This week’s Guest Blog is written by Joe Brassington (@jjbrassington), whose teaching features in “Powering Up Children“. This is part 4 of a series of blogs, relating to each chapter in this book. Joe’s blog unpicks constructing collaborative classrooms.

When I started teaching I had a clear vision of the kind of classroom that I wanted. I dreamt of a classroom that was filled with conversation. Children working together, to discuss, to debate, to share ideas and learn from each other. When I got my first class I eagerly began asking them to talk. 

Initially, it was a disaster. Classroom talk in my first term as a teacher was terrible, unstructured, and ineffective. Over time, I came to realise that I was completely underestimating the complexity of talk. 

‘Talk to your partner… Talk with your group…’ These are familiar, but when we ask children to talk in a classroom context the rules and expectations are completely different to their talk elsewhere. We ask them simply to talk, but we actually expect them to collaborate, listen, accept, imitate, empathise and sometimes lead. With these multi-faceted expectations, talk becomes an incredibly complex and difficult task. I am sure that we all know of many people who, even as adults, are unable to work collaboratively, or struggle to speak and listen effectively in conversation. Yet we expect children to do this every day in school and often without any guidance. 

Tools to develop learning muscles, including collaboration.

In short, I realised that we need to deliberately teach talk. I learnt that if we want collaborative classrooms, we as teachers have to carefully construct them. Becky and Guy summarise this perfectly when they say-

“In plenty of classrooms children ‘do group work’. In fewer do teachers deliberately structure the classroom so that children’s skills as collaborators and conversationalists are systematically stretched and developed”. 

Guy Claxton and Becky Carlzon, Powering Up Children

Since this realisation, I have worked to carefully and deliberately construct collaboration. I learnt a lot from my colleagues and our teaching is grounded in the learning powered approach. Here are some of the ways that we have constructed collaborative classrooms in our school. 

Talk about talk

Display breaking down learning muscles

We begin by building an awareness of collaboration, introducing the language that children need to discuss it, and importantly ensuring children understand its purpose.

  • What is collaboration?
  • When do we do it?
  • Why is it useful?

This initial discussion is vital.

In our school this happens in a 15 minute learning power focus time, taught in all classes every Monday morning. The learning power lead in our school Nicola Suddaby (@NKSuddaby) helps all teachers to design and run these sessions. These conversations are supported with our younger children by using learning powered puppets. Through stories, our ‘socialising songbird’ puppet teaches children about collaboration. 

Model talk

Example of a display showing learning partners that change regularly, therefore encouraging collaboration with a range of children.

Next, children need to see collaboration in action. I regularly model collaboration with children and with adults. Just like modelling writing, sometimes I model a good example but sometimes I make deliberate mistakes for us to critique together. Powerful lessons can be learnt from each. Through this process my class build their own success criteria for effective collaboration. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What do I need to do to achieve success in collaborative tasks? 

In our school, this is sometimes recorded on displays, like a working wall for collaboration. This could include sentence stems to support conversations or golden rules for effective collaboration. 

Deliberate design

The teachers I work with are deliberate in planning opportunities to challenge children’s collaborative skills and allow them the opportunity to rehearse effective collaboration. In planning our learning events we consider how all activities will be taught to develop children’s learning powers. 

Your environment is important here. My classroom has learning partners, that change regularly. I also have flexible table layouts that are moved into different groupings to support this practice. Consider, how does your environment support collaborative learning? 

Value and reflect

Celebration wall display can be used to celebrate children who have collaborated well.

The most important thing that I do, which results in children growing as collaborators and conversationalists, is to value effective collaboration and build in opportunities where children can openly reflect on their journey as a developing collaborator.

You can show children that you value effective collaboration by praising it – weave it into your school’s reward systems. In our school we have recognition walls. Children nominate their classmates to be recognised for their learning powers. If collaboration is our focus, then the children know they need to demonstrate effective collaboration to get onto our recognition wall. We also praise in weekly whole school assemblies, where merit awards are given out with a learning power focus. Praising effective collaboration shows that you value it, but also motivates children to engage with what can be a really difficult task. 

Balance/reflection wheel that enables children to reflect on their learning, in this case collaboration.

I also make time for regular reflection. This is best planned during a collaborative task. I highlight a group who are working really effectively and ask them to explain what they are doing well. This is brilliant guidance for children who are finding collaborating more difficult. Often in our school we use the Balance Learning Wheel (@balance_edu) to support these conversations. Children rate themselves as collaborators, using the success criteria they generated earlier to support them. For example; a group might feel their collaboration was a 6 on the learning wheel. I would say, 

“That’s great! Why did you not say 4 or 5, what is it that you are doing to collaborate effectively? Now, what is going to help you get to a 7 or an 8, what would help you to collaborate more effectively?”

The learning wheel is a brilliant support for these conversations and allows children to reflect on the small steps of progress they are making as collaborative learners. 

Collaborative choice

I have recently been introducing choice and ownership to help develop our collaborative classroom further. After introducing an activity, I ask children who they think would be a good person to collaborate with on that? Sometimes I ask them how they want to approach the task more generally. Should we collaborate? Should we work independently? What size groups would be best? These elements of collaborative choice have taken time to develop, but are now resulting in really mature decision making and greater learner’s self-awareness. 

I have talked through just a few ways that my colleagues and I construct collaborative classrooms in our school. These ideas, and many more, are explored in detail in the collaboration and conversation chapter of Guy Claxton and Becky Calzon’s book “Powering Up Children”. 

I encourage you to take the time to read the chapter and let it inspire you to construct collaboration carefully, stretch skills systematically and teach talk deliberately. I think it is important now more than ever. Constructing collaborative classrooms builds community, it encourages unity and prepares children for an uncertain future that will undoubtedly require conversationalists who see value in working with each other – it offers a bright hope for our future. 

If reading this raised any questions, please feel free to get in touch, I’d be happy to help in any way I can. 

Joseph Brassington (@jjbrassington)

You can read more about collaborative learning on this page and in chapter 6 of “Powering Up Learning.


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