A Revision on Group Work: Assign complex—rather than simple—tasks

pexels-photo-705674.jpeg

Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Femke Kirschner, and Jimmy Zambrano published a recent paper in the International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning titled, “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory,” in which they make the case that cognitive load theory needs to be reconsidered from a different frame for group tasks.

I found it interesting because I had created a synthesis on group learning a while back (read all about it here), and much of Kirschner et al.’s synthesis aligns with much of what I found, such as that group work requires the development of collaborative skills, the importance of clear, accountable roles and expectations for group tasks, or that heterogenous grouping should be our default when creating groups.

However, there was one key piece that seemed to contradict a finding I had drawn from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book, “Guided Instruction,” which is that new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work, as this would overload students’ working memory.

Kirschner et al. instead suggest that working as a group creates a collective working memory, and that therefore group tasks should be more complex. They state, “… learning in a team is more effective than individual learning if the complexity of the to-be-learned material is so high that it exceeds the limits of each individual learner’s working memory.” They furthermore suggest that greater complexity will make the task more engaging for the group: “Collaboration will occur when the task is complex enough to justify the extra time and effort involved in collaborating with others.”

However, they also caution that “In terms of cognitive load, if learners have not acquired [task-specific collaboration] skills prior to beginning on the collaborative task, the load induced here could be so high as to hinder collaborative learning.” This agrees with what I also found in my synthesis, which is that fostering effective group work requires time and training, with explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in group specific tasks. As Kirschner et al. puts it, “We may need to be taught how to communicate and coordinate carrying out complex tasks in order to optimize transactive activities and construct better knowledge and skill schemas (Zambrano et al. 2018).”

Kirschner et al. also highlight the different considerations we need to make for students based on what they already know. In fact, they seem to suggest that students with low levels of domain-specific knowledge can benefit the most from engaging in group tasks, whereas students with higher level of expertise may have their learning hindered by the additional elements introduced by collaboration. Here’s two relevant quotes on this:

“When teams are composed of learners with a low level of domain-specific knowledge, these novices need to be involved in cognitively demanding search-based problem solving, whereas when they are knowledgeable, this is not the case as the learners can probably deal with the problems using their available knowledge base. Also, when teams are composed of learners with a low level of domain-specific knowledge, there is a greater potential for a larger increase in collective WM than when individuals have high levels of domain-specific knowledge required by the task.”

“With respect to cognitive load, if learners have relevant knowledge to carry out a task, communication and coordination activities may be unnecessary or even detrimental to learning. When there is little domain-specific knowledge, the cognitive load incurred by transactions could positively impact learning but where there is a great degree of expertise, and thus where transactions are either unnecessary for or detrimental to learning (Zambrano et al. 2017b), the cognitive load incurred could negatively impact learning.”

I’m glad I reviewed this article, as it has helped me to clarify my thinking about assigning group work.

To summarize the key point I’m revising my thinking about group work on:

Fromnew concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to

to

When assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.

I’ll provide an updated decision-tree and guiding document to reflect this learning soon.

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics

Scaffolding

Definition

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics

  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment

Differentiation

Definition

Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.

Characteristics

  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.

Scaffolding & Success Criteria

What is a scaffold, anyway?

While working on a series of workshops about scaffolding, I came to a revelation about what the term really means. It’s one of those words, like “differentiation,” so ubiquitous in the field it seems to mean almost anything. But such generality can easily lead to some big misconceptions in actual application. I’m going to share my learning here in the case it may be useful and help others to avoid some of those missteps.

In order to truly understand scaffolding, I think you need to be able to answer this question:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Furthermore, I think you need to understand what it takes to master a parachute landing fall at the army jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Mastering a Parachute Landing Fall

For a reading that serves as a great basis for a team discussion on rigor, assessment, or scaffolding, I urge you to read Chapter 4 pg. 69 – 71 of Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Read the whole darn book while you’re at it, of course; it’s all good. But I found this particular chapter especially relevant to scaffolding.

Since I obviously can’t reproduce the chapter for copyright reasons, I’ll give you an executive summary. At the army jump school in Georgia, mastering a parachute landing fall is a necessity. The jump school supports and drives recruits to mastery of this extremely complex and difficult skill within three weeks. How do they do this?

First, recruits initiate their practice in a gravel pit. They receive demonstrations of different falls. Then they practice falling and they receive feedback and they practice some more.

Next, recruits move to a short platform a couple feet off the ground. They practice jumping off the platform and executing the falls they had mastered in the gravel pit.

The challenge is ratched up. Recruits move to a zip line and practice falling from a higher drop that’s propelling them in different moving directions. They can control when they drop off the line.

You see where this is going. The recruits move to a platform 12 feet off the ground. They put on gear and jump down a mock chute, connected to a zip line. But this time the instructor pulls the cord and introduces the element of uncertainty and surprise. Recruits now have to be able to demonstrate a PLF according to chance, simulating the variables of an actual fall.

Finally, they move to a 34 foot tower. This is the final step of demonstrating mastery before boarding a moving airplane and engaging in a real-world application of the skill.

There’s some aspects of this narrative that illuminates effective scaffolding:

    • Each step provides practice and feedback on a component skill that requires mastery before moving on
    • Practice grows increasingly complex and difficult
    • At no point is the practice easy
    • Practice serves simultaneously as performance-based assessment

 

There’s a term that the authors of Make It Stick introduce that is useful for this progression of increasingly rigorous steps: desirable difficulty.

Desirable Difficulty, Academic Rigor, and Scaffolding

Desirable difficulty, a term coined by psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, is a way to describe short-term impediments that lead to stronger learning. At the army jump school, you can see desirable difficulty in action, and it highlights key aspects of effective scaffolding and how it connects to academic rigor.

