Building a Culture of Collaboration

Unfortunately I’ve seen it and heard it many times..  “My students just won’t collaborate!  They won’t get along during group activities.   They don’t know how to collaborate.”  Many teachers get frustrated with their class when this happens.  Students are given this amazing and engaging activity to do in a group, to collaborate together to complete a project or even as simple as answer a question – yet – it doesn’t happen. Instead, students are thrown into a situation where, by no fault of theirs, they are not ready for.  Many teachers forget to take the vital step of setting up their classroom for success during collaborative activities.  They haven’t yet built a culture of collaboration in their classrooms.

For true collaboration to take place, teachers must establish a classroom culture conducive to student interaction and to students taking on active roles in the classroom learning community.  Teachers have to get comfortable with losing some of the control they have over talk-time and over wide but shallow coverage of a huge amount of content.  <—– THIS IS HARD!  I get it.  True collaboration can only take place when teachers first, take the time to build the culture and secondly, take a step back and allow collaboration to happen.  So let’s break this down.  How DO we build a culture of collaboration?

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Step One – Accepting Student Differences

“A leader’s job is to touch every one of those people so they know they’re free to think and do things better.”

* Are our students free to think and do things better?
* How would our students react to knowing that they are all unique, and that their differences are not just tolerated, but that their differences, perspectives, and diverse experiences actually add to the small-group and classroom learning experiences?
* What would our classrooms look like if we truly believed that of our students?


Let’s make a commitment to ourselves and to our students that we will not be the type of teacher who never knows how deep our students’ thinking can be.  Let’s instead use multiple ways of giving students opportunities to demonstrate the depths of their cognitive abilities.  


Step Two – Fostering Student Collaboration

How are you grouping your students?
*Choice of group
*Mixed ability
*Face-buddy or shoulder-buddy
*Strategic grouping

How are your desk arrangements conduscive to fostering collaboration?
*U-shaped to allow teacher to be apart of the conversation?



Regardless of group or arrangement, it is the teacher’s informed judgements that make each grouping scenario work.  Teachers make decisions based on their own teaching styles and their experiences with the students in their classroom.  They make decisions based on the trust that they placed in each student, believing that, although the students were different, each had valuable gifts to share within their groups.  Another part of this is finding unique opportunities to allow students to talk to one another in structured yet collaborative ways. Check out my Engagement Strategy Cards for over 60 different ideas to help get you started!


Step Three – Peer Rejection and Peer Acceptance


Research has shown a direct correlation between participation and self-concept within students.  Peer rejection is & can be a major factor in the decrease of self-concept therefore decreasing participation as well.  It is our job as teachers to create an environment where students feel safe to participate. How do we create classrooms where everyone feels free to participate?  For the answer to that question, let’s talk about #4:  ‘Rippling’ questions and prompts.


Step Four – Asking Rippling Questions


What happens when you ask a deep, thought provoking question to the class at the end of a lesson?All students should have the opportunity to reflect upon and answer the deeper, higher level, reflective type questions.  To do that, teachers need to ‘ripple’ their questions. Allow all students to respond and reflect by means of quick writes or quick draws.  Students can also be given the chance to pair up and discuss with partners before then being asked to discuss whole group.  


Step Five – Building Confidence
Students need the opportunity to feel validated and have their voice heard.  When this happens through collaboration in the classroom, their confidence in themselves increases.  
Teachers can help facilitate student confidence by:
* Validating students’ answers
* Encouraging students to share with others
* Not accepting incorrect answers
Step Six – Building Trust – The Teacher Belief System
In order for students to collaborate and learn freely, trust needs to be a center focus and pillar of the classroom.  Trust takes work and it is earned. In order for a classroom to be centered around trust, it begins with the teacher’s belief system.  Does the teacher really believe that kids are capable of big things?  Do you trust them? Do you think that they want to learn?  Do you trust that they have amazing things to share?  Do you trust that they can learn from each other especially because of their learning differences?  Do you trust that if they trust themselves, amazing things will happen?


Step Seven – Students Trusting Themselves


A collaboration focused classroom doesn’t just work if the students trust the teacher and the teacher trusts the students – the students also need to trust in themselves.  This comes with building confidence! What are you doing to encourage and teach your students to trust in themselves?


Step Eight – Walking Around and Following Through


What does ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ really do for us?  If you are expecting all students to participate and collaborate then they also need to be held accountable to those standards.  Our jobs during this time is to encourage, facilitate, and move around asking questions to help and guide students.  Students will pick up on the expectations you are laying down by holding them accountable for their participation.  With consistency, classrooms can become a place where students not only enjoy the interaction but expect it.  But follow through is necessary.  


Step Nine – Moving Away from Right & Wrong


In most scenarios that require students to display higher-order thinking, teachers will no longer be looking for the ‘right’ answer.  Instead, multiple possibilities often exist.   Allow students to evaluate their learning and justify their answers. Allow wait time, processing time alone or with partner/small group – more likely to get better whole group conversation. Students become invested in the different points of views being shared, learning how to agree and disagree with peers.  




So let’s take a minute to reflect on these steps and your own classroom…

 *What are your thoughts on the importance of student interaction?
*What have you noticed regarding students who do and do not experience success in your classroom?
*What are the dynamics of peer rejection and peer acceptance in your classroom? What role can you play in promoting peer acceptance?
*How is trust evident in your classroom? what can you do this week to increase the trust and student confidence in your classroom?
*How can trust and accountability coexist within a classroom?
So there you have it. When something collaboratively doesn’t go right in your classroom next time, stop and think about these steps and questions. Where could you support your students more to help build this culture in your classroom? What could you change/do to have the biggest impact on their ability to collaborate with one another? The smallest change could have the biggest impact. 🙂

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I’m a wife, a mommy of 3, blogger, and a full time teacher author and presenter. I love to read, shop, and spend time with my family! My hands are always busy, but my heart is so full!

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