When Students Understand Collaboration Theory

It is one thing to have students work in groups.

It is another to have students strategically seek feedback so that their own ideas can be improved.

It is entirely another to watch students who understand collaboration theory rapidly improve an idea that the entire class is working on because they know what strategies to choose. When students can explain from a theoretical point of view why a group is or isn’t effectively collaborating, it’s a great moment.

We’ve reached that point in grade 6 and it marks a move forward in my professional practice.  When I began exploring integrative thinking, design thinking and knowledge building my efforts were experimental. The students and I learned together.  I certainly didn’t fully understand the theories, nor could I predict what kinds of dynamics and learning would emerge from these shifts in practice. That is certainly not the case now.  This year my actions are very deliberate and I am able to weave so much more into each moment. I know where and when to poke, prod and release as well as how to structure the process.  The impact on my students is palpable.  Not every student, of course, is at the same point.  Like any innovation, there are early adopters and some who require greater support.  There is, however, a noticeable shift in how deliberate many students have become in choosing strategy and communication tools when working in small groups.

They are developing a skill set that is lacking in most adults.  I see the difference when observing how adult groups engage when trying to solve problems.  Conversations are circular.  There is incomplete problem exploration.  There is no understanding of how to make everyone’s thinking explicit nor how to find underlying patterns and connections in the thinking.  Only a few people talk. Most ideas remain hidden. Ideas of the entire group aren’t leveraged. When solutions are devised there is a general sense of “settling” for the decision taken, but no real love for the result.

Imagine a class where all students know how to not just get any old solution, but the best solution built from everyone’s thinking because they understand the theories of collaboration and problem solving. That is what we are aiming for and that is what must be explicitly taught.  It’s a shift in how we see oral communication.  Previously, oral communication marks were often based on the oral presentation of a culminating task. It was not unheard of for teachers knowing report card times were looming, to create oral presentation projects so they would have marks for the report card.  There was no larger purpose to the assessment.  While learning to present an idea is important,  the focus and skill development needs to be broadened to include the kinds of communication necessary to collaborative complex problem solving.

Teachers and administrators need to learn it.  Students need to learn it. Families need to learn it.






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