Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cooperative Learning, Groups in Action

I had the pleasure of joining about 40 teachers last week for a three day workshop on Creating Effective Groups (Social Theory) led by Barrie Bennett - Cooperative LearningBarrie Bennett.

“The key focus in this session is to shift effective group work beyond the idea of Cooperative Learning.”

Although I am not a classroom teacher, I saw tremendous potential in this workshop for learning some new skills in facilitating groups.  There are a lot of parallels between classroom group activities and staff meetings, committee meetings, and other group structures which I am familiar with.  The beauty of this experience though is that I learned an awful lot about good teaching and the challenges teachers experience in their classrooms.  I have gained a whole new appreciation for the complexity of good or great teaching.

In this post I’ll highlight a few of the techniques we learned in the workshop.  We learned about how and when to use…

  • Placemat
  • Think-pair-share
  • Graffiti
  • Ranking Ladder
  • PMI (plus, minus, most important)
  • Community Circle
  • Snowball
  • Concentric Circles
  • Orbiting Circle
  • Positions (4 corners)

and how to integrate one or more tactics.

Taken from a mind map Barrie provided, Cooperative Learning involves three main areas: Creating a Safe Learning Environment, Critical Components of Effective Group Work, and Group Structures.


Tribes (designed by Jeanne Gibbs) supports safe learning environments through teaching Mutual Respect, Attentive Listening, Appreciation Statements (no put downs), and the Right to Pass.  Critical components (from David and Roger Johnson) involves five basic components: 1. Individual Accountability, 2. Face to Face Interaction, 3. Teaching Collaborative Skills, 4. Processing the Academic and Collaborative Objective, and 5. Applying one or more of the 9 types of Positive Interdependence.  There are 300 small group structures that one could use.  The work from Tribes is used to support the Five Basic Components which enhance group work.  I know, it sounds complicated, and it is…

My take away so far is that successfully working with groups, whether in a classroom with students or in a staff or committee meeting with adults, requires some key elements to be considered.  We’ve all sat through meetings wondering what the iStock_000006855981XSmallpurpose was, why we’re being bombarded with information, and why our ideas are not being solicited.  We get information but not time to engage with it and go deeper.  I think that any of us involved in leading groups of people need to spend some time learning and practicing some practical methods that work and to “flip” our classrooms and meetings.  When I say flip what I mean is to provide information for pre-reading and then make face to face time more about interaction and dialogue.  I wrote about this earlier in Technology Powered Meetings to give you a sense of what this could look like.

My take on Tribes (which I’m not familiar with – a book on order that I need to read) is that it provides advice on social responsibility and good social skills.  This is a foundational piece to working well in a group with a high degree of trust.  Trust and respect go hand in hand.  Next, one of the 5 basic elements is the 9 types of Positive Interdependence (I won’t provide details on these in this post):

  • Goal
  • Incentive
  • Resource
  • Role
  • Sequence
  • Simulation
  • Outside Force
  • Environmental
  • Identity

“Positive Interdependence exists when all group members perceive the need to work together toward the accomplishment of a common task.  Simply assigning [people] to groups does not ensure that [people] will perceive that need.  However, [facilitators] can help teammates feel connected and committed to learn cooperatively by structuring positive interdependence into the group activity.”, B. Bennett, C. Rolheiser, L. Stevahn Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind

Essentially, with a safe learning/work environment where people trust and respect each other, have a common purpose/goal, have common incentives, share resources, have supportive and interconnected roles, etc., group work is more likely to be successful.  Another attribute required for success is skill, for the facilitator that is.  The only way to achieve this is through practice.  10,000 hours (roughly 10 years) of practice = an expert!


During the workshop we formed groups of four, had a large piece of chart paper and created placemats: drew a circle or square in the iStock_000011819618XSmallmiddle and lines towards each person in the group.  We were given 3 minutes to write down in our respective “corners” attributes of good teachers.  Next each group was asked to pass their chart to another group, each group thus receiving another’s.  Then, we were asked to cross off items that don’t exclusively fit the original goal (attributes of good teachers) leaving behind only items we felt were specific to good teachers – we then passed the chart back to its original group.