At each successive step of training, the recruits are engaged in practice at a level of desirable difficulty required for them to master each successive component skill. Once they’ve mastered that skill or set of skills, they are then ready to move to the next level.

This is important to highlight for a few reasons. One is that it’s clear that at no level is the work and practice “easy.” A common misapplication of scaffolding is that it makes work easier for a student. This might make the teacher and student feel better about themselves, but it does long-term damage to student learning.

But a well-designed scaffold should not make a task or concept easy. Rather, it should provide the right level of impediment and challenge for the level of practice in the skills or concepts required to move forward.

This means that instructors can have extremely high expectations for students, as the army jump school has for its recruits, while providing well-structured practice and guidance that will lead to achievement that matches those expectations.

It also means instructors must be crystal clear about the component skills and practice that will build successively and sequentially to mastery.

Scaffolding as Performance-based Formative Assessment

“It’s one thing to feel confident of your knowledge; it’s something else to demonstrate mastery. Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgement of what you know how to do. When confidence is based on repeated performance, demonstrated through testing that simulates real-world conditions, you can lean into it.”

Make It Stick

There’s another aspect of scaffolding that is really interesting to consider from the jump school example: effective scaffolding is a performance-based form of formative assessment. Formative assessment, for those of you not up on the ed jargon, simply means testing that occurs during learning. This is in opposition to summative assessment which takes place at the end as an evaluative measure, and is usually accompanied with a grade. In the jump school example, the summative assessment would be executing the parachute landing fall from a plane.

A well-designed scaffold, therefore, engages a student in the practice of a skill that informs the instructor whether the student is ready to move on. This should be immediately visible and clear, enabling the instructor to provide ongoing feedback as the student engages with the scaffold.

Now let’s return to our original question and bring this back to the classroom:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Success Criteria

Let’s break this down. What the heck are “success criteria”?

Success criteria are what you use to assess whether you’ve achieved the goals for learning in a unit of study. You’ll typically see these as a rubric or a checklist. The criteria are directly aligned to standards or expectations for learning for the subject and grade.

As an example, let’s say I’m an ELA teacher and I wanted to assess a third grade student’s ability to determine a central idea of a text. The Common Core Standard for Reading Literature states that by the end of third grade, kids should be able to “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.

So an example of a few success criteria I might use to assess that student’s progress towards the standard could be:

☐ I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text.
☐ I can determine the details most essential to understanding a text.
☐ I can combine key details to determine a main idea.

Let’s look one of these criteria: “I can distinguish between important and unimportant details in a text.”

Many students will struggle with this abstract skill (not least because they don’t know enough about whatever they’re reading in order to do so . . . but that’s a whole other post). So they will need some type of scaffold to assist them in getting started on this.

So what could such a scaffold be?

One possible scaffold could be to support them in first distinguishing between details that are merely interesting, such as details that an author gives to make the text more engaging to read, from details that are central to understanding the topic of the text.

We might create some type of graphic organizer or chart to support students in practicing this with a text, and of course, we’d probably model it and do it together as a whole class before having students practice it in groups or pairs, then we’d ask individual students use it on their own.

Some students may be ready to just make a T-chart in their notebooks, while other students may need some more guided practice with a handout. Some students may need manipulatives, such as cut outs of both interesting and important details, in order to get started and to feel success before they are ready to move to greater abstraction.

But notice something about my description: the scaffold is less about a graphic organizer, chart, or manipulative, and more about the practice of a specific skill component: clarifying the difference between interesting and important details.

In other words, the point of a scaffold like this isn’t really about the thing — it’s about the thinking that students are training their minds to do through the application of the scaffold.

A scaffold should therefore provide the thinking practice that a student needs to master the criteria for success.

If we just told students to distinguish between the important and unimportant details in an informational text, some might be able to do so, and some will not. The point of the scaffold, in this example, is to train students who don’t yet see it to become aware of the difference between details provided by an author that are merely interesting, versus details that are important to understanding the topic.

Eventually, those students should no longer need a scaffold. They’ll internalize the concept and be able to apply it without thinking. A few students may never need such a scaffold at all. That’s the differentiation piece. If they don’t need it, they shouldn’t be practicing it.

We may think of something like a stepladder or the scaffolding on a building when we use the word “scaffolding.” Or you might think of a bike with training wheels, or a parent holding the bike as the child learns to pedal.

The model of a bike with training wheels is probably closer to the way we should think of what a scaffold means in instruction. We want to shift our mental model of what a “scaffold” is away from it being a tool that merely makes a task easier, to a process or activity that engages a student in the practice that they can experience success with, while on the road to mastery.

What’s the difference? Some students will need to practice a whole bunch using a scaffold before they get it. A few students may not need it at all. But the expectation is that all students will be expected to achieve that mastery.

Which leads us to another realization about what function a scaffold serves. If a scaffold is directly aligned to the success criteria in a unit of study, then it serves not only as a form of practice to achieve mastery, but it furthermore serves as method of formative assessment for both students and teachers. It provides performance-based, task-based feedback on whether or not a student has achieved the success criteria.
So a scaffold does not mean making learning easy. It doesn’t mean giving kids a shortcut so they can reach something they will never be able to reach again. It’s about having rigorous expectations and demanding that students practice in a way that will enable them to achieve those expectations.

A New Definition of Scaffold

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics of Scaffolds

  • Scaffolds are smaller components of a complex task or skill
  • Scaffolds are at the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice.
  • Scaffolds are not “easy”
  • Scaffolds must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along until they have mastered each component
  • Scaffolds serve as performance-based formative assessment

 

A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74