Sunday, October 11, 2015

Setting the Stage for Successful Student Collaboration

In today’s digital world, our roles as educators have shifted. We are no longer the sole proprietor and expert in the classroom. Truth is that if Google can replace us, we are no longer doing our job. Our role in the classroom is to teach our students how to apply content knowledge to solve problems. We promote skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. However, those are not skills that come naturally to our students. 

We live in a time where boundaries of learning are being pushed. With the myriad of digital tools at their fingertips, our students have the ability to connect and collaborate with peers both locally and globally. Students have access to experts in any field. Because of the lives they lead, they crave feedback. Yet, their efforts at collaboration often lead anywhere from shutdowns to meltdowns.

We hear our colleagues extolling the virtues of connecting students for collaborative learning and it may cause us to wonder what is going wrong in our classroom. The truth is that everyone, no matter how well intentioned, enters with certain expectations and perceptions. Many of our students expect to walk into a group situation where everyone is working on the same goal doing the exact same thing as their fellow group members. That is simply cooperation or compliance. Often cooperation does not push students into authentic tasks that require higher level thinking and reasoning. True collaboration comes when each member in a collaborative group brings his/her strengths, ideas, experiences, and knowledge to share with the group. Everyone contributes towards the common goal using their unique talents for the good of the entire group.

As teachers, I’m confident that a great majority of us have probably experienced the same frustration as our students when trying to collaborate with our colleagues. I thought I would take an opportunity to share with you some of the practices that my students have learned through our years collaborating with peers both locally and globally.  By preparing them of these mindsets in advance, their likelihood of success is greatly improved.

Communicate expectations up front. The first step that my students do when forming a new collaboration partnership is to outline a list of the norms and expectations that they have for their upcoming project. They discuss timeline, deadlines, behaviors, work ethic, and accountability to the group. Through these conversations, they have the opportunity to share their goals and their concerns about their impending work together. This dialogue lets every member know before they begin the first step exactly where they are headed. It not only helps them create a relationship with one another where they feel safe to be transparent in their thinking, but also connect with one another as individuals on a deeper level. Although this may seem time consuming in an already jammed packed learning day, the group will make up the time in the long run as their project will not suffer from constant derailing due to miscommunications.

Remain flexible.  Things happen. People get sick. Schedules get rearranged. Parents set appointments.  As adults, we understand this is part of life, but sometimes students get frustrated when a deadline isn’t met by a teammate, one member seems to fail in following through with their part of a project, or they miss a time for real time communication. By guiding our students into becoming adept at adjusting plans, they are learning valuable life skills. Often when a student comes to me aggravated because something has disrupted their project, we can lean on the strong foundation that they set in the beginning. Once they open that dialogue, the learners discover a solution together that stronger than their initial plan. They learn to listen to one another, have patience, and pull their resources to reach towards their common goal.

Keep an open-mind. As adults we understand that not everyone is like us. However, many of our students in spite of being globally connected, often live under the false premise that everyone is like them. I’ve discovered over the last several years that this is often the most challenging part of collaboration for students. Students may feel that they are the expert, the smartest, the most organized, the most creative, or the most talented individual in the group. Those beliefs are why I believe that collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Students need to have experience with students who in many ways may not be like them. No single person is who they are with the talents they have without the guidance and input of others. We become the best version of ourselves by working and learning with others.

By preparing our students in advance for the shifts they will need to make in order to successfully collaborate with the peers, both in the classroom and through digital means, we give them the tools to open a world of learning possibilities. Through collaboration, students find commonalities with a diverse community of learners and apply content knowledge and higher order thinking skills for an authentic audience while becoming the strongest version of themselves. Collaboration, although challenging at times, is well worth the investment for us, our students, and the future.

photo credit: Empty Stage via photopin (license)