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Deeper Learning: A Collaborative Classroom Is Key

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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

Kimball Coburn's picture
Kimball Coburn
Media Teacher

I think you are right on! A true collaborative environment leads to deeper learning. As you pointed out, that kind of environment takes work to create. Most of the students I get in my middle school media classes don't know how to handle the freedom and responsibility it takes to collaboratively create media projects. You talked about scaffolding and that takes a dynamic plan and patience. When things finally start coming together, it's exciting to see the results of that deeper thinking!

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

For the rest of their lives - throughout high school, college, and then in the workforce, students will participate in group projects in the form of study groups, research, business or sales teams, committees or boards. There's strength in numbers, but there's also conflict and frustration. Group projects can be fraught with personality conflicts, unequal workload distribution, and unresolved disagreements, leaving students with a negative impression of team activities. But, a group project experience can be an ideal way to teach middle school students real-life skills (and challenges) of team work and team building. Here's a link to a Group Project Organizer students can use to successfully manage their project.

Peter Todd's picture

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.

Anthony Kennedy Nzuki's picture
Anthony Kennedy Nzuki
Specialist in Gifted and Talented Education

I sincerely agree with you. Just attend an adult seminar or workshop of professionals and see how the art of collaborative action, learning, leadership etc can be elusive. You will notice domineering characters, withdrawn ones, distracted and disturbing participants just to mention a few. I think if the art of collaborative learning was mastered in formative years we can have more functional systems and structures, better engaged workers, participatory leadership and not despots, democratic systems and so on.

I just wonder how many of us got this kind of formation as teachers and whether we are not just mirroring our training. However learning is a continuous process and often takes humility and practical appraisal of what one can and can't do.

All said and done, I have a sneaky sympathy for my Kenyan(read Africa) colleagues who have to man mammoth classes. In primary schools some class have even 100 pupils! Call it crazy but there you are. Often one teacher has to teacher various subjects to a huge class with basic limited resources like textbooks. Secondary schools are better because you will be lucky to handle 40 students in a class. However grim, we have to try and practice collaboration.

For some ideas please get in touch with me on If I am not able to respond to your concerns especially in the African context which am biased to, I will be sure to refer you to someone who can.

2tabbies's picture

Although collaboration is a skill we expect and need from our students it is good to understand the need of many students to work independently. I am reading "Quiet, Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking". Introverts have accomplished much indenpendently in the world - Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ghandi etc.. We need to structure our groups and structure our school day and assignments with them in mind. I think if you are going to best teach collaboration as a skill and make it successful, understanding our personalities and their integral needs is crucial. I highly recommend this book to educators.

Steven Rookwood's picture
Steven Rookwood
Second grade teacher from Baltimore, Maryland

I do agree that collaboration is key to success in the classroom. Each student comes from a different background, has different skills and has a different perspective so they learn from each other. This is a great way to let ideas flow in the classroom and get the children to think creatively. Thanks for the tips about teaching the students how to negotiate. It is often difficult for them to compromise and be flexible to make sure that everyone in the group has a voice.

Robin Johnston's picture
Robin Johnston
Administrator at large

I agree with your main ideas and these are some good scaffolding suggestions, too.

I think it is important to think of teaching as an activity that involves lots of methods and an ability to vary methods as needed by the situation. Collaboration is great but if that is all you do, you are missing out on other kinds of learning. As someone else pointed out, students need opportunities to learn independently as well, and to learn through writing, etc. To say you are not really teaching in the traditional sense baffles me. Facilitating collaboration is an important kind of teaching and always has been. It is nothing new. To do that and nothing else perhaps is not teaching in traditional sense, as a teacher uses any method she needs to meet her objectives. Working in groups is only one of many, I would think.

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