Collaboration is a huge buzz word in education today. Well, actually, it has been for quite awhile. I remember going to “cooperative learning” training my very first year teaching and implementing it right away. And literature circles.  And projects. Lots of dessert projects. But today collaboration has really jumped into the front seat, hailed as one of the important 4 C’s by leaders in the field such as Partnership of 21st Skills, Buck Institute for Education, and ISTE. 

But what does collaboration really look like? Feel like? Sound like? Just because we work together doesn’t mean we are truly collaborating. I’m fairly sure, having raised two children, that collaboration is not an innate skill. It needs to be taught, modeled, practiced, explored, experienced.

Collaboration starts with a conversation.

When I think of all the collaborative projects in which I have participated, they have all started with a conversation. Maybe the initial catalyst was a brainstorm, an event, a question, an ask, even a cup of coffee, but without fail, it has always moved into a conversation/discussion leading to concept development and collaboration. As teachers, we need to know the Art of Conversation. We need to know this because we need to teach our students. We must be experts. It is not about assigning an opportunity for collaboration; it is more about providing the environment for creative collaboration to ignite.


Models to Explore:

  1. Harkness Model: I taught in an independent high school for several years, and the Harkness model was used for teaching students discussion. The Harkness Table originated in 1931 as the brainchild of Philanthropist Edward Harkness (1874-1940). He wanted to make learning more interactive for students at Exeter Academy, a private school in New Hampshire. He placed students and teacher round an oval table to foster maximum involvement and participation in the classroom. No more lecturing. Civilized discourse. Conversation, discussion.
  2. Socratic Seminar:  Socratic seminars are all about asking questions and discussion. I have used this with 4-7th graders, and it really does need to be modeled and practiced, but as a result, it can create a solid foundation of teaching students how to discuss and work together.

“The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)”

Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002. 

Collaboration includes individuality. 

creating design boardsCollaboration includes students doing their own individual work in the context of a larger product, emulating true partnership. “I’m in charge of writing the script.” “I will work on the research.” “I’ll be the graphic artist.” This is where students truly shine. When I taught video storytelling to high schoolers, the first video they produced was a 100 percent individual. They chose, they wrote, they directed, they edited, they did everything by themselves. I organized the class on purpose this way so they could explore their own gifts, talents, strengths before working with others. Part of their reflection on their first production was to answer the questions:

  • What did I like about this process?
  • What did I not like?
  • Where did I struggle?
  • Where did I excel?
  • What would I want to pursue in order to become an expert?

Students approached the next production with intentional collaboration. Who is the director? Who will write the script? Who will be the editor? It often naturally fell into place, and they had an opportunity to truly collaborate and partner with each other, as they could bring their individual skill set to the project. Just like a real world production.

Collaboration needs flexibility. 5th grade design

As a teacher, I look back to my days of structured cooperative grouping and am so sad that I was so militant. I had the same rules for everyone. The more I have grown as a teacher and worked with companies and non-profits, the more I realize how working with others is all about flexibility and customization. Sure, I work and process a certain way, but I’ve learned that flexibility is essential for successful collaboration. In fact, I’ve come to the point where I have learned to never say no right away. The word “No” immediately ends a possible avenue to explore and can actually affect the tone of the collaboration. Words and phrases like “Consider this…” or ” What about?” At some point, we get to a no because we realize it isn’t the best choice or option, but we decide together.

Collaboration is necessary.

All the experts are right; collaboration is truly a life skill. In marriage, in parenting, in friendship, in business, in community. It is essential that we, as educators, explore what collaboration truly is, what it needs to be successful, and we need to intentionally teach how to collaborate to our students. We want them to experience life now, as it will be, in a safe place, where they can learn and grow before they are on their own.


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