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

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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.

Smorgasbord: August looms

A chart from one of my recent sessions

Teacher evaluation is about relationships and learning, not about scores

Long ago, I co-wrote a policy paper advocating for a teacher evaluation system that acknowledges that evaluation is a conversation that requires the context of a professional learning community, with input not only from the administration, but furthermore one’s peers.

While a pre and post-conference is included in most current eval systems, the reality is that the focus is on 1) compliance (paperwork), 2) the stakes/consequences attached to that paperwork, and 3) the demands of a very subjective rubric, rather than on the practices and content that will move learning forward for students.

So it should come as no surprise that few teachers are rated poorly by their principals. These systems have become all about summative evaluation, rather than formative feedback, and thus have lost sight of the real purpose of the system in the first place — to improve teacher practice and student learning. Effective principals will use the system to have those conversations — but they won’t rate their teachers poorly on paper unless they are intent on pushing them out the building.

Principals Are Loath to Give Teachers Bad Ratings, Ed Week

Research shows: Elect Democrats to fight segregated schools

Partisan tensions between individualism/choice and systems/regulation in action.

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says, Chalkbeat NY

Andy Rotherham argues against safe spaces

“. . . challenging people to become bigger than themselves is at its core an act of respect and love. Shielding them from challenge, especially in their most formative years, is fundamentally deeply disrespectful to them and their education.”

He’s talking about higher ed. But this also applies–arguably, even more importantly–in K-12.

Challenge Students, Don’t Shield Them,” US News

John King and Arne Duncan plead for sanity in regulations to protect students

“Protecting students and taxpayers shouldn’t be a partisan political issue.”

It shouldn’t. Unfortunately, however–in our country, in these times–it is.

Trump administration is putting profits over students, The Hill

The Problem with Robot Teachers

“I . . . worry that we’re slowly evolving toward a system where the affluent get that kind of education and the poor get automated schooling.”

Are The Robots Coming? Is The K-12 Sector Allergic To Accountability? Cheating In DC, College Access, David Harris Goes TEDx, Claudio Sanchez On ESSA, Jeff Walker On Systems Entrepreneurs, Curbing Eliteness, Cow Horse, More!, Eduwonk

A middle school in the South Bronx harnesses the power of testing & practice

This Bronx school is applying what we know from decades of research: repeated quizzing and practice of key skills and concepts, spaced out over time, transfers learning into long-term memory.

Kudos to MS 343. When you think about just how much of an outlier this approach is, it’s pretty disturbing. Most schools do not have a coherent and systematic approach to what they teach, nor consider how they are reinforcing what is most essential to learn across grades and classrooms.

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances, Chalkbeat NY

Speaking of practice, here’s 10 teaching techniques worth practicing

This is a useful list of a few pedagogical methods worth spending time mastering from UK educator Tom Sherrington, which are based on Deans for Impact’s advice for deliberate practice.

Ten teaching techniques to practise – deliberately., Teacherhead.com

NYCDOE is pressing ATRs into schools

Dan Weisberg writes an op-ed in The 74 against the move, claiming that “Principals would go back to hiding vacancies and would justifiably argue that they can’t be held accountable for student learning if they don’t get to pick their teams.”

His claim appears to be justified, as a recent Chalkbeat article reports:

“I’m going to make sure my school doesn’t have a vacancy,” said one Bronx principal who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “I’m not going to post a vacancy if someone will place an ATR there. I’ll be as strategic as I can and figure out another way.”

I think Weisberg’s suggestion makes much more sense: set a time limit on how long someone can be in the ATR pool.

Weisberg: Paying Teachers Not to Teach Is Absurd — but Reviving NYC’s ‘Dance of the Lemons’ Hurts Kids, The 74

New York City principals balk at plan to place teachers in their schools; some vow to get around it, Chalkbeat NY

Randi Weingarten calls Devos’s brand of choice what it is — but what is her union doing to fight segregation?

I think Weingarten is pointing out an inconvenient truth by calling vouchers a “polite form of segregation,” given their history and the folks that most typically foam at the mouth over them.

But I do wonder what exactly she and her union are doing to fight segregated schools. Public schools are doing plenty on their own to contribute to segregation without any consideration of charters nor vouchers.

TEACHERS UNION CHIEF: SCHOOL CHOICE ROOTED IN SEGREGATION, AP News

Smorgasbord: Summer in the City

By Juhanson [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The school year in NYC just ended on the 28th; summer school begins this week. I’ve been facilitating training for summer school programs the last few days so have been pretty busy, but I’ve still got a few ed-related links worth reading compiled for you.

I’m waaay late to this, but this NTCQ report on what teachers need to learn in ed programs is excellent

I’ve had this PDF sitting on my desktop since January and just finally got around to perusing it.

The 6 strategies, based on extensive research, are deceptively simple. And yet, barely any of them, aside from asking probing questions, are covered in most teacher prep textbooks or courses.

