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Student Collaboration in the Classroom: Making it Happen!

In my last blog entry, I posed questions regarding what we want for our students and how we are designing interactions in the classroom to cultivate those characteristics in our students. One of my favorite presenters at the CS&IT Symposium was Megan Smith, Vice President of New Business Development and General Manager of Google.org. She spoke at length about interconnectivity, specifically as it related to "mobilizing" youth to change the world around them and how kids from all over the world were collaborating to accomplish that goal. Because of my own passion for social justice and the work I do with COMPUGIRLS out of Arizona State University, I found myself cheering (inwardly) at the prospect of incorporating social justice into computing classrooms. What better way to teach students to utilize computing in a way that is motivating and collaborative? Her talk made me think further about how we foster collaboration between students in the Computer Science classroom.

In my own experience as a teacher, any time anyone asked me what I wanted for my students, I always responded that I wanted them to be able to work as a team, to be able to collaborate and learn from one another. This always sounds like a great dream for our students, but it brings us back to one of our lessons from Google: How are classrooms designed in order to cultivate teamwork and collaboration in our students?

One way I've found to be effective in developing a collaborative classroom atmosphere comes from my days of teaching special education, as well as my current experiences working with COMPUGIRLS, a culturally relevant technology program for minority girls. In both settings, I strive to demonstrate that everyone in the classroom has expertise in something. It is the job of the teacher to connect that expertise to what is happening in the classroom and build it up! This is no easy task, as it removes the teacher from role of the omniscient knowledge dispenser and more toward a role of facilitator. In my classroom, each student acquired a title throughout the course of the year. Syd became "Super Speller" while Doreen was "Problem Solver Extraordinaire." I worked diligently to notice what each student was good at and celebrated that skill with his or her classmates by telling them to "go to the Super Speller" or "ask Problem Solver" instead of relying on me for answers. This developed a strong collaborative community, in which everyone, students and teachers alike, brought something to the table that everyone could learn from.

In COMPUGIRLS' classrooms, we have achieved a sense of community within the classroom through a very similar method that centers on the kids' use of technology. Each of the girls has demonstrated a capacity for different aspects of the technology we utilize. Some have shown a specific propensity for programming through our use of Scratch. Others have shown promise in the area of graphic design. As a teacher in that classroom, I know who can help their peers with design questions or programming questions and I direct them that way. I believe this method goes a long way in dispelling the myth of the lone computer programmer. It shows students that teamwork is valuable in all areas of learning, but also when you enter the workplace. In your own Computer Science classrooms, do you find yourself at the center of problem solving or are you able to divert those questions from students to their peers? What are some other ways to increase collaboration between students in Computer Science classroom?

Cynthia Mruczek
Doctoral Student
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
Arizona State University

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