Teaching children how to collaborate, and creating a variety of learning experiences which enable them to collaborate, is not only an excellent way to develop a dynamic and fluid classroom, but it also builds confidence in children as learners. I have found this empowering for children on two levels:
- They learn that collaboration is a useful learning tool (as it is also in real life),
- They are able to clarify, build on and develop learning by discussing ideas with their friends. This becomes ever-stronger if they have a good vocabulary of Learnish (e.g. "I wonder how we could challenge ourselves further?!")
By creating a collaborative classroom, children grow in confidence as learners, begin to see that the sky is the limit in their learning and learn to rely on a range of children in the class (not just their close friends or the teacher). This also, incidentally, makes your job easier as the children learn to seek out each others' help before going to an adult. And this, in turn, breeds independence and interdependence. Perhaps my favourite outcome of creating a collaborative classroom is that children who might have been branded as "low ability" make leaps and bounds of progress as they begin to mimic their friends and believe in themselves as learners. Is it any wonder that I put "collaboration" at the top of my list for a Learning Powered Class?!
Developing collaboration on two levels
I have purposefully split the first sentence on this page into two parts:
- "Teaching children how to collaborate" and
- "creating a variety of learning experiences which enable them to collaborate".
To really develop collaboration skills throughout the year, you need to plan for and teach both elements. So, you will need to plan in experiences and lessons where the children will get to collaborate with a variety of children (not the same ones - this doesn't work - it's making collaboration dynamic that really works) AND make the "guts" of collaboration explicit to the children. One way you can do this is by asking children:
- What would a good collaborator look/sound like during this learning?
- What would a bad collaborator look/sound like? - at this point, a bit of role play to show them bad collaboration between you and your LSA gets a good giggle from the children! "Teachers behaving badly!".
Ideally, this should be built on and developed throughout the year, so that children are constantly and continuously getting better at collaborating. For example, by the end of the year, children might understand that great collaborators find ways to include others in their group, or are able to take on a range of roles in a collaborative situation. I have sometimes created a display for the children to refer to during the year. I have written about this on the "learning environment" page.
Start slowly: beginning collaborative learning.
Children need to be taught to collaborate, just like you would teach anything else. This starts with small steps and is a gradual culture change. In his latest book, The Learning Power Approach, Guy Claxton uses a mayonnaise metaphor to describe this kind of culture change - just like you would add drops of oil to make homemade mayonnaise, one drop at a time, make one small culture change in your classroom at a time.
I would start developing collaboration from the very first week by challenging my class to find new learning partners. This can be hard and a bit scary for some of the children at first, but they quickly get used to it (especially if you “sell” it well!). By doing this from the word go, the children are building a habit of collaborating from day one. It is sending a clear message that this is something we will be learning to get better at throughout the year. It can seem hard at first, but, if you stick at it, it will pay off dividends in the future. Not only this, but it is the children who find collaborating the hardest, who need it most. If we avoid practising these skills, their "socialising muscles" will remain weak and they will go through their school lives (and perhaps their adults lives) unable to learn and share ideas with others.
When I persist with learning with new partners, within a few weeks children will articulately tell me why collaboration is useful (“Because you make new friends!” “Because if you learn with someone new, they might know something you don’t”). This knowledge (that they are learning a skill in school that will be useful to them in later life) is very empowering and motivating for the children. They also love the idea that their friends can be useful resources for learning!
Embedding collaborative learning.
To plan collaborative learning and experiences, you will need to begin to mix your class up. This can be a scary prospect if you have a well-oiled system that works. All I can say is your perseverance and mistake-making will pay off in the end and by mixing the children up, and sticking at making this work, you will have a more dynamic classroom and will begin to see positive results (such as children gaining in confidence and making great progress).
As well as constantly reflecting on what good collaboration looks like with your class, I would suggest sometimes making roles explicit in whole group collaborative situations. @voice21oracy have created a range of useful resources designed specifically for this purpose. There is one below for planning roles in think-pair-share. Plenty more can be found here: https://www.voice21resources.org/ I would highly recommend signing up to their site!
There are plenty ideas as to how you can create dynamic collaborative groups and tailor the groups to each lesson on the page on "Mixed Attainment Learning". There are also examples of successful collaborative lessons on my blog, such as these posts:
Here are some other ways I’ve planned in collaborative learning in my classroom:
Here are some examples of collaborative learning
Mixed Attainment Collaborative Writing
In this photo, children are collaboratively using post-its to improve sentences using interesting adjectives and adverbs. The understanding in the group is that all children contribute and all ideas are valued. I always pick my mixed groups carefully, thinking about the dynamic of the group socially by ensuring the group has positive role models and more outspoken children, as well as shy children or those with trickier behaviour. By doing this, it is possible to capitalise on the learning behaviours of the children who are positive role models and use that to help teach the others how to collaborate.
I have also used mixed attainment pairs to write and edit writing successfully. In this lesson in particular, I found the children were especially supportive of each other’s learning. They encouraged each other to improve and edit as they went and carefully planned their writing before writing down their ideas. Of course, they won’t just do this! You have to teach them how to too! This doesn’t take much time; start by asking them, “What will good collaboration look like today?” I would also model good collaborating as part of our input. In this way, the children start to build up a picture of what good collaboration looks like. This can be built on and developed in the future.
Mixed Attainment Collaborative Maths
Most of the guided maths I teach is through mixed attainment groupings where children can move through levels of challenge. The children find this really supportive as they can share ideas and strategies and therefore don’t “freeze” when faced with a challenge. I often create mixed attainment pairs before each lesson (or series of lessons). This means that every child has a supportive partner they can plan with and use to extend or support their learning.
Pairing children in this way also takes the cap off their learning and I find children often surprise me by mastering maths I wouldn’t have previously thought they could have grasped. In these photos, the children are collaborating to build 3D shapes. They are not only using mathematical language and are problem-solving to get the shape they want; they are also learning to persevere with tricky learning and patiently share ideas and strategies with a new learning partner.