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Deeper Learning: A Collaborative Classroom Is Key

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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.
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Comments (29) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Christine Kile's picture

I thought that this was a great article for getting students to work better in groups. I am currently taking a group dynamics class and found that a lot of the recommendations here were the same things that we have been learning and doing in our class to work in groups.
I had never heard the "three then me" rule before, though. I really like this idea because it gives everyone a chance to talk and keeps students from being too overbearing in their groups.

Tiffanie S.'s picture

Collaboration is one of the things that students seem to have problems with. In today's society it is becoming easier and easier to have conversations through media and not face to face. Getting students to work together in groups, face to face is hard. Different learning styles and personalities will clash. You'll end up with those who will always speak up and comment and those who will just follow the crowd. Teaching the students right from the start how to work together is a great idea. Allowing them to make up the ground rules and determine what is acceptable gives them a sense of control over what they are suppose to do. Many students will need to do several rounds of the exercises to remember them. This article gives you many great ideas to help you get your students to work together.

Patrick Mullaly's picture

I think that having an Collaborative Classroom is a great way to have students learn. Working in a group helps students step outside there norm and allows the student to do something they might not do normally.

Cheryl Tomaszewski's picture
Cheryl Tomaszewski
Substitute Teacher

I completely agree with the importance of collaborative learning. This will teach students how to work in a group setting, listen effectively, and learn how to ask engaging questions. They will also learn how to respectfully debate an issue with classmates. In this day and age it is highly important to teach students how to respectfully disagree with one another on any issue.

Kayla Rose's picture

It is very important for there to be collaboration in a classroom. For a student to start working in groups and finding their own roles within their groups gives them more preparation and building skills for whats to come after school. There is a lot of good information throughout this article, I have not yet started teaching inside of a classroom but I will take these ideas with me as I start my journey through my teaching career.

Miss Susy's picture
Miss Susy
Prospective Teacher

Collaboration is an important part of the classroom. America is one of the most individualistic societies. However, every part of life calls for working well with others, from childhood through adulthood. This skill needs to be taught to our students. Life is not all about the "me" in society. Students must learn listening, paraphrasing, effective questioning, and negotiation skills to excel at home, in the workplace, at school, and elsewhere.
Collaboration causes students to be more actively involved in learning, when students are engaged with their group-mates and fulfilling their part of the whole. Because of the social aspect, students can often be more motivated to learn concepts deeper and demonstrate their knowledge.

Ms. Alisha's picture

Coming from the teacher and student point of view I must say collaboration in the classroom is a necessity, but you must be careful. Teachers must be sure that the students working together feel as though they are in a safe and secure environment. People are more likely to share with the peers they are most comfortable with. Collaboration can work best later in the school year, this way everyone has a chance to get acquainted and feel comfortable sharing. Be sure, as a teacher, to pay attention to the relationships between your students. Everyone must be able to get along and feel open to one another. It is our human nature to want to connect and talk with others; as teacher's let us make sure it is done the right way.

Cassie Schindler's picture

In my experience over recent years, as group work has gotten increasingly more popular and "in demand" in the classroom (from an educator's perspective), it has become clear to me that students who are not group learners, need to be considered. They need to know that their learning styles are respected and given thought when planning daily activities. I'm not saying group work shouldn't be done any less, but that students should have an occasional opportunity to build their own dynamic in their groups. Set up loose guidelines as far as number of people, goals of the assignment, and roles of group members, then let them decide. This is a good way to determine which students need more collaboration experience as well as which ones learn and produce at a higher level while working independently. I agree that everyone needs to know how to collaborate and work in groups to succeed in the workforce, but I believe giving individuals the opportunity to get the most out of their education is just as important.

Mike Brown (OMB)'s picture

When the media is focusing on one-"ness" such as an army of 1, or all the individual games kids play, video and computer, that are out there for our children who spend tons of time on it is good to focus on collaboration as a skill.

This article discusses how we need to incorporate this into our teaching skill set. If we are teaching to all exceptional learners we should go and have group time/problem solving in all of our classes. By doing this we do teach the ability of collaboration.

Coming from the "outside world" much of my time as an administrator was taken up in collaboration of a problem and what responses would help in the different problems being faced by the department and what could be done to help the situation. Some of the best bosses I had would let you speak and listened to what was said. It is a skill that everyone needs in the work force.

richthorpe's picture

Classroom collaboration teaches students a lot of important skills that they will use through out their lives. I believe the most important thing on this list is to model what we expect. If we can show that we're able to do the things we say and teach our students will most likely follow in our footsteps and try it out.

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