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Working on Team Skills and Flipping the Classroom for Better Learning

Working on Team Skills and Flipping the Classroom for Better Learning

While us at GSC love to bring you news on all the exciting things going on in the field of science, our aim as a company is to make science learning more fun and beneficial for both students and teachers alike. That is why we also take a deep interest in the field of education. Through my research into education’s ongoing evolution, I have written about phenomenon-based learning, adding “art” to the classic STEM framework, and how the engineering design process can be integrated into science education. For this week’s blog, I want to write about two new (to me) education concepts that came across my path while reading for this blog.

 

Collaborative Problem Solving:

I recently came across a new report from a group of scientists led by Arthur C. Graesser of the University of Memphis on the topic of collaborative problem solving. The concept immediately stood out to me as something worth focusing on. “Collaborative problem solving,” or CPS for short, generally refers to the combined skills necessary for people to be able to effectively work together with diverse groups of people to solve challenges. As pointed out by academics (and easily observable by anyone watching), society in the 21st century grows more and more complexly interconnected every day. The most difficult challenges of our day are multi-tiered problems – they require many people with distinct skill sets to specialize in what they know and contribute what they can towards an end goal.

The report from Graesser and his colleagues was inspired by the results of the 2015 PISA Volume V survey. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is an assessment done every three years to judge the skills and abilities of students in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. For the 2015 survey, PISA took a special focus into looking into the collaborative problem solving skills of students around the world. Their investigation into CPS skills looked at student’s abilities to “maintain an awareness of group dynamics, ensure team members act in accordance with their agreed-upon roles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts while identifying efficient pathways and monitoring progress towards a solution.” Their results show that on average across OECD countries, only 8% are “top performers” at the skills outlined above, and that 28% of students are only able to work well in very straightforward collaborative scenarios. They stress that, overall, CPS skills are largely underdeveloped around the world, and that, with the ever-growing modern need for successful social skills to use in collaborative work environments, schools need to need to adopt practices that foster better and more well-rounded CPS skills in their students. If you would like to read more into the results of this study, click here to read the 2015 PISA report. It contains many fascinating insights, but is roughly 300 pages long and, therefore, a lot to summarize in one whole blog post, let alone this paragraph. I suggest you read it if you have the time and curiosity. 

Graesser and colleagues saw this international deficit in CPS skills described by the PISA survey, and they set out to lay down multidisciplinary approaches for studying CPS and developing teaching strategies (“pedagogies”) for encouraging their development in schools. In their words, “we are nearly at ground zero in identifying pedagogical approaches to improving CPS skills.”

Their report further defined the characteristics of CPS using the following four criteria:

  • Ability to Solve Novel Problems: Those in a group must have the ability to develop plans for solving unique problem with a distinct starting point and end goal.
  • Ability to Evaluate the Quality of the Solution: Those with high CPS skills should be able to continually asses where the group stands in relation to the completion of the goal and achieving a quality solution to the group problem. All group members must understand their accountability to the group.
  • Differentiation of Roles: Problems requiring high CPS skills are generally problems where each member of a group will be required to tackle a unique aspect of the task separate from the individual work of the other group members.
  • Interdependency: Groups depending on CPS skills must be dependent on the other members of the group. All members of the group should bring some unique skill to the table and be able to synthesize their efforts into a cohesive solution.

In the report, they draw together work in a multitude of fields that they believe will be important to discuss when embarking on the budding field of CPS research and curriculum development. This research comes from fields ranging from business, psychology, education, computer science, and more. The goal of the report, ultimately, was to encourage psychologists to conduct basic research and to work in “interdisciplinary teams that use CPS to reach productive ends.” Though the individual research they asses is wide in its breadth (read all of it in the report here), they point out five distinct goals psychological scientists should have when working towards planning programs to better develop CPS skills going forward:

  1. Psychologists must partner with stakeholders in the international community and workforce in order to better analyze CPS mechanisms, find frequent problems caused by inadequate CPS skills, and develop methods for solving these problems.
  2. Psychologists must actively be a part of the national and international conversations regarding the development CPS training in school and the workplace.
  3. Psychologists need to sort through the body of research on “team science” and assess how much of it is applicable to CPS. Much of the research on “team science” involves study into group work, work, memory, and decision making, and sorting through it all to find what is important to CPS research will take the combined efforts of psychologists.
  4. Certain digital technologies show promise in providing better ways to assess CPS skills in large samples of groups. Psychologists should collaborate with these developers to design better software for assessing CPS skills for research.
  5. There needs to be a research program developed that investigates developing curricula for students and teachers that teaches CPS skills more effectively.

Though they did a fairly comprehensive look into the current research on the topic, the researchers behind the report urge the world to begin working towards solving the worldwide CPS-deficit evident in the 2015 PISA survey. In an accompanying commentary to the Graesser report, cognitive development expert Mary Gauvain of the University of California, Riverside further lays out the suggested goals for psychologists by emphasizing that their research must lean on a developmental approach to their studies. This developmental approach is essential, she says, because students learn new skills in different ways depending on their age. To this point, she explains that the PISA used by Graesser and his colleagues only studied 15-year old students. Because of this, developmental perspectives on the issue are lacking.

