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What is the optimum group size for collaboration?

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August 23, 2018

Group work is nothing new. It has been in the curriculum for years. And the bane of both teachers and learners existence. The focus has shifted slightly, and we call it collaboration now, but it is even more important than ever.
Think of the top 10 discoveries in the last few years. How many of them are attributed to only one person?
Nuclear bombs – The Manhattan Project (6 scientist and over 130 000 people working on different parts)
Computers – Eckert and Mauchly created the first computer.
And maybe the most famous partnership of our time, Jobs and Wozniak creating Apple. If this is not convincing you yet, have a look at the Nobel Prize awards for the last few years.
According to the World Economic Forum “People Management” and “coordinating with others” are the 4th and 5th most valuable skills needed in the workplace by 2020.

Why I we hated collaboration.

  1. Individual work is easier to manage. Don’t let anybody tell you differently, these days I might get energised by collaborative lessons, but I am still utterly exhausted by the end of it. That is not something I ever feel after a lesson where the pupils were working quietly by themselves. Collaboration is noisy, messy and unpredictable.
  2. Planning effective collaboration takes more time than creating an individual task. The emphasis here is on effective. Anybody can take an individual task and assign it to two or three people. This leaves learners with no defined roles and often create a lot of the conflict in the group.
    The result is that often when marking group projects, you can see that one learner did most of the work while the rest are coasting along.
  3. The logistics around collaboration is never easy.

What changed my mind?

Technology of course. For a start, I could see the value of collaboration in my own work. Teaching is a hard and time-consuming job, way too hard to go at it alone. In our maths department, we have always shared the load, but adding Google Drive to the mix made things so much easier. Instead of asking my colleagues if they have an activity I can use, or having to remember to give them a photocopy of every task I created, we all now just drop it in our shared folder, and everybody can use it.

But in the end, it was seeing the effect on the learners that convinced me in the end. It was a case of unintended consequences. The first year that we were supposed to be a 1-to-1 school, the reality was that at almost no point did every learner have a charged, working tablet in class. So I just allowed them to work 2-to-1. And I fell in love with it. It changed Kahoot from a fun drill game to an opportunity to talk maths. The same could be said of Desmos activities; they make so much more sense when you can discuss it with somebody.

These days lots are being said about kids discovering things for themselves. But most teachers know that often a learner is so lost in an activity that they get nowhere near discovering anything. By pairing them up, together they are more likely to navigate through the task, and both are part of the discovery process.

Three lessons I have learned about collaboration

During the past three years, I have changed the way I look at collaboration, but also the way I use collaboration in my lessons.

  1. Collaboration belongs in the learning process, not so much in the assessment process.
    The biggest mistake I made at the beginning of my career is to assess ALL collaboration and ONLY collaborate in assessments. These days we collaborate often, but it is very seldom for marks. Even though Google Apps make it easier to determine who did what in a group project, I find that the group members are more likely to actually work together if marks are not in play.
  2. Two heads are better than one.
    When working on their devices, my default setting is to let the learners work in pairs. Even if it is just something like playing Kahoot, having a partner, means they have to justify and explain what they are doing the whole time.
    But there is a hidden advantage. Working in pairs reduce distraction. What? You might ask. Doesn’t working in pairs just create more distractions? You see the biggest distractions on devices are your email and social media. We are all so used to multitasking, we swap between work and social media the whole time, without even really noticing it. When you are working with somebody, however, you are a lot less likely to be tempted to swap the screen to your social media and your partner will probably not be impressed either. Sometimes you will find that they get distracted together by showing each other stuff on their tablets, but that is much easier to spot and address than an individual swapping between their work and Facebook. Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself, I promise it works.
  3. The Power of Three.
    But when I want them to do more than a quick Desmos activity or Google search, I believe in the Power of Three. When you are two people collaborating, more often than not, one person ends up doing all the work or at least making all the decisions. By adding a third person, you have an adjudicator when there is a tie, but also the extra person forces them to divide the labour. The moment the group is bigger than three, you start to find that some people sit and watch while the rest do. Unless it is a massive project that spans like the whole term, three people are the ideal group size.

Do you let your learners work together? Why don’t you share your tips and experiences in the comments.

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