Considering Collaboration? Answer These 4 Questions First
A few years ago I found myself in the middle of an aisle at the home improvement store acquiring some tools I needed for a job around the house. In the moment, I didn’t make the connection to my classroom, but I later realized how I don’t usually go to the store to buy tools that I don’t need. When a home repair presents itself I am willing and motivated to go find the tools I need to solve the problem at hand. This is typically the exact opposite experience that students have in our classrooms. Our students come to school every day and are sold tools they don’t see the need for in the current moment. As I was realizing this, I was beginning to implement project-based learning experiences in my classroom. I’ll admit I was struggling to get students to put forth the effort to solve real-world problems in addition to those skills built into my curriculum.
How do you engage students in collaboration?
What I learned is that motivating students toward collaboration starts with task design. I need to present a problem interesting enough, important enough, big enough, or relevant enough that students find it worth acquiring the tools needed to solve. Without this, collaboration is unnecessary and attempts to promote it seem more like coercion. Our students are people too, so they’re often good at finding the easiest way to get the job done. If that means doing a project or assignment alone, then collaboration is actually a barrier to success instead of a catalyst because it’s an unnecessary tool. Tasks that take more than one skill set to achieve are helpful. Creativity, organization, planning, and public speaking should be necessary for most of the collaborative tasks we assign – that way it’s not easy to complete tasks or independently solve the problem well. If the challenge is big enough that collaboration is a necessary tool for success, then planning to motivate students toward collaboration becomes more manageable.
How do you plan for collaboration?
It was really helpful when I started to plan collaborative experiences based on student strengths. I can’t overstate this focus. As the school year progresses, you’ll know more about each of your students, so plan to keep giving them opportunities to put these strengths to work via collaboration. Notice I didn’t include weaknesses as a focus when planning collaboration. That’s been essential for me in building a collaborative environment in my classroom. Collaboration won’t be as effective if students are made to show their weaknesses in front of their peers. This doesn’t happen professionally, and it can be even more detrimental in the experience of a child. In the home repair analogy, it’s equivalent to calling a barista from the local coffee shop to come help with an electrical issue in your home, then posting a negative Yelp! review about their ability to rewire a light.
Collaboration is a broad category that includes subcategories like communication, listening, time management, and organization, to name a few. Decide what’s important to you and integrate each of these subcategories as explicit teaching points before you expect students to collaborate successfully. For me, deciding on a routine process for collaborative work was necessary, and using the Education Elements Framework for Collaborative Learning has been tremendously beneficial. I structure all my projects on this framework so students know the process to support their learning and guide the interactions I want to lead them into. This has helped my students become better collaborators throughout my year with them. Think of it as using a gradual release of responsibility model applied to teaching collaboration. If you are able to design multiple opportunities for collaborative experiences throughout your year with students, then they’ll begin to apply those skills to different situations.
What is the teacher's role during collaboration?
It is important to visualize what good collaboration looks like, but you’ll want to systematize it as well. If you know what behaviors you want your students to display, you’ll be able to point to them as an exemplary model. Your role as a teacher during collaboration is to have students identifying what works, then reflect and make changes to close the gap between current practice and mastery. It may seem too simple, but when students are exposed enough times to the right way of doing things they’ll adopt the practice. I developed a “single-column” collaboration rubric that I use for all my projects. Expectations for collaboration are consistent and specifically tied to the expectations we set for our class at the beginning of the year. That way, every time we reflect and evaluate our collaborative performance it bolsters our classroom expectations and advances our core purposes. This makes collaboration a cultural norm.
It’s also important to note that conflict will arise. It also helps to know the root causes of faulty communication. I could write a whole lot about my failure and growth with this, but I’ll spare you. I’ve learned that conflict arises mainly because we can’t articulate our actual thoughts properly. So when I see conflict, I keep asking explicit questions like: What do you need to know? What are you trying to communicate? What is your goal in this conversation? These break down the miscommunication a lot faster for me than questions like: What seems to be the problem here? What’s wrong? or, Why are you arguing?
How do you engage your community to invest in collaboration?
I created my own problems for students to solve for a while. They were clunky and only somewhat based in reality, but I had to start somewhere. Later, I started getting my peers at work involved. We started aligning our curriculums where it made sense, which helped me gain energy and created opportunities to spread the word about collaboration practices. Then I started asking friends outside of education to get involved. I bet the case is the same for you, that you have a lot of people in your network of friends that do interesting work – so start asking around. Find out which of your friends value education. Some won’t, but those that do love taking the opportunity to make a difference by getting involved in classroom projects. Local business owners, board members, community centers, and museums are a few ideas that have worked for me. The hope is to find a person who does work that your content can be applied to. Brainstorming and collaborating with others will go a long way to helping design real-world scenario tasks that foster collaboration. And because you’ve made a real connection between content and life, students’ motivation to collaborate and solve hard problems increases.
As I reflect back, the path to a collaborative classroom has been winding but there are actionable steps that have helped me transform collaboration in the classroom. If we start with worthy tasks that engage students, we will increase engagement. The same can be said for helping our students play to their own strengths by consistently modeling and enforcing the component skills of collaboration. Armed with these tools, we're ready for our own renovation: one that brings collaboration to the forefront. You’ve got this!
Check out the Framework for Collaborative Learning to help you set up the right systems and processes to boost engagement.