Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Deeper Learning: A Collaborative Classroom Is Key

What's ideal when it comes to collaboration in our classrooms? Here's one coveted scenario: several children gathered at a table engaged in a high-level task, discussing, possibly debating an issue, making shared decisions, and designing a product that demonstrates all this deeper learning.

As teachers, we'd love to see this right out the gate, but this sort of sophisticated teamwork takes scaffolding. It won't just happen by placing students together with a piece of provocative text or an engaging task. (Heck, this deeper learning collaboration is challenging for most adults!)

In preparing our students for college and careers, 21st century skills call on us to develop highly collaborative citizens -- it's one of the 4 Cs, after all.

So how do we begin this scaffolded journey? Once we've shared with students the task or assessment they are challenged to complete with their group, here's some suggested steps for supporting students in deep and meaningful collaboration:

Establish Group Agreements

Deciding on group norms, or agreements, right at the get go will give each student a voice and provide accountability for all. Although the Center for Adaptive Schools' Seven Norms of Collaboration are to be used with adult groups, use them to inspire more "kid-friendly" worded norms to offer up to your students. Children (depending on the age) might come up with things like: "one person talks at a time," "respect each other and all ideas," and "no put downs." A poster of the shared agreements can be displayed and when necessary, called attention to when a student or group needs a reminder.

Accountability is an important factor in group working agreements. Since a teacher must find creative and effective ways to monitor multiple groups working at once in the classroom, assigning roles can be incredibly helpful. For example, if students are working in a group of four reading and analyzing an article, say, on immigration reform in the United States, you may have "an investigator," "a recorder," "a discussion director," and "a reporter." For the group to be successful, each child must complete the jobs that accompany his/her role.

Teach Them How to Listen

Good listeners are both rare and valued in our culture. I share this with students. I also share how people who really listen (make eye contact, offer empathy, restrain from cutting others off in a conversation) are easy to like and respect.

Save The Last Word is a great activity that allows students to practice listening. Provide several rounds of this structured activity followed by time for students to reflect on the experience and evaluate their own listening skills.

Children also need opportunities to restrain themselves from speaking in order to keep their attention on listening. Consider adding "Three then Me" to the class norms/agreements. This simply means that before one can speak again, they need to wait for three others to share first.

Teach Them the Art of Asking Good Questions

Have the class generate questions on any given topic, writing each one on the board. Decide on the most pressing and interesting questions of the bunch and discuss with students what makes these particular ones stand out. Talk about the types of questions that more often yield the best responses -- those that are open-ended, thoughtful and sometimes even daring.

Describe how well-received questions are neutral and don't sound as if someone is being interrogated. Introduce them to invitational questions stems such as, "When you think about ______, what comes to mind?" and, "Considering what we already know about ______, how will we ____?" As a scaffold, provide a handout with question starters for students to use during group discussions.

Students also need to know about wait time. Explain -- better yet, demonstrate -- that once someone in the group poses a question, there needs to be a few seconds of silence, giving everyone time to think.

Teach Them How To Negotiate

A group member who speaks the loudest and frequently asserts may get the most said but that doesn't mean they'll convince a group of anything. A good negotiator listens well, shows patience and flexibility, points out shared ideas and areas of group agreement, and thinks under pressure.

After sharing this list with students, generate together more characteristics to add to it. Indulge them in a brief activity called "Build a Consensus." In this activity, set the timer and give mere minutes to group plan a mock birthday party, fieldtrip, or a lunchtime meal so they can practice their negotiation skills.

Model What We Expect

When it comes to creating a highly collaborative classroom, teachers need to model listening, paraphrasing, artful questioning and negotiation any and every chance they get. In a student-centered classroom, we really do very little actual teaching (in the traditional sense of the word). What we find ourselves mostly doing is facilitating learning experiences for whole and smaller groups. Sending our students out in the world with the incredible ability to effectively facilitate a group is a 21st century skill crucial to success in the university and the work world.

This reminds me of the design company IDEO. An employee there was promoted to guide a team in redesigning the shopping cart not because of seniority but because "he's good with groups." Ultimately, this guy was highly skilled at creating a space for all ideas to be heard, respected, and built on.

Group Brain Power

Learning, and higher-level learning such as synthesizing information from several documents or analyzing scientific data, can hit much deeper when done collaboratively. Let's not forget Lev Vygotsky and his educational theory that proposes learning as a social process. And if he were alive today, he would most likely agree with the saying, Two minds are better than one. He might even add, "Better yet, how about three or four?"

What strategies and activities help you develop student groups? In what ways has collaboration driven deeper learning in your classroom? Please share with us your successes.

This blog series on Deeper Learning is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Deeper Learning Blog Series

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mrs. Skaggs's picture
Mrs. Skaggs
2nd Grade Teacher in an Expanded Collaborative Classroom

Would love for you to check out our blog! www.2ndgradeecpclassroom.blogspot.com While my partner teacher and I both have many years of teaching experience under our belts, this is our first year of teaching an "Expanded Collaborative Classroom", which consists of essentially two 2nd grade classes (41 students) and two teachers, in two classrooms that have been combined into one. We work as "one class" throughout the entire day. Please check out our blog for more details. It has been a very exciting experience!

Arunan's picture
Arunan
Visiting Scientist, Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education, TIFR,MuUmbai

[quote]Many thanks for the article, it's was very good to see the importance of collaborative learning and deeper understanding being emphasised, as these are two areas I have always tried to have at the forefront of my teaching practice.

