Collaborative Learning

Deeper Learning: A Collaborative Classroom Is Key

Teach students how to listen and ask good questions with these exercises designed to scaffold deep, meaningful collaboration.

December 31, 2012 Updated June 19, 2017

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 of 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. So how do we begin this scaffolded journey? Here are some steps for supporting students in deep and meaningful collaboration.

Establish Group Agreements

Deciding on group norms, or agreements, right from the get-go will give each student a voice and provide accountability for all. Although Thinking Collaborative’s “Seven Norms of Collaboration” (pdf) are designed to be used with adult groups, you can use them to inspire age-appropriate norms. 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 groups of four reading and analyzing a news article, you may ask each group to pick an investigator, a recorder, a discussion director, and a reporter. For the group to be successful, each child must complete the tasks that accompany his/her role.

Teach Them How to Listen

Good listeners are valued but rare in our culture. I share this with students. I also tell them that people who really listen—make eye contact, offer empathy, refrain from cutting others off—are easy to like and respect.

Save the Last Word for Me 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. 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 those 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.

Explain that well-received questions are neutral and don’t make the respondent feel like they’re being interrogated. Introduce students to invitational question 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, a few seconds of silence are necessary, giving everyone time to think.

Teach Them How to Negotiate

A group member who speaks the loudest and most frequently 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, a field trip, or a group meal so they can practice their negotiation skills. Now that they’ve been introduced to this skill, rehearsing it in a low-stakes, engaging way, they can next go more deeply into consensus decision making using a central text.

Model What We Expect

When it comes to creating a highly collaborative classroom, teachers need to frequently model listening, paraphrasing, artful questioning, and negotiating. In a student-centered classroom, there’s less direct instruction. What we find ourselves doing most often is facilitating learning experiences for the whole class and smaller groups. The 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.”

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. Lev Vygotsky’s seminal work asserted that social interaction is a fundamental aspect of learning. And if he were alive today, he would most likely agree with the saying “two minds are better than one.” He might add, “Better yet, how about three or four?”

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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