George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

The College Preparatory School

Grades 9-12 | Oakland, CA

Collaborative Learning Builds Deeper Understanding

Encouraging students to reach out to one another to solve problems not only builds collaboration skills but leads to deeper learning and understanding.

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Collaborative Learning Builds Deeper Understanding (Transcript)

Steve Chabon: Here at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, California, collaborative learning is one of the most important ways our students learn and grow.

Harrison: In math we work in groups every day, asking each other questions before we ask the teacher.

Maya: In English, we lead our own round table discussions to deepen our understanding of the books we read.

David Markus: College Prep is one of the top private high schools in the country and a terrific model for collaborative learning. The good news, their practices are both replicable and affordable. Take a look at what they do for their students. It may change what you decide to do for yours.

Monique DeVane: College Prep School is a fifty-two year old school. It was founded by two women who had a strong vision of a place where academics could really thrive.

The collaborative teaching and learning that we do here is really distinctive. Individual work can be a great way to master content, but what the group work empowers and kinds of enables is a student's cultivation of a certain resilience. How do you look to your neighbor as a resource, how do you test your own theories, how do you understand if you're on the right track or the wrong track? The sort of habits of mind that actually are the underpinnings of deeper scholarship.

Betsy Thomas: We have forty-five minute classes and the math classes meet every day. The kids come in and they go over the homework in their groups by comparing answers.

Boy: I got the square root of B squared plus A squared.


Betsy: And then if they're having no resolution, like a problem was too hard for everybody that's the signal that says that we need to talk about a problem or two as a class.

Aidan: The thing I like most about the group work is how easy it is to get help if you're stuck on a problem. I mean, you can just ask one of your group mates to help you and everybody's really ready to lend a hand.

Boy: That's these two lines and then we do the slope formula from zero to there.

Betsy: All right, here comes classwork thirty. The ones I care most about are one and two.

Girl: And then it says, draw the segment from AB to CD, so we just connect those points.

Betsy: We designed the classwork problems to be harder than the homework problems. The homework problems tend to be more straightforward and the classwork problems are much meatier. And so in order for them to actually accomplish them, they have to talk to each other.

Ethan: For harder problems, usually our group will work together and we can usually come to a solution, just by putting like little pieces of it together.

I got negative B over C for one and two.

I don't think it's negative B over C because it's--

Yeah, but there's this--

Betsy: The best groups talk about the problems before they take pencil to paper. You really tell, their faces are directed towards each other. They are, you know, looking at each other's papers, and they're learning so much more. They're learning how to be proactive, they're learning how to depend on their peers.

Girl: Today you will work as a team of surveyors, putting to use your knowledge of basic compass and straight edge constructions. Your only tools will be a length of rope and a piece of chalk.

Ethan: I feel like when we work outside together, it just kind of brings our group together a little bit more.

Aidan: You needed someone to hold the rope and someone to move the chalk, and so it was just like the next step in collaboration was working together to make one big end result.

Julie Anderson: What I do in my classroom is I try to make the kids feel as comfortable and as safe to be able to take the risks that will create a good conversation. On the first day of class with the ninth grade, I start by asking the students, "What are the values implicit in sitting around this large, wooden, oval table?" And they come up with a list on their own. First and foremost is respect, and also listening to each other, being courteous. Having the right geography of the classroom, it's really important. I always make sure before we start class, "Can you all see each other? Can you make eye contact with your classmates?" And if you can't, I have them adjust their chairs so that they can. I always tell the kids, "Check your ego at the door. Be willing to take risks and just have fun and just throw out idea. And you throw something else out and it's not fully formed, that's great because somebody else can jump in and build on an idea." Another sort of easy trick I have is to start with a kind of a reflective moment, a moment of silence or just a little moment of writing.

Remembering you want to have your feet firmly planted on the floor. Then the next thing you want to do is focus on the breath. Aah. How was that.

You know, it only takes a couple minutes, but just having that moment to let out the anxiety is great, because it really can improve their concentration for the class, so that they're able to have that kind of engaged conversation.

And if you guys need a little bit of extra--

What's important is to have a set of guidelines for the students.

In this conversation, we're going to have-- I'm going to have you guys write down the questions, and then talk to each other about the conversation, about the book, and I'm going to sort of step back and take notes. And I'll do a little bit of guiding, but you guys are going to talk to each other.

And there's three particular roles that students will fill. One is the scribe role, where one student is taking notes on the conversation, so that all the other students can be fully engaged in the conversation that's happening. Another role is a little map where one student is monitoring who's speaking when and they draw these sort of diagrams so that there's a visual map of how the conversation is going.

The other thing I just want to point out since I'm showing these to you is, would you say this is a good conversation? Yes.


How about that?



Julie: And then the third role is the moderator role.

Hannah: So I was the moderator and it was my job to make sure that we didn't stay on one topic for too long or move too quickly. It was also my job to make sure that everybody talked.

Okay, I think we should hear from someone who hasn't talked yet.

Boy: Thea, Caroline, Noah, Max.

Boy: Well, Athena's making him seem godlike, so I think he's just like taking a gamble at establishing--

Hannah: When we're having a conversation, you really feel like you're part of the conversation and not like, oh, you're sitting in the back of class and you can't actually see the person who's talking. And also, it's a great way for people to exchange ideas back and forth and sort of have everyone contribute.