One of the challenges with this method is ensuring that all voices are heard.  We were asked to (silently) assess on a scale 1-3 how well we thought our voice was heard.  Another technique works here too – draw a circle and have each person carve out a “piece of pie” representing how much they feel they participated or contributed.

To brainstorm in a way that ensures that all voices were heard, we learned the Graffiti method: used to find out what [people] know about a topic; also a great way to have [people] brainstorm what they know ‘collectively’; sets up [people] to classify information which pushes the analysis (Blooms Taxonomy) level of thinking; has all [people] involved and accountable.  In our groups we were asked to individually list as many attributes of successful group work as we could on a corner of a fresh piece of chart paper.  Next we individually identified and classified the ideas to come up with our top 2-3 attributes.  When asked, we moved around the room and wrote our same ideas on all other pieces of chart paper.  Note: there is no talking; it is okay to repeat ideas which implies they are more important.  When asked to stop, we returned to our own group. 

Following on from the Graffiti exercise we moved into what’s called Ranking Ladder.  As a group, we picked what we felt were the top 5 attributes and then listed them in order of importance.  Note that our list in order was: Purposeful / goal driven, Know what you’re doing (facilitator), Equal voice, Respectful listening, and Personal accountability.  We felt that people need a reason (shared understanding) to work together and not independently – i.e., why is “together” better than on your own?  A group spokesperson is assigned “randomly” by the facilitator but everyone knows it could be anyone – this helps increase participation and listening within groups since all are equally likely to be spokesperson.

Community Building and Sharing

We used an interesting tactic called Community Circle to mix-up the seating arrangements and then integrated in Think-Pair-Share and Snowball activities.  It is good for reviewing, introducing a new idea, bringing [individual] voice into the room, problem solving issue in the room.  Some of the norms include: attentive listening, only one person talks at a time, no judging of ideas, and looking for themes in ideas shared. We all dragged our chairs over and formed a circle ensuring equal distance between adjacent people and a well-formed circle.  The facilitator picked one person to start out in the middle (could ask for a volunteer), and removed one chair.  TheiStock_000007755704XSmall person in the middle would then say something like “I have friends who are wearing shorts” or some other attribute that distinguishes sub groups of people.  Then those people and the person in the middle have to find a new (now empty) chair.  Who ever is last is now in the middle.  We did this 3 or 4 times until the seating arrangements were well mixed – this ensures people are not sitting beside just their “friends”.  We used this technique several times to “shuffle the deck” after other exercises.

We used Snowball to brainstorm singular ideas such as what makes cooperative learning hard?  Each person had a piece of paper and a pen.  We wrote our answer on the page, crumpled it up, and threw it into the middle.  The facilitator put the snowballs in a box, shook it up, dumped it – ensures they are mixed and anonymous.  On 3, we went and grabbed a snowball.  The facilitator picked someone to start, they said their name (“X”), read their note – remember no judging or feedback.  The person to the right said thank-you “X”, said their name, read their note, etc. around the circle.  The facilitator picked various people to share something that someone else read out – this increases active listening – need to let group know up front that this will happen.

I could go on with other examples – we spent three days at this… but…  I can’t emphasize enough how important I think learning to use simple (some are complex) group work tactics can be to transform the way we work with adults.  I look forward to practicing some of these with people I lead and work with.  What tactics have you used in your classroom with your students or with adults in staff, committee, or other meetings.  What would a “flipped” meeting or classroom look like for you?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Power of Innovation

Innovation is looked to for progress and improvement.  Looking back through history we see untold examples of inventions, improvements, and innovative people to whom we owe our thanks.  Our world today and the “miracles” we enjoy are a result of continuous innovation.

innovationin·no·va·tion – noun

1. something new or different introduced

2. the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods

I don’t know about you but I am continually amazed at the innovations we see in our midst.  Take the iPhone for example.  Who would have predicted this amazing device?  It seemed to emerge out of nowhere – one day it’s just here and you can buy it.  Or think about other tech inventions like Google search, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Microsoft Kinect.  How about penicillin, vaccines, and other wonder drugs – before these “appeared”, people’s lifespans and quality of life were shorter and lower.

