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Empowering Student Collaboration Skills

Posted by on in Differentiated Instruction
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Why Teach and Coach Collaboration?

Collaboration is an important 21st Century skill that is of critical need for our students as the future participants of industry, entrepreneurial opportunities, education, and government. Collaboration is a valuable commodity that in its appearance seems more art than science, when the opposite is just as true.

Partnership for 21st Century Learning, an organization that addresses a variety of areas, including Education, defines Collaboration as:

  • Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams
  • Exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal
  •  Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member

Working together for a common goal can be more challenging than it would appear. A common example is group work. One or two team members  do the work while other teammates are either not included in doing the interesting tasks; or they choose to stand aside, content to let the others do all the work, before showing up to share in the credit.

These occurrences are not unique to student teams. There are many stories where adults felt excluded from doing the interesting work, or having a voice in the decisions. There are also people who take credit for the work done by others. One solution is to teach the Science of Collaboration to students so that they become skillful users by the time they enter colleges and careers.

Science of Collaboration

Often collaboration is presented as something that we just do. Put students into groups. Some how, sometimes magically, they work together. If there are no arguments, everyone takes on tasks, and work is completed, collaboration must be going well. This is not collaboration. It's parallel play.

Collaboration is at its best when decisions are not easily made because there are a diversity of ideas. Everyone wants their voice to be heard. People are effective cat herders. Functioning in this environment and coming out with ideas larger than the group and decisions are made with complete support and understanding by the team requires explicit tools and skills for effective collaboration.

Collaboration, as with all 21st Century Skills, should be taught, coached, and assessed with the same thoughtful considerations as done with content of an academic course. Putting students into teams an expecting effective and thoughtful collaboration is like rolling a ball to new recruits and expecting them to play football or basketball at a high level of skill and strategic thinking. Not likely meeting expectations.

Strategies for Building Collaboration

There are many strategies that rely on effective use of Collaboration skills. Defining and building a framework for Collaboration, and implementing a guide and a Coaching Chart all create a context for students to work with others that intentionally teach, coach, and assess Collaboration.

Below is a list of various strategies and tools that when used within this intentional context, the learning experiences can be deeper and more productive. Students are no longer going through the motions of an activity. They are empowered to monitor and support the success of the learning experiences.

  • Communication for Collaboration
    • Elbow Partners
      This tried and true activity is a quick way to get students into discussion pairs, maximizing time on task. If students sit in pairs or quads, they can conveniently turn to their neighbor who is their designated partner. There can also be a "Left" and "Right" Elbow partner with quads.
    • Mediation Process
      This 4-step guide teaches and supports conflict resolution by students. Teachers do not intervene until the 3rd step. Read this article for details.
    • Talk Moves
      Provide learners with this list of talking prompts that address a variety of conversation responses. Some areas include framing a respectful disagreement or agreement to asking clarifying and probing questions. Explore the options in more details in this article.
  • Feedback Prompts
    • "Be Constructive, Specific, and Kind" 
      This is how critiques of work products should happen. Yet without guidance, the feedback can turn into an open dumping of disconnected ideas. The receiver can become overwhelmed and be unable to hear anything useful. Clear starter stems, as seen with Talk Moves, helps set the frame for the feedback. The following starter statements teach how to give feedback that is constructive, specific, and kind.
      • I noticed… (or I like…)
      • I wonder…
      • What if…
  • Reading for Understanding Protocols
    • Say Something
      This reading protocol is a structured conversation for unpacking understanding of reading assignments. Learners dig into passages to share their thinking about the content.


 Deeper Thinking/Reflection

    • Pause Time and Think Time
      Give learners time to collect and organized their thoughts before answering questions or sharing ideas in small groups and whole class. Explore this article for ideas: Extending the Silence.
    • Chalk Talk- Example OneTwo
      Use this silent activity for learners to explore their thinking along with others. The experience enhances awareness of ideas by others. The silent task of posting and responding to posted comments and questions promotes every voice to be heard.

For a more comprehensive list with details on strategies and tools, go to this resource section on Collaboration.


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John McCarthy, Ed.S. @JMcCarthyEdS, Author of So All Can Learn: A practical guide to Differentiation

An education consultant with extensive teaching experience, John McCarthy supports instructional practices around Differentiation, Student Voice, Authentic Learning Experiences, Project-Based Learning, Instructional Technology, Writing, and Assessment.

His website, OpeningPaths.org, offers rich resources in many instructional areas, publications, and support areas. He currently travels across the United States working with schools and also coaching internationally. He teaches online graduate courses for Madonna University and online educator courses for Dell. See his LinkedIn profile for more details. John responds to comments on the blog and via social media such as Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS.

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Guest Thursday, 23 May 2019