Supporting collaboration and dialogue with technology
Collaborating with others can help pupils to develop, challenge and elaborate on their ideas, building understanding. However, collaborative learning, or group work, can also be highly ineffective if done badly, and often achieves worse outcomes than allowing pupils to work individually. So what are the conditions for effective collaboration and how can technology help us to create them?
What is your goal?
First of all, it’s useful to consider the reason for encouraging collaboration at the point in pupils’ learning you’re choosing to implement it. What do you want it to achieve? How will it further pupils’ learning? Does it help you to assess learning, perhaps? Might students learn more working individually or does collaboration mean that pupils can support one another’s thinking and practice? Never do group work ‘for the sake of it’.
Creating conditions for learning
Structured group work has yielded strong results in trials when both of the following are in place:
- Group goals - the aim of the task is clear and the activity is purposeful
- Individual accountability - each student has a clear role in contributing to the overall team success, so there are no ‘passengers’.
The Ringelmann effect tells us of the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases. Pairs and threes could be a good aim for group size.
Maximising cognitive resources during group work
The key aim of effective group work is to develop a collective working memory. When pupils share their knowledge and resources with each other they can build and utilise a collective working memory that has a greater capacity than each individual’s. We can enable this to happen by carefully managing cognitive load during group work:
Minimise the extraneous cognitive load that comes with the actual act of collaborating in a group by ensuring groups have experience working together or are provided with clear guidance on how to collaborate
Increase the intrinsic cognitive load (complexity) of the task so that pupils are are required to share knowledge and resources with each other
This guide to online group work and collaboration from Cathy Lewin for the Chartered College of Teaching might be of interest for anyone looking to learn more.
The role of technology
Technology can enable collaboration and group work at a distance, for example through the use of collaborative tools such as Google Docs or Microsoft OneNote for project work. An advantage of this kind of tool is that it is easy to track individual contributions and monitor progress towards goals, helping to reduce the risk of uneven contribution from team members.
It can also be used to support the use of dialogue in the classroom - dialogic approaches to teaching, where students and teachers share and evaluate ideas, construct ideas collectively, reason, provide justifications and elaborations, and use evidence to support arguments, have been shown by the Education Endowment Foundation to support pupil learning. Technology can be particularly useful in helping to ensure all pupils can and are contributing, and in giving pupils who are sometimes quieter a voice. For example, ‘backchannel’, microblogging or collaboration tools like [Talkwall] (https://talkwall.uio.no/#/) or Padlet can be used live in lessons to allow all pupils to contribute their thoughts. This Impact article on using technology to support dialogic teaching might be of interest if you want to try this.
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