Interestingly, there are those that suggest that innovations are predictable.  Via Clive Thompson’s article The Breakthrough Myth in the Aug 2011 edition of Wired Magazine, he refers to Bill Buxton’s views on innovation.  Buxton talks about the pinch-and-zoom gesture that Apple “invented” with the iPhone which seemed to appear out of nowhere.  According to Buxton, “computer designer” Myron Krueger pioneered the pinch gesture on his experimental Video Place system in 1983.  Other engineers began experimenting with it, … by the time the iPhone rolled around, ‘pinch’ was a robust, well-understood concept”, p. 44 Wired Aug 2011.  This speaks to how important the mixing of ideas is for generating new innovations.

A huge responsibility rests with our education system in maintaining and increasing our ability to innovate.  How do you think we are doing in preparing students to be innovators?

“Teaching young people how to scrutinize, validate, and put things in context will be among the toughest tasks for educators.” Macrowikinomics (kindle 4390)

How is our education system enabling young people to think, imagine, envision, analyze?

“the true test of rigor is for students to be able to look at material they’ve never seen before and know what to do with it.” 21st Century Skills (kindle 241)

Michael Bloomberg talks about the challenges governments have with investing in innovation and I equate his thoughts to our education system as well (p. 100 Fast Company Sep. 2011):

“The public insists, and arguably has a right to insist, that it knows where its money’s going.  [They] have a very high expectation of results.  The essence of innovation, is you don’t know what you’re going to build, what it’s going to be called, how much it’s going to cost.  You cannot use public monies unless you can answer virtually every one of those questions, which is why government tends not to innovate.”

Those of us who work in the education system know well how difficult it is to gain support for innovative projects, to receive funding to venture forth where no one has been before.  It is a challenge for sure.  Considering the challenges for our education system to support innovative thinking and learning, it is amazing how innovative people around the world are.

According an article in Fast Company Sep 2011 (p.58), Paula Hammond, professor of chemical engineering at MIT is working with a team to make new batteries.  They are using carbon nanotubes to Fresh idea crosswordcreate very thin batteries that can store a lot of energy and can discharge and charge rapidly.  The results from this research could profoundly impact mobile computing, electric cars, or perhaps electric airplanes.  Per-Ivar Sellergren, senior research engineer for Volvo Car Corp (p. 60 Fast Company Sep 2011) has a team designing batteries using fibers the size of human hair.  They envision embedding these into panels of cars, wings and bodies of airplanes.

Besides innovations in material things, we need major breakthroughs in dealing with the deluge of data generated every second and growing in an exponential way.  According to futurist Richard Yonck, and we all sense this, there’s a battle for attention (p. 32 The Futurist July-Aug 2011).  He refers to a study by Microsoft Research that found it takes us 15 minutes to fully refocus on a subject once interrupted, even in a minor way.  Think about how our mobile devices, twitter and RSS feeds, Facebook statuses, email, phone calls, etc. interrupt us continuously.  And the sources of data are exponentially increasing!  According to an IDC study (referenced by Yonck), in 2010 they expected the world to create a record 1.2 zettabytes (my spell checker doesn’t even know what that is) of data (like a stack of DVDs reaching to the Moon and back).  They expect this to increase to 35 zettabytes by 2020 (DVDs stacked would reach halfway to Mars).  What innovations will our students create as they move out of our schools and into their careers to help people cope with the data deluge?

Richard Yonck describes a near future possibility in his article (p. 34) of how we may deal with “a world swimming in information”.  He describes machine assistants or agents that will serve our needs:

“Over time, these agents will become increasingly intelligent, capable of learning our individual preferences.  Eventually, they’ll become so good that they’ll almost be able to mirror our own thought processes.  At some point, these ‘virtual selves’ might even be able to go into the world (or at least virtual worlds) as autonomous avatars, our representatives in the world at large.”

Science fiction?  Perhaps today but tomorrow maybe not…  A good thing or ?

