Posts Tagged group work

A driving question is the most important element of a PBL unit

Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) outline 8 factors of good project based learning (PBL):

  1. Significant content
  2. A Need to Know
  3. A Driving Question
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. 21st Century Skills
  6. Inquiry and Innovation
  7. Feedback and Revision
  8. Publicly Presented Product

While I agree all are important, I feel the most important factor in good PBL is a great driving question. If you find the right questions then most of the other factors identified are covered automatically. How do you generate a great question and who is the right person to generate that question?

The answer to who should generate the question to me is obvious? If you want students to have a voice and to have choice as well as developing a need to know about some area of content, then they should be generating their own questions. How do we help students generate a question they care about and that covers the content we as educator would like them to learn in a deep and meaningful way?

Here the answer has not always been so obvious but thanks to the work of the Right Question Institute(RQI) and their Question Formation Technique (QFT), the answer is incredibly simple and yet powerful at the same time. So far in my experience it has not failed to generate open-ended questions that cannot be answered by a simple Google search. Outlined here is how question generation was embedded at the heart of a PBL unit.

TeenBrain is a science unit aimed at year 9 students that focused on the content of the traditional control and coordination topic. The unit was divided into four parts; provocation, guiding question development, research and project creation.

The provocation was a series of short videos demonstrating how the teen brain develops from the age of approximately 12 to 25, and how the research presented explains why teenagers often make decisions without fully accounting for risk and long-term consequences. The majority of time during this unit was spent on the research and creation of an information campaign, based on a student generated guiding question.

The most important part of the process in my mind was the generation of a meaningful guiding question. To do this we guided students through the Question Formation Technique from the RQI. The QFT process takes approximately one learning session and is best done in small collaborative groups. Questions generated for research were based on the provocation and a focus question why do teens make stupid choices? As the questions generated for this task were generated by the students themselves they found them intrinsically motivating. Examples of student generated questions include; why do our brains need sleep, is there a best diet for your brain, what can you do to improve memory/learning and how does marijuana effect you brain?

Many of the ‘research’ tasks that formed the third part of this unit were traditional science lesson/experiences, that involved both student centred activities and some direct teaching of concepts, all supported by the on-line learning portal. At the end of every lesson students were ask to reflect on their own groups question and to add a couple of summary sentences relevant to their question in a shared google document. This document became students main resource when they came to designing and creating their information campaign.

Students were instructed to use the information they had collected to produce an information campaign that would influence their peers to make better decisions. Their choice in presentation media was completely open, with some of the following offered as suggestions: a video, info-graphic, poster, magazine article, ios or android app, web-page, comic-strip.  Students worked collaboratively on producing their final product and their focus was maintained by the intrinsic motivation produced from developing their own questions.

John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller, 2012, 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning, , retrieved from,  Nov 2012

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Informal Group-work or Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning typically involves students working together in small groups to complete shared academic tasks. However, cooperative learning needs to be far more than just group work, putting students into groups does not necessarily gain a cooperative relationship. Cooperative learning has to be structured and managed by the teacher and students need to have individual accountability within the groups (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1994). Johnson and Johnson (1994, 1999) describe a model of cooperative learning with five elements of practice;

  • positive interdependencecooperative learning
  • face-to-face interaction
  • individual accountability and personal responsibility to achieve the group’s goals
  • use of relevant interpersonal and small-group skills
  • group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness

While the benefits of cooperative leaning have been extensively demonstrated (Hattie, 2009), research also shows that cooperative learning is not effectively implemented and is often informal group work without the key elements of group goals and individual accountability (Sapon-Shevin, 1994; Slavin, 1999).

When I stop and reflect on most of the cooperative learning activities I have in my classes they fall into the informal group work category.  As a science teacher there is a lot of  group work in my classes but most of it lacks clear group goals and individual accountability of group members. It has been a bit of a shock to discover the extent of the research that has gone on in the past and my personal oblivion to it.   I guess that is why Hatties’ (2009) work is so useful to teachers as it summarises a lot of  this past research and gives us a clear measure of what is the most beneficial to invest our limited time on.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1994). An overview of Cooperative Learning. In J. Thousand, A. Villa & A. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and Collaborative Learning. Baltimore: Brookes Press.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Making Cooperative Learning Work. Theory into Practice, 38(2), 67-73.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1994). Cooperative learning and middle schools: What would it take to really do it right? [Article]. Theory into Practice, 33(3), 183.

Slavin, R. E. (1999). Comprehensive Approaches to Cooperative Learning. Theory into Practice, 38(2), 74.

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Collaboration – Group work – Cooperative Learning

After looking at and reflecting on the list of different skills that are predicted to be important in the 21st century I have  decided to focus on just one; collaboration.  Well, at least have one as a focus while I continue  ruminating on the others, as I think in practice it will be hard to separate many of them as there is a level of interconnectivity.  One example is that  student thinking has been shown to  improve with  student  involvement in group work where they are required to verbalise their understanding or challenge others. Which leads to a deeper understanding and improved learning outcomes.

What is the best way to use group work?I have chosen collaboration as a focus because as a teacher I have at times avoided group work. Group work  often represents hard work having to negotiate the myriad of potential conflicts and relational difficulties that arise when students are allowed or are forced to work together.  When I have assigned group tasks often I have not thought them through as thoroughly as I should have.  Thus by choosing collaboration as a focus I plan  to reflect on the  research  of others that suggests that student outcomes are improved as students engage at a deeper level.

I have started to be more conscious about the use of group work in my lessons and I have started reflecting on how best to plan for and incorporate it. Here is a sample of the questions I’m reflecting on and looking for evidence to answer.

  • Do students performed better if they collaborate?
  • What  different forms of collaboration are used and which are most effective?
  • Is the size of a group significant?
  • Is how group formation occurs important?  (student choice, teacher choice, based on ability, friendship groups, age, ses, gender?)

There is lots to think about.

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