Wednesday, December 14, 2016

4Cs Series: Collaboration

EdTechTeam will soon be unveiling several new online courses, and we're working hard and discovering so many great ideas we just can't wait! This is one of a four part series on the 4Cs in the classroom: Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.

We are told that we must have our students collaborate more often and that the upcoming job market is looking for individuals who can work together and collaborate. In fact, collaboration is one of our modern 4Cs which are as popular as the three Rs were decades ago. There aren’t many educators who would argue these points today but there is one problem for a lot of educators- while everyone is telling us to do it, no one is helping us understand how it is done.

Understand the Relationships in Collaboration

While there are many definitions of collaboration out there, my favorite is from Ken Royal, educator in Connecticut, “Collaboration is in its simplest, and most understandable form, getting individuals, who may or may not have similar interests, to work together in an organized endeavor to a satisfying and most appropriate group end.” Putting a bunch of students in a group and giving them a task will often not work if there isn’t an established mutual respect and community between the members.

For years, even decades, educators have been separating students by ability level in an effort to differentiate instruction. While this may work well in some learning activities, it does not work well with collaborative group work. In fact, it can be surprising to learn that groups with a wide range of talents and backgrounds contribute to high performing group work as does a range in aptitude. It’s true! There is research that shows that all group members benefit from each other in collaborative groups and lower performing students increase achievement (Clifford, 2016).

Community First

Once we build groups, our first step to effective collaboration in the classroom is to create a safe community. Safe communities happen when members of a group (students and/or adults) feel safe in communicating their opinions and thoughts. In their chapter on Collaboration, Friend and Cook say “Knowledge, perspectives and values must be shared by participants in order for collaboration to be successful, and for this to happen, participants must be willing to work together.”

It can be hard to create safe communities and, many times, teachers must teach students how to interact with each other. For instance, a safe community involves teaching students how to listen to each other. We all know students don’t just “listen” when they are told to.

TIP: One activity teachers can introduce is a small group discussion once a week about a current event article. One member of the group can sit out or the group can video tape themselves and evaluate the group members on (1) making eye contact, (2) empathizing with each other (3) allowing members to finish speaking before they interject.

Ken Royal gives us one more essential key to building community and that is to allow one more “C” word- Compromise. Remember back to when you were a teenager. Do you remember ever thinking someone else had a good idea? Nah- it was always your ideas that were (and maybe still are) the best. Students need to be taught how to discuss topics with an open mind. Emerson wrote that true transcendence could only happen when one’s mind is completely open and willing to consider opinions through discourse. Students can still have an opinion, it is our job to teach them to be open to differing opinions and consider all sides in order to be an effective collaborator.

TIP: There is an easy activity that can help students get into this habit. Ask them to spend ten minutes each week in groups working with a group to “Build a Consensus” - they plan a mock birthday party, field trip, or weekly dinner menu. These superficial plans can be gradually moved into exploring a new unit for class or discussing a different concept in a unit. After a while, students can discuss their own questions(2).

Understanding What a Collaborator Is

By the time a safe community has been formed and students have a knack for listening to each other, we’ll then need to teach them what collaborators are. Friend and Cook (1992) have a wonderful list of effective collaborative qualities:

1. Collaboration is voluntary;
2. Collaboration requires parity among participants;
3. Collaboration is based on mutual goals;
4. Collaboration depends on shared responsibility for participation and decision making;
5. Individuals who collaborate share their resources; and
6. Individuals who collaborate share accountability for outcomes.

Rather than simply sharing this list with students, ask them to explain what each of these mean in their own words. By doing this, we are asking them to consider the words and what the statements really mean to them. We’ve provided a HyperDoc for a group activity you can use. Have an honest discussion about what they like and don’t like about collaborative work. One popular fear (and valid) is that there is usually one person who does all the work and the other group members know it so do little, if any, work. We’ll address this later.

Understanding What Collaboration Looks Like

As teachers, we know the “engaged” tone in the room and the “not-on-topic” tone in the room. Funny isn’t it? Based on the simple cadence of conversation, we know what are students are doing behind our backs. Miriam Clifford identifies 7 key behaviors you’ll want to encourage and look for in collaborative group work:

  • Initiating Discussions
  • Clarifying points
  • Summarizing
  • Challenging assumptions/devil’s advocate
  • Providing or researching information
  • Reaching a consensus

It may be a series of mini-lessons and a checklist for each group to follow at first, but soon these behaviors will become natural and feel natural to them.

Effective Collaborative Assignments

It is no secret that the most effective collaborative assignments involve problem solving. Rote skills are very rarely effective in group work, nor are they very interesting. STEM projects have the highest success rate for collaborative work, although it is easy to bring problem solving into a humanities class as well.

I asked students in my English class to read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad during their 12th grade year. While many would think this is a cruel torture, we ended up loving the book each year. They witnessed the disease, racial relationships, and political corruption that can still be found in parts of the world today. At the end of the unit, I gave each group an impossible task to solve for instance, solving the issue of malaria politically, humanly, economically, and practically. Think about the research and discourse that is required to even begin tackling a challenge like this. They were tasked with solving a problem that has never been solved - a fantastic voyage into collaborative work soon followed.

Grading Collaborative Work

One question I am asked frequently (by students and their worried parents) is “How do you grade it?” As mentioned before, there are always seems to be groups where one student will work on the assignment and the whole group will take credit for it.

When my students were given a collaborative assignment, they always knew they’d be graded on part of it as a group and part of it individually. In the malaria problem solving example above, as a group, they were graded on their in-class discussions and outline (done in class) of the project. They split the project into parts and individuals were then accountable for the part they volunteered for. Most often this was a website the group designed and each group member would be responsible for a page on the site.

When we can give grades on what is actually being collaborated on as a whole and then split some of it up for those individual parts, we can begin grading group work fairly.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

The beauty of the digital age is that students don’t have to be sitting in the same room together to work collaboratively on a project There are many applications available that allow for asynchronous collaboration such as the GSuite apps (Docs, Slides, Blogger, etc), Padlet, Google Groups, and Educlipper.  

My suggestion however, would be to ask that any part of the assignment that is being graded for a “group” grade be done in class, face-to-face, as much as possible. This allows for you as the teacher to have a genuine idea of where a group is in their assignment and it allows the students to be held accountable during that check-in time for what they are doing on their individual parts. One idea I found helpful was to have collaborative groups use a Google Doc for their notes and planning. Each day they were working in that doc, I’d be sitting with my computer in the middle of the classroom with a tab open for each group’s doc. I could physically listen to the discussion going on around me and see what they were typing in the doc. I was able to use Google’s commenting feature to give them real time feedback as they discussed their project and they could adjust accordingly right then and there.

So there it is - some ideas for collaboration that are tried and true. We’d love to hear any ideas you have for collaboration ideas in your classroom - share with us on Twitter at @edtechteam and #edtechteam. Want learn more about the 4Cs and Beyond? Join us at our #edtechteam events across the world and online!

Kate Petty
Director Certification Programs

Works Cited
@kenroyal, and @@Connect_Learn. "The Meaning of Education Collaboration." Connect Learning Today. 24 July 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
"Chapter 5: Collaboration." U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State. Web. 28 Nov. 2016. "20 Collaborative Learning Tips And Strategies For Teachers." TeachThought. 30 June 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

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