process, which marginalizes some students. Rather, provide SLC teams with questions to consider about their own efforts:
  • What contributions did I make?
  • What additional contributions could I have made?
  • What's an example of when I worked well in our group?
  • What's one thing I could have done better?
Students can reflect on these questions individually and then share their thinking with the group. A "fishbowl," in which one group of students observes another group engage in this process, is one way to start. Providing discussion frames and checklists can also help.
This step is easily overlooked in the rush to get to the next activity. However, the chance to reflect individually, debrief collectively, and compare results to success criteria informs the group's future efforts. Assuming the same SLC will work together on other tasks, the group can calibrate their individual and collective efforts.

Three Key Principles

Three principles guide work in moving students forward from simple "groups" to true student learning communities:
  • SLCs are more than just a different way of doing group work. They are a way to foster students' ability to take ownership of their own learning.
  • SLCs demand teachers be intentional about engaging students in collaboration. Knowing when to employ this approach is part of knowing how to employ it.
  • The academic, social, and emotional skills necessary for successful SLCs must be taught, ideally through the gradual release of responsibility framework. As educators model skills like creating a project timeline together or asking a peer for help, and gradually release responsibility for taking these actions to students, students increase their individual and collective responsibility for learning. This principle gets to the heart of equity because instruction is aligned with student needs, and everyone experiences the power of the collective rather than trying to learn alone.

Getting an Upgrade

Student learning communities have the potential to upgrade collaborative learning and avoid its common pitfalls. When students experience SLCs, they learn more and they develop a set of skills that will serve them well throughout life.

Watch the Video

Watch math teacher Staci Benak share how to encourage collaborative work online.

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End Notes

1Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Almarode, J. (2020). Student learning communities: A springboard for academic and social-emotional learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

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