Just Listen: Kids Talk About Collaboration

Working as a group has advantages, Garlyn told me: “You can bring all those ideas together and come up with something bigger than what you would do on your own.” Yet, like most kids, she sees disadvantages, too. What if the other kids don’t all do their parts? Listen as she weighs the pros and cons:

But just as the social elements of learning can jump-start interest in a topic, so collaboration often clarifies and spurs students’ thinking. Kenneth noted that peers are often better than the teacher in explaining things so kids “get” them.

For Michecarly, whose geometry class was assigned to create a scale model, working in a small group made all the difference. “We helped each other with little details,” he said, “’cause we were each good at a certain part.”

Like every skill, teamwork takes coaching. When kids reflect on their most successful collaborations, I notice, their teachers had always provided deliberate practice in negotiating the dynamics of a working group. These students learned how to assign individual parts to play and how to trade off tasks. They had protocols by which to fill in the gaps of each other’s knowledge and to adapt as the work developed and changed. They had respectful ways to assess each other’s participation.

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series of 11 short clips in which kids give their views on collaborating at school.

Then ask yourself how you coach collaboration in your classroom. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to whomever shares the best reply in the Comments field below.

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One thought on “Just Listen: Kids Talk About Collaboration

  1. As a preservice teacher, I am certainly still learning how to use collaboration effectively. I am currently teaching 11th and 12th grade English classes, and the question of how I “coach collaboration in my classroom” made me realize that thus far, I have different norms and expectations for each grade level. Because I have found that my seniors are, for the most part, more mature, I have allowed them to choose their own groups. With the juniors, the groups are usually predetermined, or determined by the results of an activity we have done in class (for example, we completed an activity called “True Colors” where students each took a personality test to determine their colors. Then students of the same color got into groups and discussed their common personality traits, likes, and dislikes.). Any thoughts on which is traditionally better- picking the groups for the students or allowing them to select their own teams/partners?

    I have found that I am still nervous at times about collaboration in the physical classroom, not because I don’t like it, but because it has been incredibly difficult to keep the students on task. And the fewer number of people in each group, the more difficult it is to ensure everyone is working. At the same time, I dislike sending group work home because I know how busy kids are with extracurricular activities, jobs, siblings to care for, and more. When I was in high school, I remember disliking out-of-class group work because finding a time and place we could all meet was nearly impossible (this is also mentioned in chapter 8 of “Fires in the Mind”).

    In the first video, Garlyn mentions that collaboration is helpful in English class because there is “more use for different opinions.” This is absolutely true, and the exact reason I wanted to be an English teacher! I love giving kids the opportunity to express their opinions and beliefs because I want my students to see that everyone has different ideas to contribute. But this is much harder than it looks; organizing an activity that engages everyone and ensures that all feel comfortable voicing their opinions is extremely difficult.

    Last week, my juniors did their first Socratic Seminar, with the discussion questions addressing the themes and main premise of a novel we are just beginning to read. Students were all given the opportunity to discuss how they felt about the themes of this futuristic novel, and how it would feel to be a child living in the time and place of the book. And while the overall discussion was a huge success (students loved the open discussion and enjoyed hearing their classmates’ opinions, as well as being able to voice their own), only half of the class spoke. Some students spoke only once during the class period, while others talked six or seven times. My question is this: How do I build a community in my classroom where all students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, and all students WANT to be a part of the discussion?

    In chapter 8 of your book, Kathleen, you briefly discuss group homework, which allows for students to help each other with individual struggles and difficulties. Both Claude and Jacob mention that collaboration divides the work up evenly, thus each person is responsible for a specific piece and the work is completed faster. For Michecarly in the third video, the task of building a house in geometry class was his favorite project because in groups, they could divide the work up by determining each others’ strengths. This leads to my second question: If students each complete the part of a group project that they are good at, how do they ever develop the skills and knowledge needed to do the parts with which they struggle the most?

    While I am still learning how to best use collaboration to help my students, I know that the best way to to do this is sometimes simply trial and error. I will continue to try new techniques of arranging and setting up groups, new group activities which allow for an array of ideas and beliefs, and new opportunities for students to learn and succeed through collaboration.

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