Collaborative problem solving is a large topic that is difficult to sum up here. The world is clearly lacking in CPS skills at a time when they are becoming more and more integral to the workplace. As pointed out in the report from Graesser:

“Successful collaboration can be threatened by a social loafer, an uncooperative unskilled member, or a counterproductive alliance, whereas it can be facilitated by a strong team member who draws out different perspectives, helps negotiate conflicts, assigns roles, promotes team communication, and guides the team to overcome troublesome obstacles.”

With that said, CPS skill will only become more important going forward, and the report from Graesser and colleagues will undoubtedly lay the groundwork for the field of research as it develops. Hopefully soon, our nation’s students will have curricula in place to build better collaborative social skills. These curricula will build a stronger workforce, and I think this is a great thing, as we can all learn to work together a little better.

 

Flipped Classroom:

One other idea I came across this week is the idea of the “flipped classroom.” Though this is not a new idea (some have been pushing it since the late ‘90s), the NSTA Blog recently published a reflection on the topic of flipped classrooms that spurred my interest in learning about them. I want to talk about my thoughts on the reflection on the NSTA Blog, but, first, I am going to need to explain what a “flipped classroom” or “flipped learning” is.

If you think about how a standard classroom would look, it would probably look something like this: The teacher stands in front of the class and delivers a lecture over the a new subject, and then, at the end of class, the teacher assigns homework for students to complete outside of the classroom and prove that they absorbed the lessons of the day. Flipped learning is exactly what it sounds like – the typical classroom structure is flipped. Teachers assign video lectures or reading for students to do at home with the goal in mind of giving them first exposure to a topic before class time. This, in theory, allows teachers to then spend class time focusing on promoting understanding and higher-level application of lesson concepts. Read more about what a “flipped classroom” is and looks like in this article posted on Vanderbilt University’s website.

The reflection of the NSTA blog provides several examples of how teachers around the country implement flipped classrooms. Two such examples include David Osmond of the University of North Georgia and Terrie Hunter of Horseheads High School in New York. Osmond’s “flipped classroom” model uses the SciPacks offered by the NSTA to provide students learning modules to do at home. He then spends class doing activities that reinforce the lessons of the module. Him and his colleague Donna Governor content that this strategy allows them to reduce lectures (which they view to be largely ineffective), relax deadlines, and give students immediate feedback on how they are applying the concepts of the lesson. Hunter, on the other hand, assigns a video lesson and a brainteaser or relevant TED talk for after-class work, and asks them to engage with the video before class with simple questions she assigns. She then uses Google Forms to create free online surveys that allow her to assess how well her students understood the material before she tries to engage students with the lesson in-depth during class. She says that this model gives her more time for labs, and allows for students to make mistakes that they can learn from as the teacher “coaches” them through applying the last night's lesson. The reflection offers up more examples of this method and you should check it out here on the NSTA blog.

This educational technique caught my eye because it sounded like something that I would have appreciated as a child in school. I always enjoyed learning at my own pace and digging into subjects by asking the teacher a ton of questions during lecture. This technique would have allowed me to learn on my own at home and develop a better understanding during class. I always had a distaste for classes that would teach a base understanding of a lesson during class and would surprise me with difficult homework questions that forced me to attempt difficult applications of the lesson without in-person assistance. Though this system wouldn’t have eradicated homework for me, it would have allowed me to spend that time at home learning instead of struggling (and sometimes failing) to understand the lesson applications at home. I also think that this flipped classroom technique could pair nicely with phenomenon-based learning techniques, as the flipped structure allows more time in class to look into phenomena with hands-on labs. Overall, these classrooms designs seem interesting and I hope that their further implementation will help ensure that all students go to school in the most conducive learning environment possible.

 

Conclusion:

Teaching pedagogies are tough concepts for me to grasp, but I love to learn about how we are planning to help future generations grow up to be smarter and more well-rounded than we are today. In the case of collaborative problem solving, it seems obvious to me that collaboration is already an essential skill in life, and it makes me happy to see that scientists are now working on ways to instill these skills into everyone from a young age. As for flipped learning, I love reading about successes in unorthodox ways of teaching. I am interested to see how flipped classrooms evolve.

Have you taught or been taught in a flipped classroom? Do you notice the need for more collaborative problem solving skills in your students or your workplace? Do you as a teacher or employer do anything to try and instill these skills in the people you’re in charge of? Please let me know in the comments below!

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One more thing I need to mention before I go: Last Wednesday, February 13th, officially marked the end of NASA’s Opportunity Rover. Landing on the red planet on January 24, 2004, the solar powered Opportunity Rover was only designed to explore the planet’s surface for 90 days. Defying all odds, however, Opportunity carried out countless valuable exploratory missions for over 14 years until we lost contact with it after a large dust storm surrounded its location in June 2018. After over a thousand attempts to restore contact, NASA made one last fruitless attempt before ending the mission last week. When our astronauts eventually step foot on Mars, they will owe a lot to the work laid down by the Opportunity Rover. So, to the little-robot-that-could, we thank you.

 

Written By: Jacob Monash


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