5 Tips for Classroom Collaboration

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Teamwork CreativityYou’ve spent hours doing the front-work for an exciting and creative collaborative project for your students. You’ve thought through all the bugs and the must-haves. You’ve provided the knowledge and the practiced the skills to get the job done. And, you’ve either identified groups that you know will work or you’ve left the grouping decision to them. The project is revealed….and then….come the questions–in torrents! Many you had answered before and others that are so specific or unique to the group needs, the class is wasting time hearing this one or that one’s “what if…” or “how would…” Any part of this scenario familiar? For some educators, merely apprehension of this onslaught is enough to prevent classroom collaboration.

After having taught in a collaborative project-based classroom for many years, one without traditional grades or assessments–purely product based, I have a few tips to share–some are related to mindset and others to actual classroom management.

Tip #1: Confront tension. Alleviate the discomfort of change or newness for yourself and your students by announcing that you are about to begin something new. How often have you said to your students, “You’ve done this before?” Well, for this project avoid that catch-phrase and supplant it with this: “We are about to undertake, we haven’t done before. We are going to practice patience in working through something new and different.” Regardless if this is your first or your fiftieth collaborative exercise, indeed, you haven’t done it before–if you had, why do it again? Learning is about confronting new issues, tangling with new problems, designing new ways of interpreting and sharing.

Tip #2: Be experimentally experiential. Be prepared to get something you weren’t expecting as the product and find value in that difference. If you challenge students with a collaborative undertaking and have predesigned the outcome in your own head, why did you pass it off to them in the first place. Indeed–I always have a vision of how the product or project could be completed (note the modal form, the possibility of could). If I have no vision, I may be putting students off on an undoable lead.

T-Chart GroupTip #3: Practice collaboration skills. Collaboration is social and proficiency with social skills is a diminishing commodity today (and by today, I mean today as far back as 19??).  When I began using collaborative project-based learning in my classes many years ago, my students couldn’t even face one anther to chat. That was my first task. I began with a T-chart. On one side: What does a group look like? The other side: What does a group sound like? From that we developed a group mantra: Eye to Eye | Knee to Knee. And then we practiced–before a critical project was introduced. As a matter of fact, we practiced our group look and sounds through a small group discussion about the roles individuals in a group naturally play: the boss, the slougher, the doubter, etc. Whatever the students generated, I took and then as a whole class, discussed what roles are important to have (and a doubter isn’t a bad role–they keep us double-checking our work). Depending on the grade and experience you are working with, some of these discussion may go quickly–but they are important to have (and reinforce the Common Core Speaking & Listening Standards 1-3). Never make assumptions about the expectations and experience of the students in collaborative work. Small group and paired discussions are important on a daily basis if you want your students to eventually work well on a bigger more substantial project. Little talks build confidence, trust, and relationships–all important for success on bigger talks. For essential group roles, check out this link from NCTE’s Read-Write-Think.  Depending on the project and number of students in the group, you may want to add or combine roles.


Use any color you like. In the text, I suggest red, yellow, and green. But I use red, blue, and takes the place of yellow.

Use any color you like. In the text, I suggest red, yellow, and green. But I use red, blue, and green…blue takes the place of yellow.

Tip #4: Establish Teacher Support Guidelines. This tip is designed to limit the teacher’s input and allow the students time to grapple with the project. So, first off–establish a signal for when groups need help. Often, teachers walk around and interject into group discussion and planning…but sometimes, an interjection intended to support group work is an interruption to the natural process of group processes. Here’s an idea…provide each group with a set of three cups: red, yellow, and green. When the group is humming along, the green cup is on top; when the group is in real need for teacher support, the red cup comes to the top; when the group needs affirmation or or has a question that is not immediate, the yellow cup takes the predominate position. And…when the teacher stops to support, have a time-limit and don’t become part of the group. How much time is necessary…tops, three minutes. The group should have the question well-framed (see Tip #To keep time under control, use an egg timer or a clicker that unobtrusively starts a timer on the SmartBoard.

Tip #5: Foster Student Questioning. Before beginning student collaboration, ensure collaborators know and value the act of questioning–clarifying questions, probing questions, wondering questions, evaluating questions. Sometimes, I ask the students to generate at least one question of each type to share with the class at the end of the day. And as the teacher, only speak to one person in the group as the questioner. I suggest the stack of cups be placed in front of the group’s groups questioner so the person the teacher is speaking to is clearly identified and unchanging. Instead of stopping at group and being inundated with questions from each person, appoint or have the group indicate who is the questioner that day. Before you make your stop at the red cup, members of the group should have helped frame a question that gets to the issues they seek to resolve.

Student collaboration on products and projects worthy of classroom time should be thoughtful investigations led by students and not managed by teachers. Collaboration should involve divergent thoughts and vigorous discussions that result in a shared convergence of understanding, even if the result is not what the teacher had planned. If we stay out of our students’ ways, we learn more about what they think and what they think about!

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