I try to include cooperative learning activities in my lessons as often as I can and always use the roles:

The resource manager, the air traffic controller (in charge of who speaks when), the scribe and the encourager.

Once the students have been adequately trained in group work and know how to work together they do really enjoy further opportunities to work together solving puzzles I have made for them. Some of the discussions I have heard students having about maths have been amazing and could not have been facilitated using any textbook.

However, just like our students need training to work together in teams it is also important there is training for teachers to ensure they can create, facilitate and improve activities of this type for their students.[/quote][quote]Many thanks for the article, it's was very good to see the importance of collaborative learning and deeper understanding being emphasised, as these are two areas I have always tried to have at the forefront of my teaching practice.

I try to include cooperative learning activities in my lessons as often as I can and always use the roles:

The resource manager, the air traffic controller (in charge of who speaks when), the scribe and the encourager.

Once the students have been adequately trained in group work and know how to work together they do really enjoy further opportunities to work together solving puzzles I have made for them. Some of the discussions I have heard students having about maths have been amazing and could not have been facilitated using any textbook.

However, just like our students need training to work together in teams it is also important there is training for teachers to ensure they can create, facilitate and improve activities of this type for their students.[/quote]

Arunan's picture
Arunan
Visiting Scientist, Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education, TIFR,MuUmbai

A class room is full of youngsters/people waiting to collaborate. (Don't you see/hear students after they leave the program, saying with pride: "1992 Batch" or "2007 Batch", showing off an old group photo.). Yet, the teacher always tried to keep them separate and treat them as 'individuals', while in the class room! (The sanctity of evaluation may have been uppermost in the mind of that hapless teacher!)

A similar sickness is afflicting the large mass of teachers who are prevented by known and unknown forces from collaborating, though technology is in their favor! The Science of the Small World phenomena too is in their favor!
Teachers of the world, collaborate!

Jessie VanderBaan's picture

Collaboration is an essential part of learning and a very useful tool for teaching. In lessons that I have done and experienced in the past I have noticed that the students respond better to working in groups and are more interested in learning the information. Also allowing students to discuss an answer with a partner first can help to give them more confidence so they will be more willing to participate in a classroom discussion.

Sarah Russell's picture
Sarah Russell
I am a third grade teacher in Casa Grande, Arizona.

I agree that collaboration is a very important aspect of learning. This year I have really began practicing collaboration techniques with my students. In the past, I've just said a lot of "share with your partner" but we never discussed what the discussion should look like and sound like. Now my students know how to "speak like a scholar" as well as being "thinkers not just listeners" and now they are now learning how to respond. Communication is such an important skill. I love teaching it too! Kids say some adorable things. It melts my heart to hear them say "I respectfully disagree."

lbanaszak's picture

I think it if very difficult for students to work in groups. The more teachers model and give the students the opportunity to collaborate the better. This is a life skill that students need in order to be successful in any job and in life.

Tim's picture

I notice this article does not address how to help introverts overcome their natural issues with group work. Assigning roles and working as a classroom to generate jumping-off points for the smaller groups is great, but a true introvert will still have issues dealing with working in the group. As a leader of the group, they may do little to prevent the group from getting off topic. As a recorder, they are going to simply put down whatever they are told, which is good but they will have little input into the final report. Even as the speaker, an introvert may be difficult to hear or will not engage the rest of the class.
I know how introverts are. I was one. I overcame it thanks to support from my family, but many kids today lack that support. I am in no way saying collaborative learning isn't important; it is very important, but some students are going to have issues with it, and suggestions on how to help those students would be very beneficial.

AlexeaRay Youmans's picture

I agree that today's children do need a lot more help with collaborating, negotiating, and listening. With the amount of technology they are surrounded by on a daily basis I feel like the next generation is possibly losing the all important people skills. We as teacher's need to make sure that our students don't fall behind in the social skills department. And since I feel this way, I love this article! It has lots of things in it that I did while in school, but there are a few new, and great, ideas.

Michael Ramberg's picture

I thought that this was a great article. I really liked the idea of establishing group agreements. Too many times, students put down ideas or are afraid to throw out an idea or their opinion because they're afraid of getting put down or being called stupid. If the students come up with agreements like this, then they may be more likely to speak about how they feel. Even adults today need these agreements. Too many times working in groups, at work or wherever, tend to shy off on how they feel about a situation because they're afraid that their opinion is wrong. If we come to an agreement stating that opinions are never wrong then hopefully one day our students can express a great idea that they have.

Laura Poppenfuse's picture

I agree that communication is key in anything that you do. Whenever I am in the classroom and students are in groups, I always assign them their roles. Then we talk about it after and talk about what they did or didn't like about that. This allows them to process not only what they are thinking, but what others are thinking too. This is great practice for when they are sent out into the world and are put in a team.

blog Becoming a Listening Educator

Last comment 2 days 5 hours ago in Professional Development

blog Making School About Connection

Last comment 2 days 7 hours ago in Social and Emotional Learning

Discussion Finding That Spark: Keeping the Luster in Learning

Last comment 4 hours 56 min ago in Character Education

blog Debunking Homework Myths

Last comment 21 hours 49 min ago in Assessment

blog 6 Rules to Break for Better, Deeper Learning Outcomes

Last comment 22 hours 32 min ago in Teaching Strategies

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.