Girl: Who do you think is the modern equivalent to Odysseus?

Boy: Tebow.

Julie: In addition to setting up the conversation the first time around, at the end of each Harkness discussion, to sort of take a few minutes to sort of check in with the students and ask, "Well, how did we do?"

How did you do? How do you think that went?

Hannah: I liked that.

Girl: I mean, I feel like I learned a lot more when we discuss things and we get deeper into it, so.


Julie: Great, Eli, how does it look?

And I like to keep those maps so that we can kind of chart the progress in terms of Harkness discussions.

And those who talked not so much, right, maybe step in a little bit, and if other people can help them, because it really is a group effort, right? Some people just need a little bit more help and a little bit of space to do it. So next time we do it, let's be mindful of that, but I think overall, you guys did a really terrific job.

Teaching in this discussion based way is really the most challenging but also the most exciting form of teaching I know. It never gets old, and honestly, I feel like I still have a lot to learn about it.

Monique: I think the special sauce at College Prep is really about the kind of community values that kids find when they come here. They think they're coming for a first rate academic preparation, and that certainly is the centerpiece of what we're doing, but what I think makes us special and distinct is actually this culture of respecting the individual, of celebrating the small victories, of kind of enthusiastically embracing all parts of the learning experience.

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  • Director: Zachary Fink
  • Producer: Mariko Nobori
  • Editor: Daniel Jarvis
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
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  • Audio: Thomas Gorman
  • Digital Media Curator: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: David Markus


Collaborative Learning Leads to Student Success

Even though the College Preparatory School is an elite school, schools with fewer resources can replicate College Prep’s collaboration practices. The collaborative-learning style incorporated into the fabric of the school helps students to be resilient by aiding them with identifying their resources (peers) and testing their theories to see if they are on the right track all while developing habits of mind that form the foundation of scholarship.

To make this approach work, teachers must be willing to “cede the floor” to the students. Other things to consider are the need to create an effective classroom geography, focus on the process, build accountability, let students teach one another, and encourage students to be in tune with one another.

How It's Done

Building Strong Collaborative Learning

Teachers at the College Preparatory School encourage classroom collaboration by assigning students to groups to review their homework, do daily class worksheets, participate in moderated discussions, and complete hands-on projects. Often, teachers give students group tests, which, like the class worksheets, are designed to be harder than the individual assignments. Students quickly realize that they are able to solve problems as a group that they would not be able to solve as individuals. Some of the other ways teachers foster a collaborative-learning environment follow:

Creating an Effective Classroom Geography

In math classes, the students sit face-to-face in groups of four tables to collaborate. In English classes, students sit around a Harkness table (a large wooden table capable of seating the entire class), which allows every student to see the teacher and all the members of the class as they speak. The foundation is that students come prepared to discuss and collaborate.

Focusing on the Process, Not Right Answers

In math, four times a year, each student is given a set of values or codes to substitute in the equations so that even though the students are working together, they have to focus on the mathematical process and not just the “right answer.” In English, the discussions are open-ended, allowing for multiple right answers.

Building Accountability

In math classes, students frequently take group tests and can consult with one another on the answers, but the teacher chooses only one test at random to grade for the group. Because the group work is intentionally more difficult, this process keeps individual students accountable for full participation in group work. To measure how well the groups work together, the teacher also gives out a group-collaboration grade for each unit, which is worth 10 percent of a student’s grade.

While students participate in the group discussions around the Harkness table in English, the teacher selects one student to be the moderator and another to be the discussion tracker who records the flow of the conversations. The moderator can look at the discussion tracker’s notes and see which students he should invite to chime in.

Letting Students Teach One Another

In math and English, teachers cede the floor to students so they can teach one another. In math class, students are given challenging class problems that encourage them to seek ideas and advice from their group members.

In English, juniors are grouped with seniors, which helps the younger students learn how the process works by watching and learning from the older students. Additionally, pairs of students are invited to lead the discussions. The English discussions are also held online, and students are required to participate and comment on at least two other student comments.

Encouraging Students to Be In Tune With One Another

In math classes, students are grouped intentionally to provide a mix of skill levels, which helps them to be more sensitive to group members’ needs. The teacher provides feedback on helping the groups interact well, which helps the more vocal students to step back and let the other students participate more.

Every English class starts with a moment of quiet after which students are asked to share their energy and stress levels. Often teachers assign different roles that allow students to focus on the discussion: the scribe takes notes for the entire class, the moderator ensures a smooth discussion, and the discussion tracker maps the flow of the discussion.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Being a member of an intellectual, collaborative team is magnificently validating to students; some kids have never been acknowledged as a real source of analysis, or opinion. All teachers can provide this platform as kids develop their self-concepts.

International Professor's picture
International Professor
Founding Head, International Professors project

Thank you...Are there emerging models to attempt to strike a balance between collabaortion and a nerdy introverts, or non-nerdy introverts', penchant for solitary work?

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

I've watched this video about 10 times. I like the conversation map that the teacher uses to track which members of the Harkness Table have contributed. It visually shows students when a conversation is one-sided.

Becky Krill's picture
Becky Krill
Instructional Marketing Manager at SchoolKeep

I agree, Todd! That map is a really powerful learning tool for the group. In traditional classroom conversations, students aren't made aware of their level of participation and therefor aren't as accountable. This is brilliant.

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