Thursday, June 26, 2014

Podboarding--making the most of group work in class

Collaborative learning

Every EFL teacher has been taught to maximize language practice by getting students to work collaboratively in class.  However, many teachers cite difficulties in trying to apply this in practice, especially in getting students to take responsibility for group work.  In a recent report by TEPAV on the state of English language teaching in Turkish state schools, it was reported that "Almost all classrooms observed had a furnishing/layout where students sit together, in pairs on bench seats. However, teachers fail to use this seating arrangement to organise students into pairs and groups for independent, communicative language practice in everyday classroom contexts. This was identified as the third factor regarding the failure of Turkish students to speak/understand English."

Despite the logistical problems, group work is one of the major benefits of having students come together face-to-face in a classroom.  In our institution, there are some key hurdles to make group work work.

One is the reluctance of students to participate in group activities, fueled largely by the method of assessment which in our case is a high-stakes standardized proficiency test in which students are strictly forbidden from collaboration. :) You can't really blame students for questioning the value of collaborative learning when they all know that in the end it is every person for themselves in a race against time, as shown in a typical exam scenario.

Considering this reality, students will naturally seize on any excuse to discourage group work.  They don't have to look far, as the ubiquitous desk chair affords them a brilliant excuse to make forming groups to facilitate group work highly ineffective.  The modern desk chair made its debut in the 1970s, but it's design features differed little from its predecessors.  Modern materials made it lighter and stronger, but it is still a 'one size fits all' solution, in which students have to suffer over one-half of their waking hours during their education.

The desk chair

Of course, there are many reasons why we shouldn't use desk chairs.  In fact, research shows that sitting too much is downright dangerous and not only wrecks your body, it can significantly reduce your lifespan.  So, we are not doing a good job in getting students off on the right foot in school. If only students and teachers were involved in the purchase of school furniture! Alas, the decision is normally taken by the purchasing office, for which price and footprint are of primary importance.  Once purchased, the furniture just becomes an accepted part of the every day landscape of classrooms.

In our institution, these desk chairs typically end up in a 'U-shape', mostly because this is the preferred configuration for the cleaners, as it makes sweeping the floors much easier.  It is also preferred by students, who seem to find comfort with their back to the wall so teachers can't sneak up from behind to observe them at work.  Of course, the cherished position are the two chairs at the back corners of the room.  Here is a panorama of a class in this configuration.

Making the best of a non-collaborative environment

Faced with the reality that the desk chairs will remain a feature of the classroom for the foreseeable future, and the tendency towards a more teacher-centered classroom when using a class computer and data-projector, we wondered if there was a way  to foster more productive collaborative learning in the classroom. We also had questions in our minds:
  • Why do students not see much value in group work (and collaborative learning)? 
  • How does the seating arrangement in our class affect group work? 
  • What are the major problems we face when we ask students to work in groups? 
  • What effect does ‘the screen’ and power point have on student participation and involvement in learning? 
  • What problems do we have when monitoring students who are supposed to be ‘working in a group’?
In doing some research about these issues, we came across an idea developed by a professor in an American university.  Here is a picture of a large university class using these mini-whiteboards.  Note the range of interaction patterns going on. Inspired by this idea of 'mini whiteboards', we decided that this approach was an easy-to-use, low-tech solution to overcome some of the problems of group work we faced.

We decided to make our own from local sources and use them in class.  We've called these 'podboards' because they acts as a focal point around which students cluster for collaborative learning, in the same way that dolphins from groups in 'pods'.  In this blog post, we'll describe how we made our own podboards, and see some examples of its use in a classroom.

How we made podboards

  • Size: We experimented with a size of board that was big enough to be supported by the desks of four desk chairs, but not too big to be unwieldy. Also, the configuration of desk chairs with the podboard at the centre had to accommodate at least five groups in the classroom.  The optimum size we found was 80cm square.
  • Material: We needed a material that was strong enough to act as a desk top between desk chairs.  It also had to be relatively light and durable, and possible to use with dry-erase markers.  We settled on 5mm thick white acrylic perspex.  An 80cm square sheet cost 40TL.  However, there may be other materials around that are as functional and cheaper.

