Thursday, April 9, 2015

Snowballing or the Jigsaw method

Similar to the ‘square’ approach mentioned in ‘Think-Pair-Square’, the ‘snowballing’ activity is another simple but very effective way of building upon ideas by starting with small groups and expanding the groups in a structured way.

As the metaphor of the snowball suggests, you can begin with an individual response to a question; followed by then pairing up students up; then creating a four and so on. It does allow for quick, flexible group work that doesn’t necessarily require much planning, but does keep shaping viewpoints and challenging ‘answers’ is a constructive fashion.

The ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful planning. Put simply, when researching a topic, like the causes of the Second World War, each member of a group is allocated an area for which they need to become the ‘expert‘, such as ‘the impact of the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘issues with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary’ for example.

With five or six ‘Home‘ groups identified, the ‘experts‘ then leave that group to come together to pool their expertise on the one topic; they question one another and combine research, ideas and their knowledge. Then each ‘expert‘ returns to their ‘home‘ group to share their findings. It is a skilful way of varying group dynamics as well as scaffolding learning.

Think -Pair Share strategies

‘Think-pair-share’ and ‘Think-pair-square’.
Well, no-one said this top ten had to be original! This strategy is one of those techniques that we employ so readily that we can almost forget about it, it is simply so automatic for most teachers; yet, because of that we can easily forget it in our planning. We need to use it regularly because it is the very best of scaffolded learning; it almost always facilitates better quality feedback by allowing proper thinking time and for students to sound out their ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from peers. ‘Think-pair-square’ adds a touch of added flavour, involving linking two pairs together (to form the ‘square’ to share their ideas before whole class feedback). Once more, it is about adding depth to ideas, stimulating debate and collaborative thinking.

Group Work

If I am continually vexed by any one question in education it is ‘how can we enhance student motivation?‘ Of course, I do not have the answer, and if there is one it is multi-faceted, complex and, frankly, not going to be solved in this blog post! From my position as a classroom teacher, I am always on the look out for those strategies that create a state when students are motivated and in their element, where they work furiously without even realising they are doing so, without realising the clock is ticking down to the end of the lesson. There is no better compliment than when students question how long there is left and express genuine surprise at how fast time has passed, and that they have actually enjoyed that lesson!

My, admittedly non-scientific, observations are that many of the times students are in ‘flow‘, or their element, in my lessons is when they are collaborating in group work. Why is this then? I believe that we are obviously social beings and we naturally learn in such groups (not always effectively it must be said), but that, more importantly, when working in a group we are able to correct, support, encourage, question and develop ideas much more effectively. The power of the group, guided by the expertise of the teacher, accelerates learning, makes it richer and demands a learning consensus that can push people beyond their habitual assumptions.
Don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls and obstacles to group work. This constructivist approach should build upon expert teacher led pedagogy – ensuring that students have a good grounding in the relevant knowledge before undertaking in-depth group work. Group work can also be beset by issues in many nuanced forms: whether it is subtle intellectual bullying, where the student who shouts loudest prevails; or the encouragement of mediocrity and laziness, as students let others do all the work; or simply by poor, distracting behaviour. Another issue is ‘group think’ miscomprehension – indeed, how does prejudice flourish if not in social groups?

Yet, this failure is often great for learning as long as the teacher can illuminate the error of their ways. Of course, no teaching strategy is foolproof and plain good teaching should remedy many of the potential ills of group work, just as good teaching can make more traditional teacher-led ‘direct instruction’ wholly engaging and effective.
I am intrigued by the idea of ‘social scaffolding‘ (Vygotsky) – the concept that most of our learning is undertaken in group situations, where we learn through dialogue and debate with others, not simply by listening to that voice in our head! That being said, I am not talking teachers out of a classroom here. The role of the teacher in devising and planning a successful group task takes skill, rigour and utter clarity and precision. Students need to be clear about a whole host of things: from their role, to the purpose of the task and the parameters of expected outcomes to name but a few. Teachers need to keep groups on track, intervene appropriately to improve learning and regularly regain student focus. Teachers have a pivotal role in guiding the group work at every stage. Group work certainly isn’t the lazy option: it takes skill in the planning and the execution, and sometimes, despite our best laid plans, it still fails. That shouldn’t put us off – aren’t all teaching and learning strategies subject to such risks?

If I was to define a simple and straight-forward basis for the rules for group work it would be:
- Have clearly defined tasks, with sharp timings and with the appropriate tools organised
– Have clearly defined group roles
– Have clear ground rules for talk, listening and fair allocation of workload etc.
– Target your support and interventions throughout the task, but make them interdependent of one another, not dependent upon you
– Always be prepared to curtail group work if students don’t follow your high expectations.