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Using Collaborative Learning Teams

Happy Back to School!

This September is a new beginning for me as I’m not only back (part time) to my position at Cedar Hill Middle School but I’m also a new PhD student at UVic so I’m back to TWO schools. I absolutely loved my post graduate certificate program in ethnomathematics and felt at the end of it that I still had so much more to learn so…. I’ll be delving even deeper into culturally sustaining math pedagogies and teaching for social justice during my PhD!

This blog is going to focus on using collaborative learning teams for a number of reasons. I think they are the very best way to incorporate the core and curricular competencies (for all subject areas) and they are a culturally sustaining pedagogy (I’ll unpack what this means shortly). They are a great way to set the stage and build a safe learning culture within your classroom and finally, they save you, the teacher, so much time and energy and allows you the time to do great formative assessment and work with students who really need your support.

Core and Curricular Competencies:

When I look up the most important work/school skills each year, the list has been similar for a number of years. At the top of the list are things like: Communication, Collaboration, Problem Solving, etc. When I see these, I ask myself “how are my students ever going to become proficient at communicating, or working as a team unless they have regular practice doing these skills?”. Our students not only need to be experiencing these more often but also with specific feedback from us about how they are doing. In our curriculum, these important employability skills are found in the core and curricular competencies. These are not ‘one and done’ checklists of things to do, but rather they are the vehicles through which we teach the content.

When I first started using the ‘teams’ approach a couple of years ago I was blown away at how much better of a pedagogical approach it was and the teachers that I worked with were similarly surprised and pleased (those that use it use the teams for more than math….it becomes how their classes operate most of the time). Since then, I’ve promoted them a lot but not many teachers were comfortable trying them. I’ve talked to quite a few teachers about this to better understand their hesitation and here is what I most often hear:
• I’m still trying to teach the ‘new math’ using manipulatives, etc. and so I need to do one thing at a time
• I’ve tried group work and it doesn’t work for a lot of my students
• I’m not comfortable with the lack of control and noise
• I just don’t know how to do it properly or even where to start – it feels overwhelming to me
Can you identify with any of these? I can fully understand all of them and I think it’s tough because it’s such a big departure from the traditional approach AND (and this is just my own observation) I think we teachers are control freaks. I am one too. I get it. But I LOVE the collaborative approach. Here are just a few reasons why:

Collectivist Worldview Approach

There are two different main worldviews: Collectivist and Individualistic. As North Americans, we are generally an Individualistic society, however, considering our multi-cultural classrooms and the fact that Indigenous worldviews are collectivist, it is important for us to be aware of both so we can better meet all of our learners’ needs. Northern European and North American cultures are mostly Individualistic while countries like Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela, Guatemala, Indonesia, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, and India are collectivist.

When we use collaborative teams we are equipping our students not only with those important employability skills and core competencies but we are also teaching using a method that can be more aligned with their collectivist cultures (this makes it a culturally sustaining pedagogy because it honours their cultural values).

When I was in Juneau in June working with some Tlingit Elders, I learned that using the collaborative team approach (using Complex Instruction) is very aligned with how they have always educated their communities. One elder, David, explained to me that learning needs to be rooted in love, kindness and respect of all members as well as valuing the different contributions each member makes. In the First Peoples Principles of Learning it states that learning is relational, which means that we all learn from one another in relationship. This includes teachers learning from students and students from other students and working in properly structured groups is fantastic way to achieve this.


When I first piloted using teams I asked students to give anonymous feedback and I was really surprised by their feedback. Firstly, I imagined that they would find it somewhat annoying learning how to solve the same problem in different ways but this was actually something that the vast majority enjoyed the most! When I asked if they preferred the teams or the more traditional approach of working sometimes alone and sometimes with a partner, they said the teams. I literally had 1 student from each class that ticked both boxes (they valued the teams because it helped them learn but they still preferred to just work on their own).
Here’s what else they shared: they got the help they needed way faster and more often from their group than they ever have from a teacher. On the flip side of this, YOU, the teacher, have way less running around to do, answering the EXACT SAME QUESTION six times (even though you already went over that question on the board in front of the whole class minutes before). It frees you up in ways that were incomprehensible to me before I experienced it.


The last benefit I’ll mention (even though there are so many more) is that students develop agency and confidence and their communication and social skills improve tremendously. How many times do you get asked “is this right?” in a math block? Students develop agency when we remove ourselves from being the ‘answer gods’ and allow them to collaboratively prove and/or disprove their ideas and theories. This then leads to an increased confidence and enjoyment of math. The team approach also requires some serious communication and social skills (our core competencies) and I can tell you that the classes of grades 4-8 students I’ve worked with do not naturally have these qualities. I was a little shocked to see how ill equipped they are to deal with simple communication, sharing, being patient with each other, and dealing with conflicts.

How to Use the Teams:

Using Complex Instruction (I feel this is misnomer as the process isn’t that complex) is a great way to avoid the common hazards of group work (students opting out, one student doing all the work, etc.) as it is very structured and every student has a role to play. I’ve developed a Collaborative Teams Course on www.educatingnow.com that has all of the how-to’s to get you started and overcoming common obstacles as you progress. I’m in the process now of updating it as I’ve learned a lot in the past 2 years since we launched it. I’ve most recently read the book ‘The Culture Code’, which was very helpful and interesting so I’ll be adding some of this new learning into the course.

Because I would LOVE to see more teachers using this approach I am offering the course for $99 until October 31, 2019! Use the code TEAMME for a 60% discount and you will have lifetime access.

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