Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More on Learning as a Community: How Google Docs can Redefine the Roles of Class Discussion for Teachers and Shy Kids Alike

Matt Knauf recently posted on his blog his observations when he visited my class last week. He came in on a great day because I was doing something completely new, and it could have ended disastrously. Last post I indicated that I’d be sharing methods and ideas for how to get students to learn together, to study for each other, and to think more collaboratively. This will be the 2nd installment in that conversation: 

Joel teaching Oakridge students
When my colleague at Greenhill, Mr. Joel Garza, guest-taught my class a couple years ago, he employed the simplest tactic to generate a fruitful, student-driven discussion with teenagers he’d never met before. It was this simple: he divided the room into two groups prompted by the discussion topic at hand: one group was the “this is what I know about X discussion starter” while the other group was the “what I need to know to discuss X conversation starter is this.” One group focused on their proficiencies while the other one discussed their deficiencies in relation to the relevant topic. When they came together, Joel and I just got out of the way: the students took care of the rest, as they discussed, thought, and problem-solved for each other. The framework inspired me to think more strategically about ways to pair/group students together to teach, think, and learn for each other, which led me to the experiment that Matt Knauf describes in his post

We were reading Lord of the Flies, and students were about to enter class for a day of good ol’ seminar-style discussion. I was hesitant though; I didn’t want to facilitate a typical roundtable discussion for some very good reasons: (1) I talk too much (and let’s admit it, it’s hard not to) and (2) the quiet kids don’t get to sound their voice as readily in a conventional discussion-based learning scenario. So how could I factor me out of the equation while bringing the shy students in? The day before our discussion, I set up a google doc with five discussion questions; it looked something like this:

The homework assignment was simple: get on the google doc, choose one question that you are confident to say something about by putting your initials next to it followed by a plus sign, and finally choose one question that you need clarified or explained in more detail by putting your initials next to it followed by a minus sign. This forced students to absorb the questions, think about them, and psychologically get in the mindset to be ready to talk about (at least) one of them for the next day’s discussion. It also gave me instant feedback on what would be the most strategic ways to divide students into groups for a collaborative, multi-directional discussion. 

What happened next: first take a look at the final product from 3rd period here. Immediately, certain things became clear about the questions. For instance, I saw there was a need for me to play a more traditional role as teacher for question 2 (because there were only minus signs next to it), but their feedback on #2 also got me thinking more reflectively about the quality of the question in the first place, signaling to me that a new approach may be needed for that given topic. It was also immediately clear that I should step off the stage for question 5 (where there were only plus signs). The students wanted to speak on that one, so I handed class over to them while I served as scribe, recording their negotiated, collective answers.

For questions 1, 3, and 4, we divided into 3 groups (and I tried to make it as strategically organized as possible, making sure those who had plus signs for a given question were matched with some who had supplied minus signs), and what happened next was described well by Matt Knauf:

What is really interesting about this, is that these are students, who in a large group, would not otherwise freely give their answers.  They are a little shy.  However, the Google Doc, and the small group work, helped give them the confidence to answer the questions, and collaborate in small groups.  Jared told me that there was more great discussion going on in the groups than he anticipated from this batch of students.

What Matt describes so well was the intention of the assignment: namely, to get kids to teach each other, to think together, to problem-solve for each other, and it was really rewarding to see the shier students speaking up and even assuming leadership. What I was not anticipating was to have an immediate student-to-teacher feedback loop which made clear what questions were good ones, what topics needed my intervention or guidance, and what are the occasions where I just needed to get out of their way. 

It’s a simple method, but it redefines (or at least modifies) the dynamics of a learning community (as well as the roles played by the people involved) in the conventional classroom setting.

More on transcending isolation later...

-Jared Colley


  1. You're right--simple, focused, student-driven, and easily save-able! Thanks for the tip, Jared!

  2. A lot of these ideas were born out of collaborative engagements with other teachers such as yourself. I used words like "modify" and "redefine" with the SAMR model in mind (, and I really believe that for us as educators to reach the levels of modification and redefinition we have to collaborate, crowd source, and share ideas.

  3. I love the way in which you have laid this out. You had no illusions that what you were doing was more than a well educated guess as to how students would react. The example says it all, though. The discussion points that you would have liked them to get to, they approached of their own accord. The data you needed to make your instructional decisions was not an assessment, but was rather stating a preference or reflecting upong their own knowledge. I think this is phenomenal.

    You are allowing students to take on a role of facilitator and differentiator. You are giving them the responsibility for creating the discusion and for furthering their inquiry. I think the most powerful aspect of this lesson wasn't necessarily the technology of the Google Doc, but rather in the way that you allowed them to time-shift their participation to emphasize their preparation for the discussion. By allowing them to "claim" a spot, you were giving them an opportunity to preview what they were going to say and try it out even before the class started. Nice work!

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here: