Creating a Collaborative Classroom

Why is collaboration important?

Collaboration is a key twenty-first century skill.  The curriculum mandates that students engage in collaborative learning across the board—from Healthful Living/PE (participating cooperatively in group activities) to Mathematics (group problem-solving) to English Language Arts (group discussions). According to Robert Slavin, collaborative learning can narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color.[*] Students use collaboration skills to socialize and make friends. The workplace requires collaboration.  Businesses — Google and Apple, for example — are eliminating cubicles and creating team workspaces. Creativity thrives on collaboration.  Creative thinking is another twenty-first century skill. Finally, if you have the skills for it, collaboration is a fun way to learn!

What is collaboration?

It is a complex set of skills, abilities, and behaviors that can be taught and modeled, including, to mention a few:

  • Communication skills: listening, attending to verbal and non-verbal cues and information, giving and receiving positive, useful critiques;
  • Cooperation skills: leading and following and switching from leading to following, taking responsibility for group tasks, attending to group process;
  • Emotional skills: being aware of one’s own and others’ feelings, expressing feelings appropriately, and showing compassion and empathy;
  • Mental skills: focusing on a task until complete, following a conversation, processing it, summarizing it, and taking creative leaps based on it.

What prevents teachers from teaching collaboration?

First, a small misunderstanding, “There’s no time to teach it — I’ve got to stick to the curriculum!” But in the North Carolina Standard Course of Studies, collaboration crops up on page after page, in every grade level and many subjects. (The fourth grade Science curriculum asks students — not teachers — to describe, discuss, communicate, or explain in twelve of twenty-four objectives. Students must work in groups to do this.) It’s in the curriculum, and we must teach our students how to do it so that they will succeed.

Second, few teachers study collaboration. How many teachers have taken a course on group dynamics, group communication, or group management? How many schools of education teach peaceful communication or effective critical response practices? Who feels like an expert collaborator? Wouldn’t we rather do it ourselves?

How can we teach and model collaboration for our students? How can we lead our students toward a collaborative classroom?

Here are two things that I do when I’m working with any group — whether young people or seasoned professionals — that can foster a collaborative environment. They are not difficult, they require no special training, they don’t take much time, and they can be powerful tools for strengthening collaboration skills. The first is “checking in.” The second is including evaluation of the group process as a part of every collaborative work session.

What is checking in?

Checking in means giving everyone a moment to reflect on how he is feeling right now, and then allowing him to name his feeling. If I ask you how you are feeling right now, you might take a breath and make a quick survey of your mental, physical, emotional or spiritual state. You might notice a familiar tension in the neck or shoulders. Or perhaps you recall that you have several things on your to-do list and then notice that your heart rate has increased. Or you might remember something that has happened lately that has you feeling proud.

How do I lead my students in a check-in?

When I ask people in a group to check in, I ask for a one-word check-in or a short phrase that describes how you are feeling, now. Then I wait quietly for ten seconds to give time for reflection. Then, one-at-a-time, each person names his  feeling while everyone else gives him a moment of full attention. It is as important to give focus to each speaker as it is for each one to speak.

I am looking for feeling words like happy, sad, mad, scared, ashamed, calm, embarrassed, proud, energetic, sleepy, tense, excited, bored, full, hungry…. Some people like to use words that avoid feelings, like fine, good, or OK. Sometimes I ask them for a second word—I coax them toward feeling words. Other than that, I listen silently as fully as I can—with my ears, my eyes, my heart, and my spirit. I respond non-verbally and non-judgmentally.

As the adult in the room, my role includes keeping it safe to check in.  All feelings are OK. I don’t need to fix anybody’s feelings.

What is the purpose of checking in?

Checking in allows feelings in a room. It acknowledges that we all experience feelings. It lets students practice looking inward and attending to the complex world of feelings that enriches the human experience. It engages intra-personal intelligence. It gives students practice naming feelings—some don’t know the feeling words. It gives everyone practice seeing what feelings look like and hearing what they sound like in other people. It builds trust in a group. It fosters compassion and empathy.

And, from my point of view as the teacher, if a student expresses dismay or a strong feeling, that gives me important information, and I know I may want to offer her some extra support or attention or give her a break that day.

When is it good to check in?

In some groups I work with, we check in at the beginning of each day, and check out at the end. In classrooms, I use check-ins when students are unable to focus as they usually do, or when I sense something is going on among students that I want to get an inkling about. If students come in from PE giving each other evil eyes, I might start class with a check-in.  It is possible to use roll call as a check-in. Students can also check in with each other in small groups.  Some primary teachers have a place on the wall near the door with pictures of happy, sad, scared, hurt, and mad above a piece of felt. Students can each have a name tag or popsicle stick with Velcro on it that they can stick on the felt under the feeling they are experiencing when they enter or when they need to. There are other times and ways to check in, as well.

What about evaluating group process? How do I lead my students in group process evaluation?

Here is one way: When I split students into work groups, I give different tasks to different students. If there are five students in a group, for example, one would be responsible for knowing what their assignment is, another would be responsible for keeping the group focused on the assignment, another would be the facilitator (that means he makes sure everyone gets heard) another would be the scribe or note-taker, and the fifth would observe the group process and report on it. When students are working on a dramatic presentation of their writing, one role is director—that person listens to all ideas and then decides who does what (and all others must obey her). Students rotate rolls, so that everyone practices different group tasks on different days.

I give the process observer a card with this question: “What did someone in your group say or do that helped your group collaborate?” At the end of the group work session, I allow five minutes for reports from each group’s process observer: he says what someone said or did that helped the group work well together. I keep a scroll of paper hanging on the wall where we write these helpful sayings and behaviors. That scroll becomes the basis for building a classroom norm of collaborative behavior. When a group gets stuck, they can refer to the list to see if there is something they could do to get unstuck. (I learned to keep the scroll on the wall from arts educator Deborah Brzoska.)

What are the benefits of evaluating group collaboration?

Over time students realize that collaboration can be broken down into its parts, and that they can choose to engage in any number of behaviors that help a group work together. They learn to look at behavior as a series of choices that help or hinder group work. They see their peers earn acknowledgement for positive behavior, and they want some of that, too. They gain a repertoire of helpful behaviors that they can practice in a safe setting. They become better collaborators over time, and they learn to attend to not only the work but also the way they do the work.

These two simple, yet powerful classroom activities—checking in and evaluating group process—take a little time. But they give back a great deal because they help to create a classroom that values the abilities and behaviors that make up skillful collaboration. If your students teach each other how to collaborate well, they will spend more of their group time focused on their assignments, they will be happier with each other, and they will produce more creative work.

Sheila Kerrigan, 2011

[*] Robert E. Slavin, “Cooperative Learning,” American Educational Research Association’s Review of Educational Research

Comments are closed.