When I read about the changes to reduce standardized testing, narrow the required curriculum, embrace “21st century skills”, and increase the personalized nature of learning being considered for our iStock_000011224415XSmalleducation system, at least in British Columbia, Canada, I am encouraged.  But will there be a willingness by teachers, courageous leaders, and an availability of sustainable funding to pull this off?  Will there be enough change fast enough to ensure that we are prepared to prepare students for an accelerating world of innovation and complexity?  Or does it really matter since innovation seems to have a life of its own?  It is occurring regardless of our current education system.  Maybe we humans just have an inherent God-given desire and ability to be innovative.  Time will tell the story…

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Greed, Economy, and Education

I am about 60% of the way through Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy by Joseph Stiglitz.  Joseph is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Studies and covers this topic very thoroughly.  Freefall is an fascinatingly honest retelling of the 2008 great recession and an exposing of the greed and corruption that essentially caused one of the greatest transfers iStock_000000468570XSmallof wealth in recent history.  Self-serving banks loaned money to people who couldn’t afford it based on the “value” of their home growing perpetually and the government allowed it to happen.   Wealth has evaporated from millions of people through loss of home and job around the world – wealth has been transferred to already very rich individuals from poor and middle class people.  The US government has borrowed at unprecedented levels (the burden is on “the people”) and through bailouts given 100’s of billions of dollars to banks with virtually no strings attached due to the fear that the banks are “too big to fail”.  Banks in turn paid out huge bonus and salaries to their leadership who essentially caused the failure of the financial system, toppled the economy, and ruined millions of peoples financial future and well being.  Isn’t it government’s job to protect and support “the people” rather than to reward greed and failure of corporate leaders?

I would say that a root of this event is essentially greed.  I suspect that very few of us are exempt from the allure of getting more… more money, bigger houses, boats, fancier cars, better mobile devices and other technology, more activities for our kids, bigger vacations,…  we are all seemingly driven by “more”.  Unfortunately, “more” leads some (powerfully placed) people to corruption, deception, and taking advantage of others as history bears out time and again.

I image that you’ve been tuned into the news about the wild ride the stock market took last week.  At the core of problems like this is a lack of trust.  When there is corruption and a lack of transparency, people and corporations don’t know what or who to believe.  People panic, some gamble, no one has a credible answer to the economic problems, and we see a roller coaster in the markets.  We hear that Above all else...Trust.the recession is over but millions of people are still out of work.  Apparently, more than half of youth (16-24) in the US are unemployed (2010 article). The challenge with unemployment statistics is that they don’t reflect the real story.  There are people who want or need fulltime work but can only get part time work.  There are people who give up looking.  The statistics do not reflect this reality so in fact the story is much worse than we might think.  Unemployed people have very limited options for a preferred future…

Capitalism has been heralded around the world as the best way to organize an economy.  But if left to self-regulate, greed will eventually drive gross imbalances in the distribution of wealth.  iStock_000009165757XSmallFirms are driven to continuously create efficiencies and have done remarkably well.  When the economy has sufficient growth, firms can also continue to create more or new jobs to absorb the new entrants to the job market.  However as we’ve learned from the “great recession”, growth is not eternal.  Innovation, which I think we all recognize as important to growth, improving living standards, addressing large problems like environment, scarcity, etc. has often been more narrowly focused on efficiency and there is now seemingly a permanent unemployment problem as a result.  As well, resources used to bail out banks are now not available to address larger issues such as scarce natural resources and pollution of our environment, health care, mass retirement, and education.

“too much of the world's innovation has been directed at saving labour and too little at saving natural resources and protecting the environment - hardly surprising given that prices do not reflect the scarcity of these natural resources.  There has been so much success at saving labour that in much of the world there is a problem of persistent unemployment.  But there has been so little success at saving natural resources that we are risking environmental collapse.”, Freefall p.192

I am a huge advocate for using technology and education as a way of creating a preferred future, solving problems, improving our standing in life.  I’ve written about a possible future driven by efficiency and automation before.  I advocate for ensuring we educate students for a future quite different from today, one with a potential for the “end of work”.  We have some pretty serious problems to solve and I wonder if we have the will to solve them.  Stiglitz quotes America’s third president Thomas Jefferson…

