Are We Setting Students Up For Failure When We Assign Them To Groups And Say, “Collaborate!”?

Denise Earles

English teacher Denise Earles from Madison Public Schools, CT is part of an innovation project to experiment with standards based grading in a traditional school system.


When you think about your experience as an adult, collaborating with coworkers, do you get an uncomfortable pit in your stomach? How often does it go just right? Over my many years and many occupations I have experienced productive, professionally life-changing collaboration exactly once. Two years ago, a room change and an opportunity to participate in an Innovation Lab (supported by Allison Zmuda) started me on a journey that has completely changed my idea of what collaborating means. My new neighbor was also going to participate in the lab, and at our first meeting we discovered that we shared similar philosophies about education.

What made this collaborative partnership pedagogically magical

Kevin and I were an odd pair: I had been teaching for over 11 years and he was a newer teacher; he was just approaching 30 something and I was over 50; I raised five children and he and his wife hadn’t yet started a family; he was a successful coach and I had never played a sport in my life. Somehow our differences actually complemented our work, like a fine wine complements a meal. But productive collaboration is still hard work.

We soon found common ground and set off on a two year collaborative adventure. If you have read either my or Kevin Sidelecki’s other posts you know that we changed the way we interact with students in regard to feedback and we created a series of standards to give students a clear idea of expectations in our classes.

One thing that helped us from the start was knowing our individual strengths. Kevin is a “Big Picture” guy and I am all about the details; he would explain his concept to me and I would add the steps we needed to complete it. At times I couldn’t get my head around his ideas and he would explain again from a coaching perspective. Sometimes I was not making myself clear, so I would create an analogy to parenting.

Occasionally we disagreed. We both have our own approaches in the classroom and didn’t feel the need to be in lockstep all the time. Our differing approaches offered opportunities to self assess and reflect, as well as to compare student work which then led to us revising our own work.

Each of us continued to do independent research and to share new exciting ideas that we discovered. There were many a morning that I would wake to see arm length text messages about an idea Kevin came across late the night before. These forays into new materials helped us to evolve as teachers and to grow trust between us.

Then the bottom dropped out of my perfect collaboration world; mid-year, Kevin left teaching for a college coaching position. I experienced all the stages of grief, or maybe a better analogy is the stages of mitosis: now the contents of our brains have been equally divided between us and we are ready for cytokinesis— we can each take what we have gained together and start our own process.

I am an adult, and it took me 50 plus years to get to this place. How can we expect our students to collaborate well enough to complete high stakes projects with success when most adults cannot accomplish that feat? Are we asking too much or are we teaching and expecting the wrong things?

How collaboration has played out in my classrooms: a case study of two groups

I learned a lot from two groups in my UConn Early College Experience class. Each group used every class period to discuss the individual work they had done for homework, set goals for the day, and put work into the group’s final project. I could hear the richness of their discussions, and I could see the progress they made each day, but when the final products were assessed (self assessed, assessed by other students, and assessed by me) one failed to meet many of the standards for the project, and the other was a resounding success. None of the students, from either group, were surprised at the outcomes.

What happened?

  • The successful group had worked together in other classes for a few years. They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses; they knew how to speak to each other (accountable talk) to garner trust and show support. They were willing to put ideas out there for critical review because they had done so in the past and could predict a positive outcome.
  • The less successful group felt they had entered an unequal partnership. Some students put in a lot of effort and others did less. They did not have a good working relationship on which to build and felt awkward pointing out the expectations and needs of the group. They had great ideas and fruitful discussions, but when it came time to follow through on one idea, they did not have a process for decision making that seemed equitable. This group also assigned responsibilities without knowing each member’s strengths and weaknesses. Luckily, this was not a high stakes situation, but what if it had been?

Questions that I am ruminating on and will take action on in the upcoming school year

  • Are we setting students up for failure when we assign them to groups and say, “Collaborate!”?
  • Are we teaching specific skills to help students successfully collaborate?
  • Are we assessing the right things when we grade collaboration?

Revising is work I will undertake in the fall, hopefully with a new partner who is willing to learn as we go, and use our own collaborative experience to guide our expectations for students.

One thought on “Are We Setting Students Up For Failure When We Assign Them To Groups And Say, “Collaborate!”?”

  1. Excellent way of explaining, and fastidious piece of writing
    to obtain information on the topic of my presentation topic,
    which i am going to convey in university.

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