George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

A 4 Step Approach to Planning Collaborative Experiential Learning

Teachers can guide high school students to be active participants in their learning by having them work together on authentic tasks.

April 21, 2022
High school students working in small groups in classroom
Maskot / Alamy

We know that students learn from action and reflection. Why is it, then, that so many classrooms treat students as passive recipients rather than active agents? 

School can be so much more than predictable lectures and routine tasks. But shifting what students experience can be challenging for teachers. When students are positioned as active players in their learning experience—through authentic projects, student-led inquiries, team challenges, and experiential learning—educators forfeit much of the control, predictability, and comfort they may be accustomed to.

To navigate the challenges of relinquishing control, educators can think about four phases of planning and facilitating experiential collaborative learning experiences and address seven questions as they design and facilitate learning.

Phase 1: Determine the Purpose 

Establish learning goals: What are the goals for student learning?

Consider the key knowledge, skills, mindsets, and dispositions that represent the learning goals for the experience. These goals may extend beyond traditional content knowledge goals and into more sophisticated disciplinary practices, such as historical inquiry or mathematical argumentation, as well as goals related to social and emotional mindsets and skills, such as engaging in a productive collaboration with peers and making personal connections to the topic. 

Only by getting clear with these goals is it possible to make principled and effective design and facilitation choices later on. After all, different learning goals will require different design choices, different criteria for when a teacher should intervene (or not), and different reflection questions and supports.

Phase 2: Establish the Context

Keep it real: What’s the authentic experience that provides the context for learning?

Teachers can begin to design an authentic experience by considering the various authentic elements of the experience, including the role that students will take on, the problem they will explore, the personal connections they’ll make, the product they’ll produce, and the impact they’ll have. For example, students can take on the role of a scientist as they observe the natural phenomenon of ice melting while placed on different surfaces, design investigations to test their hypotheses, and produce real scientific findings to share with others.

Design for collaboration: How will the experience support and encourage students to collaborate?

Consider a civics class where student groups are tasked to research a specific topic and prepare a presentation for the class. While this sort of group project follows a familiar structure, students may not see how a group effort would benefit their work, other than delegating different parts of the project to different members of the team. Now consider a project that is designed with collaboration in mind. In this case, students must work together to collectively define a problem of local community concern; research, explore, and analyze options for how to address the problem; reach a consensus on which option to pursue; and then engage in civic activities to promote or implement their solution. If teachers expect students to collaborate effectively, they need to be mindful that they are actually designing group-worthy tasks.

Phase 3: Orchestrate the Experience

Cultivate collaboration: What structures and supports will encourage equitable collaboration?

Collaboration is difficult, so educators must consider the types of structures and supports that will help students collaborate equitably and effectively. These supports may include utilizing team roles, supporting students to build and monitor team norms, equipping students with protocols to help structure their team processes, and providing opportunities for students to reflect on how they are working together

Intervene intentionally: When and how will I intervene in ways that support student learning? 

Imagine a group of students struggling to reach consensus on a key decision for their team project. With students’ frustration levels beginning to rise and their collaborative efforts beginning to break down, the teacher must decide whether or not to intervene. The teacher may closely observe the team to try to decipher whether the struggle is productive or not in relation to the primary learning goals. For example, if one of the learning goals is for students to build their capacity to synthesize multiple perspectives into a proposal, this struggle may in fact be a core component of the learning experience.  

When teachers do intervene, they should always strive for capacity-building interventions, not enabling interventions. In other words, does the teacher’s intervention build students’ capacity to solve similar problems in the future, or does the intervention build students’ reliance on the teacher? For instance, the teacher in the example above could offer the team a consensus-building protocol and support the students to use it themselves, rather than the teacher stepping in and taking over the group’s process. 

Students’ collaborative efforts may also be derailed by harmful power dynamics or troubling patterns of participation. Many of these patterns frequently occur along racial, gender, language, or other lines of difference. These challenges are clearly destructive to student learning and thus require thoughtful and assertive interventions by the teacher.

Phase 4: Facilitate the Debrief

Analyze and reflect: How will students reflect on their experience to surface big ideas?

Reflection is the process through which students make meaning of their experiences. Students can develop emerging intuitions and ideas that can be formalized and stabilized with the support of the teacher.

For example, while reflecting on a science project, students may develop some inclinations about the limitations of their investigation. These reflections can be the foundation from which the teacher helps students build their understanding of significant concepts within the field of science, such as limitations of experimental designs and the validity and reliability of scientific findings. The teacher’s role is to help students articulate and translate these emerging inclinations into more formalized understandings by offering additional context, providing definitions of concepts, and supporting students to make connections between new ideas and the things they already know.

Teachers can consider the types of reflection protocols and questions that are most likely to support students to see critical aspects of their experiences and then make sense of them in ways that produce powerful insights.

Transform insights into implications: How will students transform their new understandings into actionable next steps?

Once students have reflected on their experiences and deepened their understanding of big ideas, they’re ready to look forward. How will their insights and ideas influence the way they think, feel, and act in the future? 

Consider an English language arts project where students reflect on the effective use of various narrative techniques as well as aspects of the collaborative writing process. The teacher can now support students to look forward and consider implications for their future writing projects. Reflection allows students to build a bridge from the present experience to their future endeavors.

While we as teachers may not always have an immediate and thoughtful response to each question above, simply posing these questions can help direct our attention toward important considerations while planning and teaching. As with all complex endeavors, engaging in this process with colleagues can enrich the process, and students benefit when their learning experiences reflect the thoughtful planning of a team of educators bringing multiple perspectives, ideas, and approaches to the table. 

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Student Voice
  • 9-12 High School

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