Building Bridges – Using Structured Processes in the Collaborative Classroom

Special thanks to our friends at Single Steps Learning , Lynne Williams and Andrew Pearce, for this guest post.

Developing a collaborative, problem-solving learning community is as much a learning experience for the classroom practitioner as it is for the students. The bold (and reckless) are happy to dive in and see what happens. Sink or swim, it’s all good.

However, for many willing practitioners, the stress of a single ‘messy’ attempt at providing a collaborative experience can be enough to slow down or stop the growth towards self-direction.

Structured processes enable learners to use and refine tools until they are familiar with them, and, feel comfortable enough to select them, on the occasions when they are given a greater degree of independence.

One such process is the Linked Thinking Process (© Single Steps Learning 2010). It involves requiring learners to use different ‘thinking’ and social skills (individual reflection and group interaction, creative and critical thinking, decision making and planning). Each ‘link’ in the process is connected by an overarching purpose. There is no set pattern or sequence of links – these are deliberately designed to fulfil the specific task.

One such sequence could be:

Individual Reflection – Group Sharing – Identifying Common Themes through Discussion – Choosing a single theme to explore further.

An alternative could be:

Group brainstorm – Individual Reflection (Amendments and additions) – Group sharing – Group Discussion & Decision Making (Which idea shall we go with?)

Here is a real classroom example.

Early Years Class (38 children) – 3-5 year olds – ‘Kipper’s Birthday Challenge’  

Reflect – Letter sent home requesting a ‘birthday’ item to be sent in with each child. Something related to their own birthday – a photo, a card, a present, an invitation, a banner etc.

Share– Adult Facilitator guided the ‘turn-taking’ process during the sharing stage. Small groups were formed (5/6 children) and each child took a turn to show their ‘birthday item’. Some were able to describe it in detail. Others were less confident or had limited vocabulary/speech. However all were able to contribute in their own way.

Focused Thinking- Thinking was extended to their general birthday experiences. What did they all have in common? Adult Facilitator recorded the answers in a list. The children had pens and recorded in their own way (from pictures to mark-making to early writing) around the list. At this point the activity was left. Each small group went through this process until the class (38 children) had completed it.

Brainstorming- As a class we read the story ‘Kipper’s Birthday’ by Mick Inkpen. Kipper ends up with lots of difficulties in trying to having a birthday party (for those of you who are not familiar with the book!). We all thought about how that would feel – asking guiding ‘open’ questions to help the children with their thinking process. At this point a child exclaimed ‘We know lots about birthdays, we could help Kipper! We could do a birthday party for him!’

This resulted in much excitement! And it was perfect for the adults who were waiting for this idea to emerge! A letter was sent home to parents informing them that Friday would be Kipper’s Birthday Party Day and the children could wear party clothes as opposed to school uniform.

Friday – all the children arrived in party clothes. One child phoned Kipper (my dad who had been pre-warned!) and invited him to come to the party! He said he would arrive at 1.30pm.

We got out the list of birthday things recorded during the focused thinking and began to brainstorm ideas for what we needed to do as a class that morning and how we were going to work as a team. We created a checklist of the products needed.

Decide- We decided which products we could do and the children became ‘resource managers’ with us. They helped to collect what was needed. We also decided on a time and all became time keepers. We set the ‘teaching clock’ to the finish time and put the ‘real clock’ next to it, so we could see the time moving closer. The children talked about what we might see and hear as they worked with a friend or a small group. They decided we would see ‘smiles and thumbs’ (consensus tool) and we would hear ‘that’s a good idea!’ or ‘maybe we could do this?’. This would be evidence of them working in a ‘quality’ way with each other.

Act- The children worked all morning on preparations. Some of the younger members worked alongside others – and also drifted to other activities (such as the continuous provision of sand/water etc). However the opportunity was still there for them to engage in collaborative work appropriate for their stage of development. There was urgency in the room, with one 3 year-old running up with the clock exclaiming “It’s 19 past 27 and Kipper is on his way!’ – early time-keeping skills in development!

Kipper arrived at 1.30 p.m. He had phoned us regularly during the morning letting us know his whereabouts on his journey to the school.  The final ‘act’ was to have the birthday party.

Photographs had been taken throughout the process and were used as visual feedback on the process, along with verbal/written observations from both the adults and children.

In terms of the curriculum, we were able to map the knowledge, skills and attitudes gained during this process into multiple areas of learning providing a real, meaningful purpose for the development of ‘curriculum requirements’. Far more powerful than a worksheet/textbook/scheme! This activity took place in South Wales, UK. Each link in the process may require its own set of knowledge, skills and attitudes and their accompanying quality (success) criteria, which, over time, can be negotiated and developed with or by the learners. For example, group sharing would require a ‘fair’ process so that all contributions are heard and valued. How might this be managed successfully by a group? What tools or strategies might they need to run this part of the process independently?  Alternatively, what skills, dispositions, tools and strategies might a group need to develop in order to reach a consensus – without tears!

During the process, the teacher is present and observing, clarifying and guiding. They set up the process but it is the students that engage. For practitioners who are tentative about relinquishing control, or for classes who find sudden independence overwhelming, this kind of process can provide the materials for building a bridge to the other side of the river where learners lead their own learning.

If you are a practitioner interested in expanding or enhancing your pedagogical ‘tool-kit’, contact official ACSR/ Critical Skills partner Single Steps Learning at in the UK.



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