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For the past 2.6 million years humans have been working together to face the challenges of our world.  We work together to both survive and innovate constantly building on one another’s ideas.  Yet, how often do we design lessons specifically targeted at building students’ collaboration skills?

Even though we have been working together since the Stone Age, good collaboration doesn’t happen magically.

Developing the ability to work in a team and leverage the power of a group requires practice, feedback, and reflection.    

We believe that students need to collaborate to create a more sustainable, just, and healthy world.  A basic truth about humans is that we accomplish more when we work together.   In order to be Stage 5 world changers (creating real change in the real world), students need to be expert collaborators. 

Combine that with the idea that developing good collaboration skills doesn’t happen by accident and you’ll get a recipe for focusing on collaboration as an explicit goal of education.

Through each stage of our framework, collaboration evolves towards the Stage 5 level where students work in highly effective self-directed teams partnering with different groups to tackle a complex real world problem.  Wherever you are in the framework you can take steps towards that goal. Think about where you and your students are right now and how you can move towards the next level of collaboration!

Stage 1 – Adult Learning and Leadership

In this stage, we lay the foundation for collaboration by embracing the beliefs that:

1) Tapping into our collective capacity is a powerful source for generating creative solutions to complex problems (a key principle of generative leadership). 

2) All of us can learn from each other (including teachers learning from students).

Living out these beliefs in our practices primes us for creating a truly collaborative classroom.  If we get stuck thinking that we solve problems best individually or that we can’t learn effectively from one another, not only will we not be creating the culture we want for our students, but it will be more difficult to stretch and take risks the way we need to foster collaboration in our classrooms.

Stage 2 – Joyful, Efficient Classrooms with Active Processing of Learning

In this stage students engage in  cooperative learning as a means to increase efficiency, joy, and active processing.  Learning is more efficient and more joyful when we interact with others and often processing your learning requires working in groups. 

Students learn and use cooperative learning routines like pair-share, round robin, and jigsaw and are instructed by the teacher which structure to use and when to use it.  Students may work with different peers at different times depending on the goal of the activity. (Check out this link and this one for a variety of cooperative learning structures).

To take a step towards developing students as collaborative innovators in this stage, think about how you can help students learn the skills of collaboration that are transferrable no matter what routine they are using.  Consider developing norms of collaboration (e.g. “Ask clarifying questions” or  “All group members contribute”) and having students peer or self-assess their efforts on a collaboration rubric.   The goal is to begin to move from students following the protocols of a cooperative learning structures to developing the transferrable skills of collaboration. 

Stage 3 – Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction & Critical Thinking

In this stage, the goal of collaboration shifts from completing a set task efficiently to working together to create better thinking than any individual could have produced independently.  Instead of working together to complete a worksheet or even a finalized presentation, students think together to create a better intellectual product (a product for which they receive one grade as a group).  This means that students need to learn not just how to work together and divide up tasks, but how to push each other to think more deeply.  

Students learn structures for collaborating that help them refine each other’s thinking.  For example students could engage in a small group Socractic seminar or partner work where they question, build on, and challenge one another’s ideas (the Critical Thinking Foundation has great resources for this and check out the Common Core Standards for Comprehension & Collaboration).   After these collaborations, ask students to reflect on how their thinking has developed through their work with peers.

Stage 4 – Disciplinary Thinking 

In this stage, students develop their ability to work together in teams on complex tasks over extended periods of time.   Building and leading effective teams is an explicit goal in students’ education.  They learn and  apply general structures and principles for collaboration and work to together to set their team’s goals, divide up their work, and refine one another’s thinking.  Structures exist for students to routinely reflect on and provide one another feedback on their collaboration.  They also receive feedback and coaching from teachers to improve and are assessed on their ability to collaborate. 

Stage 5 – Students As World Changers

In this stage, students work in highly functioning teams that leverage the strengths of all members. Collaboration becomes completely student-driven and students adapt the general structures and principles of collaboration to fit their needs.   They think creatively about how best to collaborate given a certain goal.  At times they may divide into smaller sub-groups or ask each member of the team to think through the lens of a different discipline.  They know one another’s strengths and growth areas and help one another develop as collaborators.

Students also learn to collaborate with those outside of their school.  They might work with experts in the issue they are exploring or an international group who is trying to solve the same problem they are.  To facilitate this collaboration, students gain skills working with diverse groups, using technology and social media.

Your turn for collaboration:  what ideas do you have about how improve students’ ability to collaborate in the different stages?  With our brains combined, we can do it!


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