George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Building Meaningful Community

Developing a strong collaborative learning community requires daily work and commitment.

December 21, 2021
Middle school students work on project in small groups in classroom.
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy

We can all agree that “we” is better than “me,” that “there is no I in team,” and that “together everyone achieves more.” The Holy Grail in classroom practice has, for many years, been a strong collaborative learning community (CLC).

A CLC is a purposefully structured and actively maintained classroom culture within which teachers and students take on full membership in support of the contributions of each individual member. The CLC is planned in advance with an eye toward sustainability, and it’s a key piece of the ongoing work of the students and teachers.

When most people think about building a learning community, they envision kids doing get-to-know-you games, tossing a ball across a circle, or stepping through hula hoops or over ropes. But building community is a process, not an event. It needs to be designed in the same way that you plan your lessons—building upon assessments, structuring the work so that students can be successful but challenged, and always looking for new ways to get the point across.

Shared Experiences

The CLC is a classroom culture. Classroom culture, just like school culture, is simply “the way we do things around here.” It’s the rituals, traditions, expectations, and experiences you and your students share together every day.

In the CLC, however, the culture is created intentionally to foster inclusivity, interdependence, and safety. It isn’t something that happens behind the scenes. It isn’t the responsibility of the teacher alone (at least, beyond the second or third day of school). It’s something in which teachers and students take on full membership, something that is assessed and discussed frequently and openly. It functions in support of the contributions of each individual member.

Each CLC will include rituals and traditions that combine unique elements of each class of students with long-standing experiences anticipated by incoming classes.

Class trips to a specific destination (e.g., the fifth grade always takes a trip to Washington, DC, in the spring, kindergarten always goes apple picking), grade-level projects (the Romanticism notebook in 11th-grade English, the egg drop competition in eighth-grade science), and annual events (spring picnic, fall pumpkin carving, the school carnival) can build common expectations and experiences that provide benchmarks for students, rites of passage that they can point to as evidence that they are part of a community and that they hold a specific place within that community.

Additionally, each community of students will need to create its own rituals and ways of being together. These “in jokes” can bind the CLC together. (It’s good to be aware that any ritual can become powerfully destructive if even a single student is left on the “out” side of the joke.) These may include ways of beginning and ending class, routines for managing classroom materials, or signals for moving from one activity to the next.

So what does a meaningful CLC look like? That depends on geography, student age, subject area, and who the teacher is. No two CLCs look alike. They do, however, have elements in common, and they develop in predictable, supportable ways. Trust is the key, and trust is often developed via challenge or conflict.

Handling Discord

As groups evolve, something happens that shifts the group’s focus from the ways they are alike to the ways they are different. A tough, probing question around an idea, a violation of behavioral expectations, a disagreement about process—a crisis of one sort or another—can set the stage for the group to fall apart or come together, to move through conflict appropriately, and to build trust.

Students can either discover that the classroom is a safe place where risks are valued and expected, where they can go out on a limb without expecting a classmate to follow with a saw—or they can learn the opposite. Facilitating that process in a way that keeps kids safe but challenged is the most important part of this work because trust in the group and its individual members is the common ground for powerful work.

4 Steps to Build Community Through Trust

1. Knowledge/communication: Individuals gain this skill by discovering specific facts about other group members. Overwhelmingly, however, it’s about the willingness to ask, to share and to listen, to interact with other group members in both an appropriate and a (somewhat) personal way. Activities at this stage offer low-risk opportunities to share basic information—especially names (I’m always amazed at how often students who’ve sat side by side for years literally don’t know one another’s names).

2. Cooperation: As group members become familiar with one another, they can begin to engage together around low-risk work. They can be expected to follow the rules, to do the tasks in front of them, to share resources—to play nice. A group at this stage can review previously learned content as well as take on and practice classroom roles. At this stage, it’s important to keep in mind that students may not be ready to take risks—socially or academically—so introducing new content and/or processes (particularly at the same time) isn’t a great idea.

3. Collaboration: The work takes on a life of its own and is done enthusiastically and energetically. Watching a collaborative group, one notices that there seem to be no preassigned roles or responsibilities—that individual tasks are carried out by the individual with the time, ability, or proximity to the need. It’s many hands working—perhaps silently, perhaps with a great deal of chatter and excitement—to do more than is required. Truly collaborative groups create masterpieces of all varieties. They are invested and proud of their process and of their products.

4. Maturation and maintenance: As the group continues to exist, this collaborative spirit grows exponentially. The group is owned by its individual members and seeks out ways to be useful and to do important work. A spirit of empowerment and excitement prevails, even in the face of challenges.

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