Category Archives: Cooperative Learning

P.B.L.: Can I do it?

I just created a page here on Project-Based Learning because I want to know more about it. Why? I have been given an amazing opportunity to work in a high school with a fascinating diversity of cultures, abilities, interests and learning styles.

Not to overstate things, but I feel a little like all of the mind-blowing professional development that I have had a chance to learn from might all come in to play in this unique and rich learning environment. Indeed, with such differences simply part of the culture at WSS, it would appear that differentiation is really a necessity not just a interesting, once-in-a-while activity.

And as I have circled around PBL for the past year or so, my ‘Spidey Sense’ has been tingling as I wonder if PBL is something that might be a great fit as a tool for accommodating and harnessing all of this wonderful diversity.


Will Richardson: Should We Connect School Life to Real Life?

Should We Connect School Life to Real Life?
October 5, 2012 | 6:00 AM |

Excerpted from Will Richardson’s new TED Book Why School: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere. Richardson offers provocative alternatives to the existing education system, questioning everything from standardized assessments to the role of the teacher. In this chapter, “Real Work for Real Audiences,” Richardson envisions students creating work that is relevant and useful in the world outside school.

By Will Richardson

So what if we were to say that, starting this year, even with our children in K– 5, at least half of the time they spend on schoolwork must be on stuff that can’t end up in a folder we put away? That the reason they’re doing their schoolwork isn’t just for a grade or for it to be pinned up in the hallway? It should be because their work is something they create on their own, or with others, that has real value in the real world.

I’m not even necessarily talking about doing something with technology. (Let’s face it, though: Paper is a 20th-century staple that has severely limited potential, compared to digital spaces.) There’s lots of creating our kids can do with traditional tools that can serve a real audience. Publishing books, putting on plays, and doing community service are just a few examples.

But what if we got a little crazy and added some technology into the mix? We could tell our kids, “You know, in addition to taking that test on the Vietnam War, we want you to go and interview some veterans, then collect those stories into a series of podcasts that people all over the world could listen to and learn from.”

Learning Clocks: Caveat

As I begin reflect on the semester that is quickly coming to a close, a thought occurred to me about using Learning Clocks in my classroom and the degree of success I have had when using them.

A few years-ish ago, I was a member of year-long ‘cohort’ that studied with / attended professional development with an education professor from OISE named Barrie Bennett. It was through these sessions that I was introduced to and became a convert of cooperative learning.  Bennett, however, provided a caveat: group work can be one of the most powerful forms of learning if done properly but group work done ineffectively can be almost destructive in a classroom.

It was this caveat that bubbled to the surface of my brain the other day when thinking about Learning Clocks over the last few semesters. Just to provide a little bit of context, I now engage in:

  • a lot of community building so students can become more familiar with each other,
  • my ‘standard teaching practice’, so to speak, involves a lot cooperative learning and student interaction,
  • I try to vary my teaching practices so that I am addressing V.A.K. on a daily basis when possible,
  • and I strive to incorporate ‘not-sitting-down’ activities to address
    the different multiple intelligences of students, particularly kinesthetic.

But there is something about Learning Clocks that puts in that same column of ‘complex group work’ that can be ‘destructive’ as Bennett described. And I’m not completely sure why.

I suspect that it appears like such a simple pair work structure but, like an activity such as Jigsaw or Academic Controversy, etc., it requires planning and forethought by the teacher — lest it go awry, as it has done for me. Here are some things I think I might change for the future:

