by Gary Fertig
This article uses a familiar item of technology-the bicycle-as the basis for teaching elementary school students skills of collaborative decision making. It is premised on the belief that young learners can help one another construct meaningful interpretations of experience through group tasks that require decisions.1 Members of effective decision making groups "collaborate" by sharing information, explaining concepts and relationships to each other, and thinking about problems from various disciplinary and cultural perspectives. Young learners cannot be expected to interact automatically in terms of such behaviors; rather, they need instruction specifically designed to teach interpersonal communication skills.2 This article presents guidelines for teaching such skills as students engage in investigation of the bicycle.
Engaging Students' Interest and Motivation
Arrange for volunteers to bring a "road bike" and a "mountain bike" into the classroom for students to compare and contrast. Initially, teachers may want to model this thinking process: "I see that both bikes have two tires, but the tires on the road bike are not exactly the same as the tires on the mountain bike." Ask students to describe how the road bike's tires are "similar to" and "different from" the mountain bike's tires. Continue comparing and contrasting the two bicycles until students are confident they can distinguish "road bikes" from "mountain bikes" based on an analysis of such features as: shape of the handlebars, position of the brake-levers, type of seat, and number of gears. Record students' observations on a T-chart (see Figure 1). After the T-chart has been completed, ask students to explain why they think the two bicycles are equipped with different features: "Now that we know how road bikes and mountain bikes are both similar and different, why do you think road bikes have thin, smooth tires and mountain bikes have wide, knobby tires? Think about where each type of bike is usually ridden. Which features would help you travel over smooth paved road and which features would help you ride up and down a steep and bumpy mountain trail?"
Most children are familiar with a variety of bicycle models, and would probably disagree with the statement that "road bikes and mountain bikes are the only kinds of bicycles ridden to our school." As a class, identify a third kind of bicycle and record its distinguishing features on the T-chart. For example, a group of third graders with whom the author conducted this investigation stated that "banana bikes" were very popular. Banana bikes, I was informed, are usually smaller than road bikes and mountain bikes, are brightly colored, have "banana-shaped" seats, and feature "high-rise" or "ape-hanger" handlebars. For these third graders, then, "banana bikes" represented a separate and distinct "kind of bicycle" that would need to be considered along with road bikes and mountain bikes in order to account for all the different kinds of bicycles ridden to their school.
Preparing for the Investigation
Announce to the class that "each of you will be working with a teammate to investigate the different kinds of bicycles ridden to school. Teammates will have to help each other decide how to classify each bicycle your team is assigned into one of the three bicycle categories described on our T-chart. First, however, we need to prepare for this investigation by practicing some guidelines for making good team decisions." Create two-member teams and distribute one "checklist for classifying bicycles" to each team (see Figure 2). Teammates classify a bicycle by writing its name along the left-hand column of the checklist; in the right-hand column of the checklist, teammates explain why they classified the bicycle into one of the three categories by referring to its distinctive features. During the investigation, students may encounter bicycles that do not fit "neatly" into any one of the three categories on the checklist. Deciding how to classify "problematic cases" can lead to controversy between teammates. Controversy is a constructive learning experience when individuals challenge each other's understandings, explore and discover new ways of conceptualizing problems and solutions, and decide as a group which solution is best. Unfortunately, controversy can be unproductive and emotionally distressing for students when group discussions are dominated by interpersonal conflict, such as "name calling" and "put downs." Thus, students must make a conscious effort to focus their thoughts, comment on each other's ideas, and refuse to engage in mean-spirited argument.
Teammates can help each other concentrate on ideas and avoid interpersonal conflict by following these guidelines for collaborative decision making:
After discussing the guidelines with students, display a picture or provide an example of a bicycle that is difficult to classify and, therefore, has potential for creating controversy. Invite a student to help you model for the class how teammates should discuss the classification of this bicycle using the guidelines for collaborative decision making. After each modeling session, ask students to describe how the guidelines were used by members of the modeling group. Finally, display additional pictures or examples of different types of bicycles for all teams to classify. As teammates practice classifying the bicycles on their checklists using the guidelines, circulate around the room and provide "coaching" as needed.
