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  1. Collaborative Problem Solving

    August 4, 2014 by Mrs Hurley

    The following is an 800 word essay that I wrote for the MOOC “Assessment and Teaching 21st Century Skills” run by the University of Melbourne through Coursera.

    I found this assignment to be difficult at first but easier as I wrote more. The peer assessment was valuable but I’m not sure how valuable my feedback would’ve been to others. I could tell that other students lacked understanding of the assignment itself and collaborative problem solving skills, based on the three other assignments that I peer assessed.

    “After Sugata Mitra conducted his famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment in a New Delhi slum, he studied for 13 years on the nature of self-organised learning. At the 2013 TED Conference, Sugata invited educators of all kinds to create their own self-organised learning environments (SOLEs). I decided to take this approach in my classroom as a way for students to discover how continents were formed. Large, open, difficult and interesting questions often make the best “big” questions for SOLE inquiries. Instead of posing a “big” question to my students, I made a statement that they had to find evidence to either prove or disprove – “Continents were formed by one man digging many holes and filling them with water, thus separating each continent.” SOLE inquiries employ the basic parameters that students can choose their own groups of approximately four and they can change groups at any time. Students can talk with other groups and see what each group is doing and participants must have the opportunity to share their learning at the end. These were the only instructions given to the students, thus making the task very ambiguous. Each group had access to one computer and one handheld tablet, as well as note taking tools. The SOLE inquiry required collaboration between students because each student was able to take on a different role and bring different resources to the task, all of which are required to solve the problem. Each student brought a different perspective to the task, the task required negotiation skills and agreement on a plan to tackle the problem. The collaborative problem solving SOLE task presented to my students required both social skills and cognitive skills. Students chose to stay in their original groups, despite constant reminders that they were allowed to change. In the beginning, students were sharing information and resources with other groups and started to focus more on their own presentations in the end. One of the major foci for students was using collaborative tools, such as Google Apps, to assist with the collaborative nature of the task. Students exchanged information and discussed vocabulary that they wouldn’t have had the chance to discovery without the SOLE investigation – or else, they would have had this knowledge imparted to them instead of discovering it for themselves and sharing with each other. Such diversity and demonstration of collaborative skills was wonderful to witness.
    Educators play an important role in both teaching students how to think, and giving them room to feed their curiosity. My role as the classroom teacher in the SOLE investigation is purely as a facilitator. The most effective educators are great witnesses, supporters, and structure-providers, but not answer-suppliers. In this SOLE investigation, due to the diverse ability levels and social groupings, it was inevitable that each group would demonstrate differing skill levels in collaborative problem solving. In one small group was a girl who struggles with the concept of student-centred learning and has to be encouraged to discover answers for herself. As I watched her work with her partner, I noticed the low level collaborative problem solving skills she was displaying. Socially, this girl has difficulties anyway and collaboratively solving problems proved no different. She reluctantly participated in the task, contributing very little herself and expecting her partner to complete the task for her. She could not seem to focus due to the lack of structure and or scaffolding given by the teacher before undertaking the task. When sharing her learning with the class, she tended to let her partner divulge all information and made small contributions but did not take into consideration what her partner had already mentioned. This particular girl found it difficult to understand the task and therefore could not resolve differences with her partner to achieve a common goal. Her problem analysis was almost non-existent and she was unable to respond to such an ambiguous situation. Small facts were recorded instead of a wider understanding of the information and how it related to our inquiry focus. With prompting, she was able to undertake the task but did not have the foresight to see the end result or consequences of her inaction. On the other hand, this particular girl’s partner was displaying high level collaborative problem solving skills. He constantly attempted to engage her in order to solve the problem collaboratively. He listened to her contributions and was able to tailor his own contributions and ideas for solutions based on his partner’s understandings. He persevered in the SOLE investigation and prompted input from his partner. Throughout the task, he was able to evaluate his own and his partner’s performance. He attempted to assist his partner by dividing the investigation into smaller tasks and he identified patterns between multiple pieces of information and their sources.”

    My feedback for the assignment:

    Suggest any elaboration of the example that could have made it more clearly an example of a collaborative problem solving:
    peer 1 → This task clearly identified that an individual could change groups at any time. In a collaborative problem solving exercise, if it is a requirement that the problem can’t be solved without the input of different people/resources, having members move in and out of the group (even if in this example the teacher noted that they didn’t despite being urged to) would seem to defeat the purpose. What happens to the group if a high functioning individual chooses to leave? If the problem could be solved without the involvement of all members, is this CPS? In this example, if the boy who demonstrated high CPS skills left, most of the group’s ability to solve the problem would go too.
    peer 2 → The text indicates the truism that behaviour cannot change overnight. The two collaborators represent extreme skills in CPS according to their behavioural responses to the situation. Perhaps for the sake of illustration, I would want an instance when the girl with low-level CPS rises above the level she’s at and encourage and affirm her partner by getting more substance into their joint solution to the problem. We are allowed, anyway, to fictionalize a bit.
    peer 3 → A fantactic description of a collaborative problem solving at school. A good example to follow. One suggestion. How about to think of some subtasks to motivate students “not to stay in their original groups”?
    7. Say what you liked best about this example as an instance of collaborative problem solving.
    peer 1 → This example was clearly structured and identified a problem for which there were many possible answers. The process allowed students to discover knowledge for themselves, and to share this with other members of the group. It also identified that not all participants in CPS are ready to be able to contribute at an effective level, and may require other scaffolding to get them to the point of readiness.
    peer 2 → The problem and the CPS skills and the corresponding levels demonstrated by the collaborators are clearly described. Thanks.
    peer 3 → This example is so close to my own professional career. I’m a teacher of English in Ukraine. I often engage my students to work like this. Most of all I liked the level of professional competence of the author because such replics and observations “My role as the classroom teacher in the SOLE investigation is purely as a facilitator. The most effective educators are great witnesses, supporters, and structure-providers, but not answer-suppliers.” prove this. The author knows all the tiny aspects of collaborative problem solving,in particular, how to observe, analyze, interpret and develop CPS skills.

    What do you think? What examples of collaborative problem solving can you think of in your own classroom?

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