  • The 5 Elements of Effective Group Work by the Johnson brothers
    would appear to be necessary here. (Positive Interdependence, Face-to-face interaction, Individual Accountability, Interpersonal &  Small Group Skills, and Group Processing).
  • But perhaps more importantly: A sensitivity to the social currents in the classroom. That is to say, I have discovered in current / recent classes that I have had ‘mortal enemies’ in my class and I / we have worked hard to get those enemies to a place where they are civilized and keeping their snide comments to themselves.  To then ask these students to participate in the set up of Learning Clocks which asks them to find anywhere from 3 to 12 learning partners means that there is a high likelihood that the enemies will be paired together or with friends / allies. But then worse than that, Learning Clocks are potentially long-term partnerships, and I think that it is this part of the structure that has the potential to be the most destructive, because these ‘enemies’ sense “I have to be her / him for how long?” and the activity is dead before it begins.
    *** Note: I am not suggesting that I allow bullying or ugly behaviour to exist in my classroom. I am, however, a realist and perhaps a pragmatist, as I feel a high school teacher has to be: to again quote Barrie Bennett regarding classroom management “Hope for the best but plan ahead for the worst.”

To think about next: Am I being too pessimistic or too quickly pulling the proverbial parachute escape cord? Because when it has worked, Learning Clocks can be very powerful… I should also be mindful of the Implementation Dip, learned again from Barrie Bennett.

Focus On: Pencil Drop Activity

Today, I invited my grade 9 / 10 Locally Developed English class to participate in an activity called “Pencil Drop”, which I have modified slightly.

I used the following materials: about 4 feet of yarn, masking tape, a pen (or pencil) and a bottle with a smallish mouth, about the size of an old-school Coke bottle.

  1. Two students volunteer to stand facing each other about 3 or 4 feet apart.
  2. Attach the pen/pencil to the middle of the piece of string, either by tying it or by taping it. (This time, I taped it.)
  3. Use pieces of masking tape to attach the ends of the tape to the students’ shirts. (NOTE: Have the students attach the tape to their own shirt, as opposed to the teacher doing it.)
  4. Place the bottle about halfway between the two students.
  5. Their challenge is to now lower the pen/pencil into the bottle without using their hands.
  6. VARIATION: The two students volunteer to be blindfolded and try again.
  7. You can then connect this activity to your curriculum, if you so choose: our class is discussing the qualities of a hero and one of those qualities is “Feats”, so I wanted to make the connection that this activity required the students to work together, to give instructions to each other, to trust each other and to protect each other — all of which they did with aplomb.

Here is a PDF of the activity from a web site that includes potential discussion questions.

Being Mean in Clock Partners

When my student teacher (teacher candidate) and I introduced the Learning Clocks to my grade 9 / 10 split class of 9 students today, I figured it would be tricky due to the small size of the class. I imagined that one student would be left without a partner so we’d have to improvise and then add that person to make a group of three people.

What I didn’t expect — and should have — was, essentially, some grade-school behaviour: as the available partners dwindled, one girl was trying to find a partner for one of her empty spots and attempted to ask a male classmate if he would be her partner, and, in a not very quiet voice, he said, “I don’t want to be her partner.” And her hurt feeling were apparent on her face.

What I should have had my student teacher do is what I do for virtually all ofther activities I do in class involving cooperative learning or community building: I ‘front-load’ the activity with either just a verbal reminder about including people to make them feel safe and welcome, or I could have created a slightly more formal mini-lesson on effective or appropriate group work as a discussion or even using “Looks Like / Sounds Like” where specific positive behaviours are brainstormed and written down.

Clock Partners / Learning Clocks can be a really effective way for students to hear multiple viewpoints on a topic, for all forms of assessment and for community building, etc. but it runs more smoothly when I take the time to follow Barrie Bennett’s advice about pre-emptively planning ahead for potential classroom management or social issues

Social Media is a Reflection of One’s Social Skills


Social Skills

“As the Digital Media Manager for TerraCycle I have come to realize a very important truth. This truth is that social media is a reflection of one’s social skills. Whether your social media is for a company, a non-profit, or for personal use, the way it’s delivered is in direct proportion to ones social skills or what I like to call “Social IQ”.

Have you noticed that there are certain people who are brilliant and may be able to answer complicated math problems in their head, but cannot understand how to relate to a friend, co-worker, or family member. Why does this happen? It’s because …”



Online Collaborative Debate graphic by Jesse Gentile