How we use podboards

  • In group work activities, students work in groups of three to five.  This depends on how many podboards you have for the class and the number of students.  Because the podboards need to be balanced on the desk chair tops, students naturally spread out within the room and form groups with the board as the focal point. This helps deal with classroom management and avoids the 'teacher, do we really have to move?' type of resistance from students.  
  • Each group is given one dry-erase marker to use.  All have to collaborate with one person in charge of writing.  Because the area is limited, groups tend to naturally plan and negotiate how to use the space according to the requirements of the activity. We are not sure exactly why the dynamics work in the way they do, but we observe that with podboards the students assume roles instantly within each group: writer, dictionary check, book look up, editor, etc., without any intervention by the teacher.
  • We use paper napkins to erase or make changes.  We have found that blue dry erase markers are the best to use on the acrylic.  Red markers are particularly difficult to erase.
  • Podboards can also function as a work surface for board games or other similar activities that simply won't fit on the single desk chair.
  • There are several options to share or report on the group work.
    • The boards can be circulated between groups.
    • Each group can use the board as a prompt to report from the front to the rest of the class.
    • One person in each group can remain with the podboards, and the other students circulate.
    • The podboard can be photographed with a mobile phone, and the media shared in a social language learning network, such as EDMODO.  Makes the content of the boards accessible for future use or reference.
  • After a few uses, the boards can get a bit messy, and they need to be cleaned.  Windex will work well for boards that are not too messy, but once in a while to get the perspex totally clean, we use sythnetic thinner using a spray bottle.

Some examples of podboards in use

Below are pictures of some pair and group work with a podboard, based on a task to prepare and present an idea for a local business. 

Presenting group work.
Pair work with podboards.

Self-organized learing - writer, editor and spell checker.
Podboard presention - creating a group identity

Do podboards really facilitate collaborative learning?

As Dr Dan MacIsaac reports in his article about mini-whiteboards, podboards foster student collaborative learning in groups by 'anchoring student dialogue in a concrete artifact'.  After using it with colleagues in class over the last two years, we have observed several instances of this, and a number of benefits that we hadn't anticipated.
  • Without podboards, it can be difficult to get students to form a circle. With podboards, students would naturally form a circle in order to support the podboard between them.  What is more, the podboard seemed to act as a binding agent to provide a clear focus for the group activity.  It seemed to foster a group identity in a way that just a circle of desk chairs doesn't.
  • Students naturally spread out in class and moved away from the walls, without the intervention of the teacher.  Similar in principle to Sugata Mitra's 'self organized learning environment' protocol.
  • The 'shared workspace' meant that the group had to plan before writing down ideas, and having only one dry erase marker necessitated negotiation.  In the process of writing, there was peer feedback as all could clearly see what was written and knowing that others would see this gave them the impetus to make sure the language was correct. 
  • It is much easier for the teacher to monitor what the groups are doing, and easier to point out language problems and elicit corrections.
  • It helps students explore ideas in preparation for presenting them, and in the process it encourages discourse between students and helps them articulate questions to the teacher.
The 360 degree classroom

Of course, the logical extension of podboards is to 'flip' the classroom, with all four walls of the classroom being the work surface for students, as seen in the example below. One of the easiest ways to turn wall space into collaborative and interactive creative spaces is to use 'idea paint'.

A '360 degree' classroom for mathematics.


Dindy Drury and I gave a workshop on podboarding as as low-tech tool to foster collaboration and group work.  Here are a few photographs of the groups at work.  As we didn't have desk chairs, the podboards were supported on the knees of the group members. Evidence of the way podboards facilitated collaboration were clear in all of the groups.  Thanks to everyone who participated in the workshop!

Podbarding session at EMU SFL workshop festival - planning
Podbarding session at EMU SFL workshop festival - editing
Podbarding session at EMU SFL workshop festival - discussion anchored in concrete artefact.

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