In most classrooms today, students are seen working together in small groups, perhaps in learning stations in the classroom, and taking a more active role in learning. When I was in elementary school, we often were paired with a classmate for different activities and it was a great way to develop our social skills as well as develop new perspectives in learning.
Collaborative learning has been a common teaching method in classrooms for many years, the main changes have been in the tools that are used, with so many digital choices available. While I have not always implemented some of these strategies and tools in my classroom, for the past few years I have been doing more because I have seen the benefits for student learning and confidence.
Social learning works
After researching student engagement and motivation, mostly because I was having some challenges in my classroom two years ago, I decided to try new ideas. I explored the social learning theory which explains how people can learn in different social contexts and that by creating a more active learning community, it can positively impact a learner’s ability and meet individual learner goals.
We have to think about what will work in our classrooms and with our students. Not every idea will work the exact same way, and sometimes it might not work at all. But we still have to take those risks and do something different in the interest of doing more for our students.
Today it is important to go beyond just the content that we teach. We need to also provide opportunities for students to build their skills for the future. While we cannot predict what they will do after graduation, we know that there are certain skills and experiences that they should have. By creating a space where students can also build their social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, to work as part of a team, to engage in discussion, problem-solving, and more meaningful learning, we will prepare them for whatever the future may bring.
There are a lot of options for creating this collaborative space and for me, I started by breaking apart the rows. I moved the desks to create “stations” of 2-4 desks in order to promote more interactions in our classroom. The students would work together on different activities and it enabled me to interact with each group. What has been another positive outcome is that this minor shift gave students an opportunity to be in the lead more.
Beyond the classroom space
Technology has created more ways for students to collaborate beyond the class period and beyond the school day. Students need to build collaboration skills in the virtual space as much as in the physical space. The future will likely bring experiences where students will need to work as part of a team, and if we want to prepare them for the future, we need to design learning experiences where they can develop skills to collaborate, to problem-solve, to think critically, to create problems to solve.
Some quick ways to collaborate
We can choose traditional methods in class, it does not always need to include technology. However, adding in a digital tool does extend when and where learning happens. It promotes more active collaborations and has been a positive experience for my own students.
It is about giving students more opportunities to work together, to build their interpersonal skills, and to become self-aware. We also want them to learn time and project management, how to facilitate conversations, some of which at times might involve giving critical feedback, and guide them through these experiences in our classrooms. Here are some good ways to start.
Blogging is something that I wanted to start for years, but did not think I had anything to contribute. I decided to dive in around the same time that my students did. We used Kidblog in our Spanish classes and it really helped to build their language skills and also to learn more about their peers. There are so many benefits, beyond just developing literacy skills, students have an opportunity to write and share with their classmates who can give peer feedback. Blogging is useful for any content area or grade level. It is an alternative to having students complete a worksheet or a task that might be the same for all students. We can encourage students to share their stories and engage in more authentic learning.
Sometimes students may feel uncomfortable speaking in class. Because of this, I like to start every school year by focusing on relationships and having students do some fun activities where we can get to know one another. Building comfort and confidence is important. Another way to encourage students to engage in discussions is by offering some digital tools. Students can use Flipgrid, Padlet or Synth to share ideas, respond to questions, and become more comfortable interacting. Students can choose to have a video response or start with only the audio. But the most important thing is that it is up to them.
Create stations in the classroom or have students choose a space to work, often they prefer the floor or moving out into the hall. Provide different materials like the traditional tools pens, pencils, markers, poster board. Share a learning target with students and leave it to them to come up with a different way to practice in class. You can always offer two options, sometimes students prefer a worksheet because that is how they learn best. It is about having choices in learning and time to learn with one’s peers and build those relationships year-round.
Google or Microsoft
Our students need to learn how to interact in the same digital space and one of the best ways is to use either Google or Microsoft. With these tools, teachers and students can share access to documents and create presentations together, and collaborate at any time, whether in the same physical space or not. We help students to build digital citizenship skills and use technology responsibly, learning to be mindful of each person’s work. We can use these tools to connect with classrooms around the world, which takes learning to a whole new level.
Through PBL, students have the opportunity to not only engage in real-world learning opportunities, but they can work as part of a team to explore a challenge on a local or global scale. Students can work together to brainstorm ideas and problem-solve. Each student would be responsible for contributing to the conversation, doing research, and completing tasks as set by the group. We can extend this and connect our students with other classrooms either locally or globally. Setting up a Mystery Skype can be another way to engage students in even more collaboration as they work together to solve the mystery location.
All in all
By intentionally planning ways for students to collaborate in class, we help them to build their own learning networks. Through these learning networks, students will build confidence, broaden their perspectives, and connect with the content in a more meaningful way.