Conducting the Investigation
Each team of students should be given the following materials: (a) a checklist for classifying bicycles, (b) a copy of the class T-chart listing the distinguishing features of three different types of bicycles, and (c) a set of the guidelines for collaborative decision making. Be prepared to assign each team a designated group of bicycles to classify. During the investigation, students should remain in their teams, use the T-chart of distinguishing features to help them make classification decisions, and encourage each other to follow the guidelines for collaborative decision making. Notice that at the top left-hand side of the checklist there is a blank space for creating a fourth bicycle category. This option may be used by any team that consistently encounters a type of bicycle for which no appropriate category is believed to exist - such as "BMX Racers" or "Dirt Bikes."
Reflecting on the Investigation
Upon completing the investigation, teammates should be given the opportunity to discuss their experiences and share these reflections with the rest of the class. This "group processing" activity3 may be structured by asking students to reflect on specific aspects of the investigation. For example: "What kind of bicycle did your team find most common? Why do you think this kind of bicycle is so popular? Which bicycles were the most difficult for your team to classify? How well were you able to use the guidelines for collaborative decision making?" Have each team summarize their bicycle data in the form of a "bar chart" (see Figure 3). Students can create titles for their bar charts, color-code the bars to represent different kinds of bicycles, use bicycle symbols to construct the bars, and write a number at the top of each bar to indicate how many bicycles of that type were classified. Next, each team in the class reads the information from their bar chart to the teacher, who records these findings to compile a "whole-class data set." For example:
"Our research teams counted a total of 70 bicycles parked around the school. We classified each one of these 70 bicycles as belonging to one of four possible categories. There were 25 road bikes, 20 mountain bikes, 15 banana bikes, and 10 'other kinds' of bikes." Using the whole-class data set, each team writes a final research report and presents these findings to the class. Once again, teachers may wish to structure the content of students' reports by having them focus on certain aspects of the investigation. For example: "Construct a bar chart that summarizes the whole-class data set, and then display these data using a pie chart (circle graph) containing percentages and fractions" or "Compare and contrast the data collected by your team with the whole-class data set; in what ways were your team's findings similar to and different from the whole-class findings?"
Students might enjoy predicting the personal characteristics and interests of people who ride certain kinds of bicycles. A questionnaire could be designed by students and administered on a school-wide basis for the purpose of confirming or refuting the accuracy of their predictions. Teammates should continue following the guidelines for collaborative decision making as they determine what information to include in their reports and how to present their team's major findings to the rest of the class in a creative and interesting way.
Enhancing Collaborative Decision Making Across the Curriculum
Using the guidelines presented in this article, children can begin to establish in their groups the kind of positive emotional climate that facilitates collaborative decision making and knowledge construction. The guidelines are not subject-specific and may be used in any situation where children are collaborating to make decisions. Initially, working in groups of two usually proves to be the most manageable arrangement for both students and teachers; in addition, collaborative decision making can be practiced more intensively in pairs than in larger groups. To promote collaborative decision making, teachers should also consider the nature of a group's task. Tasks that involve a variety of different activities help to ensure that all group members have a chance to contribute their ideas, skills, and talents. Also, group tasks that feature problems with multiple solutions generally provide greater opportunities for collaborative decision making than do tasks featuring problems with a single, correct answer.
Finally, group tasks need not be considered contrived or "unauthentic" simply because they appeal to students' interests. The thinking processes and collaborative skills that children can learn to apply while investigating topics they find interesting are similar to the kinds of thinking and collaboration employed by citizens of a democracy when making decisions related to the formation of public policy.
1.J. Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child (New York: Humanities Press, 1967); L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).
2.E. G. Cohen, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1994); D. W. Johnson and F. P. Johnson, Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991); Y. Sharan and S. Sharan, Expanding Cooperative Learning through Group Investigation (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992).
3.Johnson and Johnson.
About the Author
Gary Fertig is an assistant professor in the School for the Study of Teaching and Teacher Education of the College of Education, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley.
Please do not cite or quote without the author's permission.