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Collaboration That Counts

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By Robert Barnett, a co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project and a math teacher and resident scholar at the Leysin American School

Recently, I attended a conference session on effective collaboration. After introducing himself, the presenter asked us to form small groups, with other attendees who we didn't know, and gave us poster paper and sticky notes. Our task? To define the conditions required for effective collaboration in our schools.

As a lawyer by training, I enjoy abstract questions like these. But as my group stood somewhat aimlessly around our poster paper, making awkward small talk while we tried to figure out what to do, I started to ask myself the type of questions that my students used to ask me. For instance, why are we doing this? What's the point of working with random people? And do we really have to do this together?

This sort of "collaborative" activity comes right out of Teacher Training 101. I suffered through this exercise and others like it—the turn-and-talk, the jigsaw, the gallery walk, etc.—during my own training and spent the beginning of my teaching career putting my students through them. But my students, like me in that awful conference session, never really got much out of these forced interactions. They recognized the inherent artificiality of scripted collaboration. And as a result, they never really learned to work together.

As an educator and entrepreneur who works hand in hand with colleagues on a daily basis, I know that  collaboration between learners is essential, both for learning new content and as a skill in its own right. But I also know that it can't be forced. If we want students to become real team players, we need to create in their classrooms the conditions for authentic collaboration—which is the only collaboration that counts.

What are those conditions? I propose the following:

  1. Tasks Worth the Effort.  There's no reason to collaborate on simple tasks or problems—it's just as easy to work alone. As adults, we collaborate because the things we need help on are too big, or too challenging, or too important for us to tackle by ourselves. Student tasks must be significant enough in scope that students see a real reason to ask others to contribute.

  1. Freedom to Choose.  Forced collaboration is burdensome. Why, students wonder, do I have to work with others when I could do this better by myself? (Or, in some cases, when another group member can do it all for me?) When students choose to collaborate, however, the true benefits of working together start to appear. Collaboration will be most effective when it's most authentic.

  1. Positive Reinforcement.  Students may not instinctively choose to work together—they're often shy or hesitant to share ideas. As educators, therefore, it's incumbent upon us to encourage students to take the risk of collaborating, to explain why collaboration might be useful, and to help students reflect after the fact on the benefits that collaboration has provided. We can't force student mindsets to shift, but we can certainly spur them along.

Collaboration is rarely easy. It can lead to disagreement, blame, and frustration. But when we face difficult challenges, choose to tackle those alongside others, and reflect on what teamwork empowers us to do, we realize that collaborative solutions are almost always better than individual ones. This is the experience, and the lesson, that we must share with our students as well.

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