01. Collaborative Learning

Create a variety of learning experiences which enable children to collaborate

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. Creating an effective collaborative classroom is the absolute bedrock of a learning powered class and is the launchpad to other Design Principles, such as reflection and building independence.

I have found developing collaborative skills and opportunities empowering for children on two levels:

  1. They learn that collaboration is a useful learning tool (as it is also in real life),
  2. 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:

  1. Teaching children how to collaborate” and
  2. 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!

Collaborative groupings

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:

N.B. If you are new to this and feel a little scared about taking the plunge, I highly recommend reading Matt Curtis’ blog about moving from ability group teaching to mixed attainment, fluid groups.

Examples of collaborative learning

As children get comfortable and confident with a fluid, collaborative classroom, I plan in more and more opportunities to deepen and strengthen this skill. In fact, when developing any learning habit, Guy Claxton suggests extending each skill on 3 levels:

  • Broadening – expanding the contexts in which ‘good collaboration’ happens.
  • Strengthening – making the disposition more robust, so it need less and less support or prompting
  • Deepening – making the skills of collaboration richer and more sophisticated. 

So once you have the basics of collaboration in place, the aim is to look for opportunities to broaden, strengthen and deepen collaboration as a learning skill. Below are some examples of broadening, strengthening and deepening collaboration skills.

Mixed Attainment Collaborative Maths

Mixed attainment pair collaborating to work how to build a 3D shape from sticks.
In order to solve the problem, children must share ideas and learn from their mistakes

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 regularly pair children up with new learning partners (in some classes, this has changed each lesson. I currently change learning partners weekly) This means that every child has a supportive partner they can plan with and use to extend or support their learning.

Mixed attainment pair collaborate to solve the problem of building a 3D shape from sticks.
Mixed attainment children grapple with the challenge of making a prism from sticks

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.

Collaborative writing opportunities.

Once children have a basic understanding of collaboration and are starting to feel comfortable with using it as a tool in the classroom, I plan more sophisticated and challenging opportunities to develop this skill. There are infinite possibilities for this. Here are a few ideas:

  • Purposefully plan learning for different sized groups. When conducting lesson studies on collective efficacy for Shirley Clarke, we discovered that children learnt most effectively in pairs – learning in groups of 3 or 4 was often more of a challenge. So, think carefully about collaborative group sizes and begin to stretch and challenge your children to learn in different-sized groups.
  • Increase the breadth of collaborative opportunities. I often start with maths, then extend to other subjects.
  • Look for a mix of child-led and adult-led collaborative opportunities.

One way I have extended collaborative skills, is by teaching the children (I currently teach Year Ones) to plan and edit writing together. Below is an example of the children planning to collaboratively write a “Toy Story”.

Children's toys have a tea party at the end of their adventure.
Cutie, Fly Fly Butterfly and Spiderman have a tea party and live happily ever after in one Toy Story adventure!

There were multiple opportunities for collaboration in this 3-week project:

  1. We brainstormed ideas about how we could write a toy story and collaborate as co-authors (referring to myself and Guy as co-authors helped here! It’s always good to model yourself as a learner!).
  2. The children collaborated in groups of 4 to verbally tell and “frieze-frame” scenes in their story. We talked about taking turns and how to include everyone in the group .
  3. The children negotiated to decide who would write each part of the story. If two children wanted to write the same part, I would ask “How can we solve that one then?”
  4. The children edited each other’s writing and suggested new ideas for each section.
  5. They collaborated to put the story in order and create and front and back cover.
Children collaborating to order story.
Children collaborate to put their story in order.

The children loved their books! They made them at the beginning of the academic year and were still reading them on the last day of school. Here they are reading them to their parents during our Toy Expo:

Child sharing collaborative learning with parent during Toy expo.
Children proudly share their collaborative learning with parents during our Toy Exp

Further reading

The following Guest Blog from Learning Powered Practitioner further explores collaborative learning:

Constructing Collaborative Classrooms.

And Chapter 6 in Powering Up Children is dedicated to developing a collaborative classroom – starting small, then digging deep and delving deeper.

Hand holding book - Powering Up Children


You can now order Powering Up Children from amazon. A comprehensive guide to learning power with real teaching examples, and action steps to gently incorporate these principles into your own classroom.

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