Let’s start with two premises. First, students need collaboration skills for learning, for 21st century jobs, and for life. In school and throughout their lives, they will work in groups; will live within families and communities; will participate in teams and organizations. Second, collaborating is complicated; far more is involved than moving the students and the chairs.
When we collaborate, we need task-related skills – researching, writing, running experiments, collecting data, calculating, making presentations, and so on. We also need skills to manage the collaboration – listening to others, stretching to understand other perspectives, asserting ourselves at times, restraining ourselves at other times, giving and receiving feedback, balancing strengths and weaknesses, managing time and tasks and differences. If we want students to succeed in their collaborative projects (and the rest of their lives), they need all of these skills. Further, having these skills helps to develop positive relationships, which in turn allows their brains to engage more in the effective learning (Cozolino, 2013).
Have you heard students say they don’t like collaborative projects because they end up doing more than their share of the work, their ideas are overruled, they have partners they don’t like, or they feel intimidated by partners? Have you been disappointed by their group dynamics, which might look like parallel play or seem superficial, hostile, or lopsided? All of those situations point to missing skills. Different students have different ideas, strengths, and tempos; therefore collaborating is bound to have challenges. Since teens are increasingly able to think abstractly and since their brains are changing so dramatically, middle school and high school years are crucial for building the brainpower to collaborate.
Scaffold collaboration skills; make those scaffolds regular routines.
Everything we do changes our brains (Medina, 2014), but some of those changes are fleeting because the experiences are fleeting. Adolescent brains grow vast arrays of new connections and rapidly reorganize; in the effort to optimize how they function, connections that don’t seem important are “pruned” away. Changes that last, that is, learning that endures, depends on repeated exposure and practice. These analogies from Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life help to demonstrate:
“Musicians know that if they practice a piece of music they will get better at it. They no longer need to read every individual note; unusual combinations of notes become familiar; different segments become a whole. They may or may not know that their brains have grown new synapses, connections that did not exist until their effort made them grow. Athletes practice certain movements that might initially feel awkward and challenging, until they become natural and skillful. In the process, their brains grow the synapses to coordinate their limbs, eyesight, and breathing. This dynamic quality of the brain is called plasticity.” (Poliner & Benson, pp. 120-121)
In the same way, learning to collaborate takes practice in making agreements and group planning, expecting challenges to arise and having skills for resolving them, playing different roles, managing the work plan, and assessing afterwards as a group and individually. While Teaching the Whole Teen offers tools for each of these skills, it’s worth emphasizing an often-skipped part – establishing reflection routines for assessment. Students have to assess individually and as a group to build their skills, and the brain pathways that manage those skills.
A simple reflection routine after any collaborative task could be to ask these two questions:
- What are two specific ways we worked well together? This question allows a group to identify its assets and effective habits, feel confident as a group and acknowledged as individuals.
- What’s at least one strategy we should try next time? Routinely asking this question fosters the expectation of continual improvement. Every group can improve. And, we have to help students build skills in relatively smooth-running situations if we want them to access those skills in tougher situations. Discussing group dynamics for the first time when a conflict arises isn’t a fair expectation.
Additional questions could become routine as well. How did leadership help our group? Can each of us explain our result? Was any idea ignored; how did being ignored impact our process and our group? What were our worst distractions? When we were off-task, what helped us get back on-task? Various questions might apply to different tasks. What’s important is establishing reflection as a regular routine. Reflecting can’t become a skill without practice; it can’t become a habit without regular use.
Collaboration requires individual accountability.
No matter how social a given situation is, each of us is ultimately the only person who manages ourselves. Within a collaborative group, a student has to follow through on tasks, speak up with ideas, stretch perspectives to appreciate others’ ideas and skills and needs. Those are internal tasks. Adolescents’ brains develop capacities for such abstract thinking and metacognition with recurring structures, prompts, and formats giving students practice to look within.
Thinking and learning depend on “…two brain systems. One system, comprised of multiple neural networks, is referred to as the ‘looking out’ system, which pays attention to the immediate world around us. Other networks comprise the ‘looking in’ system, which processes reflections, emotions, and longer-term abstract ideas (Immordino-Yang, 2016). Our brains toggle between the two systems; if one is on, the other is in stand-by mode. In order for students to process their thoughts, find compelling connections, and evaluation meanings for themselves, they need time to think – in discussions and all classroom experiences.” (Poliner & Benson, p. 10)
“In What Ways Did I Contribute to My Group?” (Tool 5-7 from Teaching the Whole Teen) offers a routine for individual reflection. Some students may be ready to use the tool as is. Support others by brainstorming aloud what each action can look like. Your questions and suggestions, offered privately, based on your careful observation of how groups worked will help students as well. Differentiate and adapt as needed to help students develop these subtle social-emotional learning (SEL) skills.
Group and individual reflection improve adult collaboration too.
In faculty workshops on improving students’ collaboration skills, many teachers have started by assessing themselves as very skilled at collaborating. Given a group problem to solve, some less effective behaviors inevitably arise. In most of those workshops, the teachers are still confident that they collaborated well until having to answer the question: “Can each group member explain the group’s results? If so, initial here.” Much deeper discussion about collaborating suddenly begins with connections easily made to committees and departments. It is well worth making reflection routines a regular practice for faculty as well as students. Teachers will more likely see the value of spending time on reflection with students and can improve their own work environment!