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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Working with Students Who Have a Hard Time Collaborating

Robin Newton

English Education student at East Carolina University

You already know collaboration is essential to today's classroom -- especially in the age of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework (P21). Students who truly collaborate construct knowledge together. When we ask students to collaborate, we’re asking them to take responsibility for their learning.

Okay. You get it. Collaboration's important. But how do you motivate productive collaboration within your classroom? First, figure out what's going on with the uncollaborative student.

There are any number of reasons a student may not like to collaborate:

  • Collaboration may clash with her culture.
  • He simply may not understand the project or assignment.
  • She may be shy or introverted.

Cultural Differences

David A. Kolb -- he of the Learning Style Inventory -- and Simy Joy researched culturally divergent learning styles in 2009, concluding, "Culture has a significant effect in deciding a person's preference for abstract conceptualization versus concrete experience." Typically, students who learn via abstract conceptualization prefer solo work, while students who favor concrete experience enjoy working with others. Also, some students may be uncomfortable working closely with students of another sex or ethnicity (or a host of other potential "others"). Certainly, discrimination is not okay and has no place in the classroom. Instead, model inclusive behavior, create a classroom safe for learning, and immediately address issues.

"I Don't Understand"

This plea (or complaint) is as enigmatic as the Bermuda Triangle. First, ensure that your student isn't manifesting a learning disability. Then ascertain if the student's home language is the same one you're using in the classroom. With those two hurdles out of the way, you can begin to solve the confusion puzzle. Confusion can take many forms. Suzanne Plaut has classified these forms into four "facets of confusion:" nature, types, causes, and responses to confusion. Wow. Plaut's research led her to five conclusions:

  1. Students want teachers to strive to discern and address their confusions.
  2. Teachers should make deliberate use of all four information sources:
    • Cues that students send unawares
    • Signals they send intentionally
    • Their written work
    • Their thoughts
  3. Teachers and students can reflect on the role confusion plays in learning.
  4. Teachers' and students' conceptions of confusion may be subject-specific.
  5. Students' stated confusions about procedures may indicate deeper confusions about concepts or purposes.

Create a classroom wherein students are confident enough to express their confusion, and you are bold enough to explore their confusion.

Shy versus Introverted

I’ll bet you read this phrase at the beginning of the post and thought, "Aren't shyness and introversion the same thing?" Well, no. As succinctly defined by Susan Cain, "Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating." But, she adds, "You can also, of course, be both shy and an introvert." Because a shy student worries about embarrassment -- desperate, life-ending embarrassment -- establishing a classroom environment that safely encourages student interconnections may actually help that student perform socially. You can approach introversion similarly:

[Collaboration] should take place in small groups -- pairs or threesomes -- and be carefully structured so each child knows her role. Roger Johnson, co-director of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, says that shy or introverted kids benefit especially from well-managed small-group work because "they are usually very comfortable talking with one or two of their classmates to answer a question or complete a task . . ."

Indeed, the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota has practical advice for all the students in your classroom, not just the introverted ones.

Teachers already understand that they cannot just throw a bunch of students together and expect magic. Rather, a teacher must know his or her students well enough to understand the ways in which collaboration might be a struggle. And, as effective collaboration is a skill students must learn, the teacher has to work to ensure the time students spend together benefits each and every one of them.

Robin Newton

English Education student at East Carolina University
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Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Renee / TeachMoore's picture
Renee / TeachMoore
English teacher, Mississippi

I have many students who are highly resistant to collaboration. They view it as an act of abandonment by the teacher, a refusal to "do my job." They do not trust that they can learn anything meaningful through exploration or working with classmates. How have you and other teachers helped overcome this resistance.

Tom Donovan's picture
Tom Donovan
School District CTO

I would add that far too often, the task being assigned is not big enough that it couldn't be done by one person. As a result, the smartest/most motivated/biggest perfectionist in the group will do most of the important work and the others will go along, especially when the group gets a single grade.

Choosing meaningful tasks that truly require collective effort to achieve is, I believe, the starting point. After that, the points made by the author are critical to support individual students in the process.

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