By Kevin Scott
Remember when we did everything we could to avoid eye contact with the teacher so we wouldn’t be put in a group with students we didn’t want to work with? To me, that was collaborative learning—avoidance.
As a teacher, I was reluctant to try collaborative learning. My first year of teaching was awkward because I was hired after the first quarter was over. I tried desperately to get my middle school history classes caught up, which was a challenge on its own. I was new, a little scared, and didn’t want to give up control. As an experienced teacher, I turned to collaborative work at any opportunity. One of my favorite strategies was conducting simulations. I found any excuse to try one. Simulating a cattle drive with balled up newspapers (cattle), brooms, and hockey sticks (to drive the cattle)? Sure, why not? An Ellis Island simulation where students act as immigration officials? What could possibly go wrong? History was perfect for experimenting with collaborative learning because it gave the students the latitude to voice their opinions and guided them into problem solving creatively. The “real world” lessons were real. It’s powerful to ask a group of 12-year-olds what they would do in a situation like the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis before telling them that it was a major world event.
As a dad, I know collaborative learning is happening constantly. I asked my two boys what they like about it, and they independently told me that it’s a lot more fun to learn with their friends. That’s a natural response, so I pressed them some more. “I like it because we can talk about our ideas and when we can’t think of anything new, someone else in the group comes up with a different solution,” my 8- year-old said. I was curious about how their teachers created the groups. As a teacher, I attempted to create the dream team of groupings. I tried putting an outgoing student with a shy one, a very smart but not-so-confident student with someone who was a little too confident, et cetera. And my success rate was less than perfect. At the elementary school where my boys go it sounds like the teachers mostly just assign numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 . . . 1, 2, 3, 4). Combined, they’ve been there for eight years, so again, I pressed. “All of your teachers just count off like that?” And again, independently, they told me yes, most of the time it’s just counting off. I guess it works just as well as my “perfect” groups.
I’m happy the boys have this experience and will grow up in schools that support it. It’s very rare in any job I’ve had that I work on a project completely alone. We know that when they enter the workforce will be very different than it is now. Yet the little lessons they learn as they grow up will stay with them for whatever lies ahead.
As a former teacher, a parent, and a lifelong student, I would say the keys to a positive collaborative learning experience are the following:
1. Be Flexible—You never know when you’ll need to think on your feet.
2. Provide Support—But remember, support isn’t steering them directly to the answer.
3. Treat the Situation Like a Piece of Art—It’s a delicate balance that needs to be thoughtful for everyone.
4. Stay Positive—As cliché as that sounds, you will hear complaints, and the best advice may be to lead by example and take an empathetic approach.
5. Maintain a Fun Factor—Sometimes a little competition can be a great motivator. Keep it upbeat and fun for all. It’s amazing how certain students will shine when they’re having a good time with a project or task, and you’ll have a great time watching it happen!
More on collaborative learning and teacher effectiveness.