In the summer of 2020, educators and leaders were preparing for a new school year—one under a global pandemic. Some schools were in-person but physically distanced. Other schools were a hybrid model or fully online. There was a tremendous amount of fear and disconnection. At ACP, we wanted to offer something. Eventually, our conversations and reflections led us to the skill of collaboration. Drawing from years of experience teaching and facilitating, we compiled tried-and-true collaboration strategies into our first book, Connecting Together: Collaboration Strategies for Online and Physically Distanced Learning.
Three years later, the need for collaboration has not waned. In January 2023, the journal Nature Human Behavior provided the most comprehensive account of the academic hardships caused by the pandemic. The results suggest that the challenges of remote learning and other stressors that troubled children and families throughout the pandemic were not rectified when schools reopened their doors. Students' need for connection, community, and belonging has only increased as a result. Collaboration is an important part of addressing this need while also deepening learning and readying students for the world beyond the classroom.
Students' need for connection, community, and belonging has only increased as a result.
Let's level set. Here is our working definition.
Collaboration: A complex set of inter- and intrapersonal skills defined as "an individual’s capacity to work with other people in a process that requires interdependence to solve a problem, achieve a goal, or complete a task." (Center for Innovation in Education)
After reviewing various organizations' and researchers’ frameworks, we settled on these four (4) broad categories for collaboration.
Goals and Progress
So, why are we talking about this book? In this blog post, we offer the section introductions for each of the above categories (with some updates) to help reignite the conversation. Our aim is to help all students thrive in a collaborative learning community.
Definition: Creating a safe environment for productive collaboration to thrive
Meaningful collaboration is built upon a foundation of trust and shared goals. Use the strategies to establish routines that create emotional safety and promote a sense of “team” with and among students. These approaches are more than “nice-to-haves;” they are critical. We recommend the following, regardless of what strategy you are using to build and strengthen relationships:
Make this a consistent practice. Relationships are sustained over time with care and proper attention. Campfire and Morning Meeting are two examples of strategies that can become part of your regular practice.
Social-emotional well-being matters. Each time students come together, create space for warm-ups or check-ins. What is coming up for them? What is on their minds and hearts? It has the added benefit of creating connections between students, too.
Centralize students’ stories. As you look at the strategies provided, notice the story element contained within them. Students’ stories matter. Create and protect space for students to tell their stories and share with others.
Goals and Progress
Definition: Identifying and tracking progress toward a shared goal
“What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred?” - Mia Mingus
Learners want to be successful, and accountability can bring fear and vulnerability. The way to make accountability less scary is to make it a habit. The strategies offered in this section of the book create reliable, familiar structures to aid students in calibrating on and tracking their progress toward a common goal.
Learners want to be successful, and accountability can bring fear and vulnerability. The way to make accountability less scary is to make it a habit.
Be sure that when using any of the strategies, students have the opportunity to calibrate their understanding of the goals and reflect on the processes they are using to do so. This will strengthen their ability to self-direct their learning and make them more confident, effective collaborators with their peers.
Definition: Deprivatizing thinking and building on one another’s ideas
As learners share their thinking and build on each other’s ideas, they move beyond cooperation and into collaboration. There are a number of features to lift up here.
When they work in teams, learners...
Benefits to the individual learner
Show their work and deprivatize their thinking
Critique and build upon each other’s ideas
The strategies offered are intended to make the learning of individual learners visual in addition to verbal. As you facilitate these or other strategies, consider how students will use these “visuals” to make connections across or build upon each others’ ideas. How can you make that part of the work explicit? And, of course, don’t forget to create space for individual reflection. This can be before, during, and after the strategy. For example, use the 1, 2, 3, 4 Fingers strategy to check in on learning through the lesson, noting changes or shifts over time. Or have learners review their Field Trip note-taking document and then return to their own work or plan to revise or add to their thinking.
Definition: Seeking input to improve or refine ideas to advance toward a goal
For any team of individuals collaborating toward a common goal, feedback is a necessary and meaningful part of the journey. Before you dive into the strategies, here are some things to consider with feedback.
Ready the environment. This takes us back to the role and importance of relationship building. Make sure the culture is one of safety and trust. Create time and space for students to develop familiarity and relationships before giving and receiving feedback.
Practice quality feedback. This does not come naturally, to anyone really. An easy set of guidelines to consider are: Be kind, be helpful, and be specific. Model giving feedback. Practice asking clarifying and probing questions. Have learners practice with work that comes from outside of the classroom. Check it against the guidelines. This will be a worthwhile investment of time. And you can trust the feedback they are giving will be quality.
Provide clear foci for feedback. Keep the feedback simple and actionable by identifying a specific focus. Try having learners offer feedback on a single skill, like eye contact during a presentation or appropriate use of the science vocabulary in the field guide. You could also let your learners identify what they want help with.
Self-reflection is a part of this process. Get learners into the habit of reflecting before and after feedback sessions. About to launch into feedback? Have them consider what they want help with or which team member might be best to help them given their skills or strengths. The feedback session is over. Invite learners to think about how they can use the feedback. What do they want to act on? What do they need to learn or do to incorporate this feedback?
Investing in feedback is an incredible gift to learners. The practice will deepen students' metacognition, afford them a chance to practice success by revising their thinking and create opportunities for them to identify learning needs and set goals as needed. They have the chance to produce beautiful, high-quality work and learn more deeply.
Investing in feedback is an incredible gift to learners.
One more thing!
When learners are practicing 21st-century skills such as collaboration, there is a set of steps that should be followed to support them in using the skill appropriately. We do not outline these for each activity in the e-book.
Open the lesson by introducing the skills learners will be practicing.
Norm the skill in action. What does it look like, feel like, and sound like to build on each other’s ideas? Connect the skill to the content and learning goals. Imagine learners are constructing models for a greenhouse. How might they build on each other’s ideas using their knowledge of shapes and area formulas? If appropriate, reference the rubric you have for the skill.
Ask learners to pay attention to their use of the skill during the lesson.
Begin the lesson or activity. While learners work, circulate (this can be done virtually or in-person) to catch the work in action and provide feedback or redirection as needed. If possible, publicly share the work in action. Doing so serves as reinforcement and redirection to others.
End the lesson with a reflection on the content learned and the skills practiced. Did they use the skill, and how well did they do so? What is their evidence? Again, students can reference a relevant rubric.
And finally, ask learners to identify a goal for the next time they use the skill.
Now that you have this foundation, you are ready to get students collaborating! Note, you can use these steps for implementing other 21st-century strategies or social and emotional learning skills.
Try out one of these approaches, and let us know what you think! What resonated with you? What would modifications might you make for your learners? Share your reflections or celebrate your work with students with us on Twitter or Facebook!