As a classroom teacher, I am constantly reminded of the importance of group work. Students learn best from their peers and I was reminded of this as I worked with a student the other day.
Her name is Parastou. Parastou came to me as a fifth grade student from Afghanistan. Before arriving in Colorado, she had spent her whole life living in a single room house in a war zone. She came to me knowing no English at all, and only speaking Parsi.
I spent the first week trying to get to know Parastou by using picture cards. I would match a phrase such as “bathroom” with a picture of the bathroom. Parastou quickly picked up on these simple commands and cues. I wanted her to start to understand more of the social language used in our school, in hopes that she could connect with her peers. I invited her to eat lunch with me several times, but most of the sessions were silent lunches.
I then paired her up with some other softer-spoken girls in my class. They began to include her in jump rope games at recess, in classroom conversations, and at the lunch table. It was amazing how quickly she picked up the language from these girls.
It is important that I remember Parastou as I continue to teach 20-30 students per year. Pairing English language learners (ELLs) with other students is so powerful and helps them grow as learners and communicators.
I am constantly trying to create collaborative experiences and situations for my students of second languages. After all, they learn best from their peers!
How can we create more collaborative learning in the classroom? There are a number of ways to do this, such as project based learning (PBL), and working in small groups. To do this effectively, we should really be thinking out the space and the setting for learning, otherwise known as the collaborative learning space (CLS). For many teachers, it can be a challenge to balance the number of students with the given furniture and space. The goal is to create spaces that allow for better interaction between students and access to the instructor. The instructor should be able to observe and wander between these groups freely.
The classroom can be set up in both formal and informal ways depending on the needs of the students, space, and curriculum. Here we explore three different collaborative learning spaces and discover what might be learned from them.
1. An Informal and Homey Setting
Let’s look at “The Learning Lounge,” an informal learning setting for 5th graders with flexible seating. Teacher Sherah Cash explained that she wanted to eliminate the desks and make a comfortable ‘home-like atmosphere.’ She says, “the space invites more conversation and deeper connections to content through peer interaction.” Students are also presented with the freedom to choose from different areas to hang out and learn. Each area is designated to a task such as reading a book, playing a game, or studying the “Facebook” board which is utilized for social studies. Students play a large part in their own learning by the agency provided. Some of the furniture is ‘fold-up’ and portable and can be taken into the hall or outside for even more areas to engage in learning. Much of the furniture Sherah found at yard sales or thrift stores and dressed them up a bit. She has some furniture in progress (examples of her DIY furniture) to share. Other pieces of furniture have come from DonorChoose. A program where people can choose to donate funds to school projects of their choice online.
What can be learned from The Learning Lounge?
Deeper connections through authentic peer interaction
(Remake Your Class Part 3: Exploring a Collaborative Learning Environment. Edutopia. August 6, 2013)
Steve Mattise, a math and science teacher at Roosevelt middle school was looking for ways to promote more collaboration and deeper learning. His classroom was too small for the amount of students. The Third Teacher+ and Steve came together with their students and the community to redesign the classroom. The focus of the collaborative effort was to create an environment that meets the learning and teaching goals with limited means. The Third Teacher+ worked with the students and collaborators to draw out ideas by use of image boards and post-it notes. Faculty members, community members, the students, and The Third Teacher+ all came together in a weekend to remake the classroom. You can watch the transformation in the three part video series:
The CLC at John Hopkins is a space for a variety of courses and workshops that have previously presented themselves as lectures. As opposed to other spaces with loose frameworks and varieties, the classroom is designed to provide singular group focused activity with brief lecture periods. Each round table group area has white boards directly adjacent and a screen where laptops can be projected. The instructor has two screens to project onto and access to each of the groups. The instructor, Rebecca Pearlman says students seem to intuitively know what to do. Their grades have stayed relatively the same, but engagement has increased and the quality of work has improved. The format was seemingly more pleasant for both the students and the instructor. Although this is a higher ed setting, this format can be applied appropriately to grades 7-12.
What can be learned from the CLC at John Hopkins?
Students are more actively engaged
Quality of work improved
Students were more ‘on task’
Defined expectations for the course
There isn’t one clear cut way to design a learning space. You need to rely on the students, members of the community, teachers, and experts to make the best decisions. Some spaces are flexible while others are more rigid. I hope these examples have provided you with some motivation to think critically about your learning spaces and if they are serving you and your students best needs. If you are looking for ideas on how you can design your own collaborative learning space, check out the Pinterest board for Collaborative Learning to get some ideas!