Here’s the 6 strategies:

  • 1. Pairing graphics with words.
  • 2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations.
  • 3. Posing probing questions.
  • 4. Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve.
  • 5. Distributing practice.
  • 6. Assessing to boost retention.

These would be a good focus for any sustained PD for a school. And I would argue that numbers 5 and 6 would be the biggest bang for your buck if you looked across the curriculum of a school.

What do most teacher prep textbooks focus on? Stuff like, “How teachers and students should organize themselves (e.g., inquiry learning, direct instruction, or cooperative learning).”

You know what? That’s what most professional development focuses on, too.

National Council on Teaching Quality, Learning About Learning

Ideas for how to change entrenched misconceptions in education (and beyond)

“We think advocates of learning science should be more curious about why teachers believe what they believe, including learning styles.”

Why mythbusting fails: A guide to influencing education with science, Deans for Impact

Joe Kirby presents important ideas on how to distribute practice and assess to boost retention

If your school is committed to addressing those 6 points outlined above, Joe Kirby has some good advice that not only will promote better student learning, but furthermore reduce your workload.

Three Assessment Butterflies, Pragmatic Education

Amanda Ripley forwards a wonderful idea for promoting tolerance and understanding diversity: cultural exchanges within the US

Over the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about the problems of segregation across New York state, and something I found under-explored and often trivialized by integration advocates was how to address rural and urban divides, as well as other students who are geographically isolated in urban areas.

Plus, it must be said that the reality is that there isn’t enough affluent or white kids in our public schools to spread around, if we’re going to start counting beans. So we need to look at more than only getting kids of different backgrounds in the same schools, though that can go a long way. We also need to look at how we can bring kids together in other ways.

Kentucky is bringing people of all ages together through a Rural-Urban Exchange. This is something other states should emulate, most especially for our children.

“It’s harder to demonize someone once you’ve stayed in their homes and shared meals and stories together.”

America, Meet America: Getting Past Our Toxic Partisanship, Wall Street Journal

How did this DC public school get to 100% college acceptance?

System-wide support and money.

“a strong support system within D.C. public schools made it a reality. Staff tracked students, often working side by side with them to apply for college in the library. It also took a lot of money. Grants, donations and district funds took kids on college tours, and the school incentivized students with pep rallies, T-shirts and free food.”

Every Senior Applied To College At This Washington, D.C., High School, NPR

And a reminder that “transforming” schools is incredibly hard

Well-reported, and as Eliza Shapiro (Politico reporter who’s an ace journalist herself) stated on Twitter, “nothing cute, no triumphant narrative, just proof of how hard it is to change schools.”

The Fight for Fairmount Park Elementary, Tampa Bay Times

Revisiting the ‘Parents Involved” SCOTUS case and its unrealized potential for racial integration

“for all the obstacles confronting a rebooted school desegregation movement, the legal path towards integration still lies mostly open”

‘Parents Involved,’ A Decade Later, American Prospect

Rural youth are leaving (and pushed to leave) for greater opportunities

“Researchers have found that the hollowing-out of heartland communities is the result of a push-pull phenomenon: Ambitious students are drawn to the attractions and opportunities of major cities, but they’re also encouraged to leave by teachers and parents who see college as a chance to escape stagnation.”

When College Grads Don’t Come Back Home: New Numbers Show a Widening Urban-Rural Education Divide, the 74

If rural communities want to keep their youth, they must engage them

“Their creative thinking and problem solving can advance communities when given the opportunity.”

RURAL COMMUNITIES MUST EMPOWER YOUTH, The Daily Yonder

And here’s an example of that

“I was taking a class called Latina Leadership Initiative — that class is all about empowerment. When I saw that I had access to these programs to bring them to Perry, I kind of let go of [my] shyness and said – this is something I need to do.”

A ONE-WOMAN EDUCATION START-UP MACHINE IN SMALL-TOWN IOWA, The Daily Yonder

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz with a great finale to a commencement speech

“Oh, by the way. That young lady I was chasing? Twenty-eight years later, she’s still my wife.”

Bronx borough president to high school grads: ‘Start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like’, Chalkbeat NY

We may be jumping the gun on ‘microaggressions’

We’re already incorporating “microaggressions” into trainings here in NY (the mandated 6-hour DASA trainings), but we may be jumping ahead of any solid evidence that backs up the concept.

A psychologist argues for a moratorium on use and training around the term until more evidence is gathered.

Microaggressions?, Aeon

Climate change will increase inequality in the US

“The ‘hidden costs’ of carbon dioxide emissions are no longer hidden, since now we can see them clearly in the data,” said Jina, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of economics at the University of Chicago. “The emissions coming out of our cars and power plants are reshaping the American economy. Here in the Midwest, we may see agricultural losses similar to the Dustbowl of the 1930s.”

Climate change damages US economy, increases inequality, ScienceDaily