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Nurturing Collaboration: 5 Strategies

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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When collaboration goes wrong, it can be toxic for learning and classroom culture. We are all familiar with the scene: a group of students that is supposed to be completing a collaborative project has splintered off into dysfunctional factions. Maybe it's one student who has sullenly separated her- or himself from the rest of the group, or maybe the group has become two non-communicative teams with separate visions. Sometimes these conflicts lead to resentments that have the potential for long-term damage to the classroom community.

In my previous post, I wrote about the power and potential of collaborative projects and peer feedback. These opportunities work to democratize the classroom and provide opportunities for learning on multiple levels.

Facilitating collaboration is one of the many aspects of teaching that requires skillful planning, a high degree of awareness, and on-the-fly decision making. Of course, even with the best preparation, the messiness of learning and the fact that we are all humans will cause unforeseen challenges to emerge!

Below are five strategies that can help nurture successful collaborations.

1. Model Feedback

On the days when my students have come to class with a draft of a project that's ready for feedback, I'll reach out to a couple of students on the side before class starts. I then start class by calling on these students who have consented to share parts of their project. After each excerpt, I ask the class what they notice or what stands out. These affirmations set a tone for appreciating each other's work. After we have a list on the board of pluses (+), I then ask the class if they have questions (?) for the author. Asking for multiple questions instead of critiques helps me to reinforce the idea that, as authors and creators, it's important to solicit feedback and that everyone has the right to decide which feedback is most helpful for them.

2. Be Aware!

The talented nonviolence trainer George Lakey, author of Facilitating Group Learning, first introduced me to the idea of "internal weather" within individuals who are part of a group process. When I have groups working on a larger project, I maintain a constant awareness of the dynamics and the physical language of individuals around the room, even when I am far away from a group. I make mental notes about which groups are communicating effectively and which groups are dominated by one or two individuals. I take note of who is sitting separately from other group members. I often have groups work on Google Docs that are shared with me and color coded to represent the contributions of different students. A quick glance at a doc can give me a sense of a group's status.

3. Provide a Clear Structure

When students are giving each other feedback on a draft or collaborating on a larger project, I always provide clear structure and expectations. I may tell them, "You need to insert four comments on your partner's doc -- two things that are working well and two questions that will help the author to improve the piece." I recently gave students a peer review sheet asking them to give feedback on:

  • Four things that are working well
  • Three specific ideas for improvement
  • Two specific questions for the author
  • One source that you recommend for the author

4. Use Tech Tools to Simplify the Process

If technology is available, the right tool can simplify collaboration and give students easy access to the work of their peers. That said, inappropriate tech choices can stop a project in its tracks. Google Docs, wikis and blog posts all have the potential to give students access to each other's work. Audio and video projects are often edited on one machine. In these situations, I strategize -- or have groups strategize -- different roles that can contribute to the final product.

5. Be Ready to Provide a Jump Start

Even with careful planning, collaboration can go really wrong -- really quickly! In these moments, I am quick to step in and provide help for a dysfunctional group in finding a way to move forward. This may mean facilitating a conversation about delegating tasks, conflict resolution, providing tips or sources for research, or offering affirmations and helping to establish a positive tone within a group.

I am constantly in awe of the different ways that my students, who come from so many different backgrounds, deeply engage with one another. Whether they are debating an issue, editing a podcast or planning a skit, these young people regularly teach me about the many ways it is possible to learn from and create with those around us.

In what different ways do you facilitate and nurture collaboration?

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Natalie Kevranian's picture
Natalie Kevranian
4th grade teacher

Hi Josh! I'm a fourth grade teacher and really appreciate your article on collaboration. I too use Google docs and think it is a great tool for collaboration among students, especially in the peer editing and revising stages of the writing process. I like how you break down how students should give each other feedback on an assignment or larger project with clear guidelines. Most students need that clear structure or checklist in order to provide meaningful feedback. At the elementary level when students are providing feedback with one another, I like to use "Two Stars and a Wish". I try to model positive affirmation, but the "wish" in a sense really is a critique. I like the idea of using a question instead, so I will be trying this out in my own classroom to see how it goes. Thanks for your insight, and I look forward to trying out these strategies with my own students.

Hank Rubin's picture
Hank Rubin
Founder of the Institute for Collaborative Leadership

SLA is innovative and exciting in so many ways! I look forward to tracking the contribution you make to the study and teaching of collaboration.

Stacy D's picture
Stacy D
8th Grade Literacy Teacher, Middle School

Great input! I appreciate your incentives and insight for group work. I find it hard at times to have effective group work. I try different models, groupings, agendas, and even roles. There are always some groups and mixes that do not work to their potential. After reading your blog, I do see some things I can implement to enhance my use of groupings.

Teachforall's picture

Hi Josh,

You provide great strategies for a successful collaborative experience. First of all, I could not agree more with the importance of clear, concise expectations. Without clear structure, students may not focus on the specific task at hand as they may deviate from the main objective. This aspect is critical for teacher collaboration as well. Without a set goal and agenda, teacher collaboration meetings lose their purpose and can become a waste of time. However, by targeting specific goals and objectives, teachers are able to incorporate a variety of strategies to best meet the needs of students. Another important resource you noted was the use of technology tools. Rather than relying on teachers to take mental notes during meetings, one assigned teacher can take notes on the computer for the team and post them for all members. Utilizing an organized technology tool provides a simple method for recalling the previous collaboration sessions and helps to guide the purpose for future meetings. The online documentation also serves as a reference for teachers to utilize at all times for their practice.

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