Creating Conditions for Collaboration

Students who’ve spent the large part of their lives in teacher-directed classrooms, don’t suddenly become incredible collaborators simply by placing them in groups and asking them to work together on an inquiry.

Teachers must create conditions where students deliberately and strategically choose to work with diverse people because they realise better ideas will emerge  AND where students know how to leverage the group to get to better ideas.  The role of the teacher is to use the curriculum to create lessons that allow students to develop their collaboration toolkit.

It frustrates me that I’ve heard statements such as,

“but grade 8 students are too worried about being cool and what their peers think.  They want to work with the cool kids. They want to be in the cool group. They won’t work with certain people in the class.”

To me that says we must develop facilitation skills so educators are able to create conditions where students learn to value diversity.  That isn’t easy to do.  And it is not something we are taught how to do in teacher’s college.  I’ve spent many years struggling with group dynamics and would not by any measure say that I’ve mastered the necessary skill set.  There are, however, certain techniques I’ve learned to use that when implemented lead to a more successful collaborative culture in my classroom. I would describe these as “promising practices”. (Best Practices is a term that is, deservedly, on the way out.)

That being said, we also have days of complete chaos where nothing works. Please don’t think what I describe below happens ever single day!  I would say, though, that there is a stance I have as an educator and awareness of “if … then.”  If I want this dynamic to unfold in today’s lesson, then this is how I must facilitate the group. Having a toolkit of techniques allows me to be responsive to the emergent dynamic and change direction if 1. something unexpected happens that I realize will lead to even deeper learning or 2. students aren’t going as deeply as they have the potential to into the learning.

There is also a stance that I foster in students.  It takes work to develop it.  Students are so trained to want to produce the right answer in order to jump through the hoop, or to be pre-discouraged because they have experienced so much defeat that they have learned it’s not worth taking risks,  that it takes time to “unschool” them. If I were to summarize that stance it would be a willingness to just consider ideas and notice how one’s thinking changes as new ideas are encountered.  It’s the noticing that matters. What I do is use the curriculum to provide those opportunities.  Effective collaboration allows them to get to better ideas and more significant shifts in thinking.

So what are some of the things I do with students to make them want to collaborate?


Early in the year I teach students to notice how what someone else says affects their own thinking.  And then we talk about – I can’t stress enough how important it is to provide opportunities for meta-cognition – and then we write about.  In my class students are constantly reflecting on who and what is influencing learning.

Tools for this:

The Value Line

How it works:

1.  Place signs at either end of your classroom.  One says “Strongly Agree” the other “Strongly Disagree”.

2. Make a rich statement related to your curriculum, for example:  “Canada benefits from immigration.”

3. Students place themselves physically on the line and then explain why they are there.

4. As students hear other ideas, they are allowed to shift their place on the line as long as they can explain what caused the shift.

5. Written reflection: Whose ideas impacted your thinking today?

Theory Sorting

How it works:

1. Ask students to propose theories, for example:  At one time there were no people in North America, now there are millions. When did people first come to North America? Why did people first come to North America? How did people first come to North America? From where did people first come to North America?

2. Students write 1 theory per post-it note.

3. Students then work in small groups to sort the theories. Their job is to look for common themes and create labels for them.  During the sorting and labeling they naturally discuss the theories and have to come to agreement about how to group them.

4. It is through this process that they realize their peers have very different ideas and that there are many possibilities..  It is a surprise to many that people think differently.

5. From this we develop a discourse and language in the classroom.  We talk about “Idea Diversity”  and the 12 principles of Knowledge Building.

Through this and other activities, students develop a common language for collaboration.



I connect students to research about collaboration and then we test the research.  Students need to know why collaboration is useful.  I will say to them things like, “Research shows that when learners interact with their peers more than with the teacher, vocabulary of the entire class increases”.  Before we begin activities I remind them, “Why are we using this structure?  What does the research say?” After we reflect on the process and the learning.  We seek to confirm or disconfirm the research.  In my class we are constantly testing ideas.



I explicitly teach them to step out of their comfort zones, work with others and then reflect on that experience.  An example of this kind of lesson is described in this post.

After that particular lesson students returned to my class and we now had common terminology.  I could stand at the door and say, “When you go in, sit outside your comfort zone.”  I didn’t need a seating plan to mix up the groups. Students understood that a kind of learning was about to take place where they would be interacting with their peers to develop better ideas. A new set of norms had been developed.  They know they are going to feel slightly uncomfortable, but that what we are about to do will be worthwhile.  In fact, when I entered the room after giving those instructions, one girl looked at who she had sat with, said, “I’m not out of my comfort zone enough,” and moved to another group.

Yesterday, I took time for one on one chats with several students. One boy who said he hated the first experience of having to work in mixed gender groups, told me that the second time it had been much easier and that he was glad that we were doing this.  He realized that his social skills were improving.


Provide them with a toolkit for deep thinking when they are involved in meaningful collaborative work. This might include a knowledge building circle, causal models, the ladder of inference, games that require persistence and dialogue such as The Empathy Toy, creative problem-solving and many others that can be found in various posts in my blog.  In the debrief reflect openly on how working with others enhanced the experience, led to insights, caused shifts in thinking, led to idea clash, or one of the many other tangible benefits of effective collaboration.

VI Ebb and Flow

Provide time for the individual.  Students sometimes need time to think before collaborating.  They need time to develop an idea so that they can bring something valuable to the group.  They also need time to step away from the group so they can process what has been learned.

VII Explicitly remind them to leverage the group.  Once students realize that collaboration can lead to better ideas, remind them to strategically use their collaboration toolkit to get to better ideas and have them evaluate how well they are using their tools.

This is a glimpse into some of my evolving practices.  I hope it’s useful.  If you have questions, please ask.













  1. Lisa noble

    You made me cry with this. So much power here, and I need to work harder at asking my students to step outside their comfort zones. Mixing it up helps all of us. The last poster really resonated with me. So many of my second-language students feel like their ideas are worth less because they struggle to express them, or to understand what we’re talking about. I have to work on gateways for them to feel valued.

    1. Heidi Siwak

      Thank you so much for letting me know how affected you are by this post. I imagine that second-language learners would haved added layers of struggle in developing a discourse for collaboration. THat can’t be easy.

      1. Lisa Noble

        Just shared this link with my older boy’s classroom teacher – they’re doing some immigration work this week, and thought this would be a good one to share – they are an interesting bunch, and one of the most multicultural classrooms this largely un-mixed city has. Yes, the second-language piece adds a whole other layer – but at least I get a few years to work through things with them.

  2. Pingback: Les nouvelles – 12-16 janvier, 2014 | Les classes à QM

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