“knowledge was like a candle: as one candle lights another, it's own light is not diminished.  It follows that it is inefficient to restrict the use of knowledge”, Freefall p. 202

I think knowledge on its own is agnostic.  What we do with it and for what purpose, whose gain, is important.  We need to improve individuals and organizations value systems.  Learning and incorporating social responsibility, honesty, transparency, selflessness, sharing, etc. are essential to finding our way forward.  Newcastle Island 058School systems are essentially change systems.  They have been used successfully for hundreds of years to engineer societal change.  Perhaps they can be instrumental in helping future generations to not be so inclined to repeat the mistakes of the past.  It is essential that we who have not felt the effects of the recession quite as severely as millions of others have, realize that we are not immune to it’s effects.  If the behaviour that got us into this mess continues unabated, well, let’s not go there… 

Greed vs selflessness, which do you think will create the preferred future?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tool Users

I just read another blog post questioning the need for students to have their own digital tools and advocating for more face time with each other and their teacher.  I find the debate, along with some of the commenters on that post, to be somewhat baseless.  As we all know, tools on their own or in the hands of the uninitiated, are useless, misused, or even dangerous.  Why is it that educators continue to question the value of the greatest learning tool of all time – the computer (and it’s derivatives)?  I think the answers might include a fear of losing control, of not being the center of and key to student learning.  I understand.  I see the disruption that technology is creating for my area of expertise – Information Technology – and worry about the same things.  For me, that means that I have to either figure out my place in the disrupted real world or be displaced… not something I take lightly for sure.  As to tools versus face to face, my view is that it has to be both today as both modes of learning and work bring tremendous value.  But let’s not let today limit tomorrow’s potential!

I just finished volume two “Rebels” (of eight) of the American Bicentennial Series.image  This volume is where things heat up into a full out war in the late 1700’s between the British and the Americans.  The Americans declare their independence and draft articles for a constitution.  The British had a distinct advantage in numbers, training, war tools, supplies, etc. and it showed in many of the skirmishes that ensued.  Bayonets were invented and attached to British guns.  These alone created a significant advantage.  The Americans were poorly equipped overall but interestingly there were leaders that didn’t believe in the value of a bayonet.  They didn’t see the need but found out the hard way that it was an essential tool they were missing.  I’ve written about the printing press many times and mentioned how the religious leaders of the day thought it to be a tool of the devil and there was great resistance to it’s use.  My point here is that through-out history there are examples of new tools being invented, resisted, or misunderstood.  But once adopted effectively, the tools become essential to our needs.  Our tools actually become a part of or an extension of us over time.

One of the commenters on the blog post I mentioned said “Technology can offer, literally, a world of possibilities, but the deep discussions, with non-verbal cues and all, occur when we are in the same room. Technology and non-technical connecting have value. It's all about balance”.  I don’t disagree but I think it is too common to look at today’s technology (tools) along with its limitations and see its value through a limited lens.  I believe it won’t be long before technology provides a face to face experience without being physically present.  Someone at the World Future Society conference asked the question “if my brain believes I am racing a Ferrari in the Italian countryside, am I?” (see What Futurists are Saying).  At some point not far out, technology will be available to interface our senses well enough to make us ‘believe’ experiences are real when they are not.  That will be a profound turning point for educators and students.  Another commenter on the blog post mentioned earlier said “There’s no denying that devices allow us to Minter Gardens - walkwayflatten the classroom and connect and share without a physical space, but we can’t allow the device to replace the space”.  I have a problem with accepting statements like “we can’t allow the device to replace the space”.  Perhaps today’s device yes but tomorrow’s will be able to replicate the face to face space and experience and open doors for collaborative learning, true virtual classrooms, connecting teachers, experts, and students into rich and previously impossible learning opportunities.  We need to look at this as a journey into the unknown without boundaries, not a walled garden…

I think it is increasingly important, essential, for those who have committed to educating our children to have the most open minds to the potential of tools, especially digital tools, and to see their place in a tool rich world of learning.  I hope people will ‘unlimit’ their lens to what today’s tools can do and will seriously “see” what will be possible with newer more powerful versions or fully new never anticipated inventions.  Think possibility, not limitation!