George Lucas Educational Foundation

What Does a 21st Century Classroom Look Like: Collaboration

What Does a 21st Century Classroom Look Like: Collaboration

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Two children working together

Continuing to follow up the post 10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom, I would like to share some ideas that we have at my school for achieving these goals. Some are actively implemented by a significant number of our faculty, while others are still just an idea being trialed by one or two teachers. I am by no means saying that these are the best or only ideas out there.

The importance of a collaborative environment cannot be overstated.  Whether preparing for college or for a career, the ability to successfully work together to solve problems and create new material is a critical skill that students must be given an opportunity to practice.  While it is easy to say that students are naturally good at working with their peers, here are some ideas that may help to ease the transition between conversing with others and true collaboration

Rearrange seating

The traditional arrangement of a classroom (teacher in the front, students in rows facing the same direction) works well if class is conducted in the view that the teacher is the source of all knowledge.  However, in the “teacher as facilitator” model that many of us have adopted, the whole arrangement of the classroom needs to be reconsidered.  Walking through our halls, several classrooms styles are observed: traditional, students gathered around tables, desks forming a large circle, and desks in clumps.  Each arrangement has benefits within certain contexts.  Laura Bradley has a great article about using specially designed furniture to promote a student directed, rapid change of classroom environment.

Collaborative Spaces

Even with modified seating, most classrooms aren’t really designed with student collaboration in mind.  Consider using other locations to encourage students to work together.  Even at our small school, we have several spaces that are frequently used by other teachers.  English classes are often in the library/media center (perhaps no great surprise).  I have seen the geometry classes working on projects in the gym and physics building roller coasters in the band hall.

Peer Review

Reading and commenting on other students’ work remains a solid way for students to gain experience giving and responding to feedback.  Publishing work on blogs or Google Drive can facilitate this, but is by no means necessary.  The same outcome may be achieved by passing an essay between classmates.  A well designed rubric and common language is critical for transparency in this process.  We are in the early stages of developing a set of shared rubrics that students and teachers across our school may use in a variety of settings so that there is less confusion as to expectations.

Coffee House

Our fine arts department gets into the spirit of collaboration with a recurring coffee house event.  The event typically runs for 3 hours on a Friday night at least two or three times a year.  Free refreshments are offered at this entirely student run event.  Individuals or groups may sign up for one or more open mic sessions during this time.  It’s not unusual to see certain individuals appear on stage three or four times over the course of the evening as part of different ensembles.

Pen Pals

I use the word pen loosely here.  One of the great advantages of modern technology is the ability to communicate with others all around the globe with relative ease and incredible speed.  Students can gain perspective from other classes or experts all around the globe.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this.  Email of course can work most similarly to letter writing, but Skype or even Twitter can prove an effective way to quickly correspond with partners.  While I would like to see our students using social media more for this purpose, Catholic schools in my area have traditionally viewed this form of communication as dangerous since it is often unmonitored.  I am hoping to change this view by providing digital citizenship education to students, parents, and teachers. 

Teacher PLN

Collaboration isn’t just for students.  We can learn a lot from each other as well.  Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are great ways to gain insight from experts in a variety of settings, but don’t forget to look within your school as well.  As a department head, I have been amazed at the new ideas and inspiration that I gain from my observations of my department members.  Ask if you can drop in to watch a class, particularly of a teacher outside your own subject area.  And although it’s tempting to work through lunch to prepare everything that’s necessary for the next class, there’s also much insight to be gained through faculty lounge conversations.


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Stephen DeBoer's picture
Stephen DeBoer
Follower of Christ, husband of one, father of three, high school science and music teacher, pianist, avid reader, passionate about the Kingdom of Heaven

Thanks so much for this article, Patrick! We constantly need to be reminded as educators of the importance of student-student, student-teacher, and teacher-teacher collaborative opportunities! I am currently taking a course as part of my M.Ed. journey entitled "Collaborative Inquiry" and my team is currently investigating the problem of how teachers can use Learning Spaces effectively to foster a culture of both collaboration and inquiry in the classroom (or school in general - labs, libraries, etc...). What has your experience been as a science teacher and STEM coordinator with successfully designing learning spaces to help with collaboration (and inquiry)? You touched on this briefly in your article, but I would love to hear you share more "best practices" from your experience!

JHandrigan's picture

You've made so many great suggestions, Patrick. Thanks! I'm a big believer in "you are where you sit" so any attention given to the physical environment is beneficial. I'm wondering about the other collaborative spaces you've mentioned using in your school. Are students all together in one space or do you have students gathered in small groups in different spaces? How do you monitor and support each group if they are spread out? I've done it this way myself and I find I get a great workout running between groups. But there are some classes where I don't think I'd want them to get too far away from me. I guess it depends on the make up of the groups.

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