Creating an environment conducive to learning is a critical component with regard to establishing an environment where all of our diverse students can learn without limits. To create the kind of classroom conducive to 21st century education, we must help our students develop their agency to work both independently and collaboratively. The latter is often a sticking place with teachers who have had negative experiences with collaboration and group work.
As I transition from being a classroom teacher to a university-based teacher educator, I am able to interact with a wide range of educators and pre-service teachers. Through these interactions I am learning that collaboration can be a surprisingly controversial topic. Teachers have varying opinions about group work based on their own experiences. Like many I’ve spoken with, I can remember doing collaborative assignments in high school and in college and being the major contributing force in my “team” during those activities. That kind of experience is a significant deterrent for many teachers when it comes to creating opportunities for student collaboration. We don’t want to put our students through the same kind of misery we experienced. It makes sense.
The fear of doing more work than one’s teammates is a common feeling amongst many American students when confronted with collaborative assignments. The notion that someone might be getting a free ride on the back of our hard work often gives rise to furrowed brows and feelings of consternation. American psychologist Bibb Latané even coined a term for not pulling one’s weight while doing group work: social loafing.
Social loafing is a real concern. When teachers tell their students to get into groups, there’s a serious risk that many of their students will immediately disengage. Our job as educators is to teach students that when they work together, they benefit and succeed. There’s inherent value in teaching students to work together in harmony, and it’s important to make class time to foster those collaborative skills.We cannot afford to hide behind our own negative experiences with collaboration as an excuse to avoid using it in our classrooms. Consider this: If students have a negative experience with collaboration (because of social loafing), how much of that is the teacher’s fault? By deliberately and artfully scaffolding opportunities for students to collaborate, teachers can reclaim group work from the wastebasket of misuse. By changing how we ask students to work in groups, we can begin to subvert the cringe-inducing, conditioned response many of us have when we hear the words group work or collaboration.
Being a teacher requires that we help our students get along so they can work together without wreaking havoc on the learning environment. The strategy outlined below can be used at any point in the school year, but the transitional time around the start of the new calendar year lends itself perfectly to nurturing student relationships and classroom community.
The Strategy: Collaborative Map Labelling
- Blank maps of the USA (or the country where you live, if you’re reading from abroad)
- Make a copy for each student
- Pass out blank maps to each student
- Ask them to label the Pacific Ocean. Let them know that there’s no grade, so they can guess or not guess as they wish. No pressure.
- Ask them to label the Atlantic Ocean. Then encourage them to label the state where they live.
- Ask the students to label all the states they can. Let them know it’s okay to make a guess. Give them a few minutes to work independently as you monitor their progress.
- When their progress slows, and it might not take long, ask them to work with a neighbor/partner to go over their maps and help each other make corrections and/or label even more states. Give students a few minutes to do this while you monitor.
- When the progress slows, ask the pairs to partner with another pair so groups grow from two to four members working in collaboration. Give them a few minutes to work.
- When you feel the students’ progress merits advancement, ask the groups to combine again to grow from four to eight members. You may have to use some of your own judgement and creativity to group students if your class size doesn’t accommodate large groupings. Give the larger groups time to collaborate while you monitor.
- At this point, depending on your class size, you could combine groups again. You can also move into the final phase: a whole class collaborative discussion.
- When the groups’ progress ends or when they’ve labeled all the states, transition into a whole class discussion. For this stage, it would be beneficial to display a blank map that the whole class could refer to. If you don’t have the ability to project a map, you can show the blank map by holding up a printed version and walking it around the room as your students discuss the correct location of each state and you point to it on the map so everyone can label it correctly. You may also want a correctly labelled map to use as a reference to make sure the states are labeled accurately. Try to guide the conversation more than lead it. Let your students work out where the states are. This could be a good opportunity for students to practice working out disagreements or disputes in a safe learning environment.
- The goal of the class discussion is to illustrate that when we work together we can accomplish more.
- At the end of the discussion, each student’s map should be correctly labeled with all 50 states.
- Before you end the discussion, have students talk about the activity and what it revealed about the power of collaboration. You might ask what it revealed about their own thoughts about group work and whether their opinions changed and why. You could even have students self-reflect, aloud or in writing, about the experience and their own participation.
This snowball style collaborative activity can be adapted into any content area and used in a variety of ways to sustain a positive classroom community. In a chemistry class, students might do this activity with a blank periodic table of elements. Students studying biology or anatomy might label a blank illustration of a cell or a skeleton. Young students or students with special needs might work together to label a sheet depicting a variety of animals. You could use this to review vocabulary or any other content. You could even give students an entire test and allow them to collaborate like this. On second thought, you might not give them the test to take together if you’re going to award individual grades, but you could do this activity with a study guide students can take home to review.
In my own classroom, these kinds of activities provided my students with undeniable evidence that we are smarter and more capable when we work together than when we work in isolation. It also showed my students that they have the power to revise if they make mistakes. Collaborative activities like these, that are designed to put little to no stress or pressure on the students, send the message that making mistakes can be a positive learning strategy. As teachers, we need to encourage students to see failure as an opportunity for growth. In conjunction with providing opportunities to fail or struggle, this activity also shows the students that they are capable of helping each other correct their mistakes. As educators, we have an enormous responsibility to prepare our students to be ready to contribute to their local communities as citizens who can work together to advance our society. When teachers create opportunities for students to collaborate, they are making an investment in the future. Teaching students the value of working together is worth the investment.
Check out the teacher resources page for even more community-building resources.
Did this get your creative juices flowing? Do you have some ideas for collaboration and culture building or for adapting this strategy to your content area? Share in the comments section below.