In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.
Let’s face it, educators are no longer the sole proprietor and expert of the classroom. But the truth is if Google can replace us, we are no longer doing our job. Our role in the classroom is to teach our students how to apply content knowledge to solve problems. We promote skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Those are not necessarily skills that come naturally to our students.
We live in a time where boundaries of learning are being pushed. With the myriad of digital tools at their fingertips, students have the ability to connect and collaborate with peers both locally and globally. Students have access to experts in any field. Because of the social lives they lead, they crave feedback. Yet, efforts at collaboration often lead anywhere from shutdowns to meltdowns.
We hear our colleagues extolling the virtues of connecting students for collaborative learning and it may cause us to wonder what is going wrong in our classroom. The truth is that everyone, no matter how well-intentioned, enters with certain expectations and perceptions. Many students expect to walk into a group situation where everyone is working on the same goal doing the exact same thing as their fellow group members. That’s not collaboration, that’s cooperation or compliance.
True collaboration comes when each member in a collaborative group brings his/her strengths, ideas, experiences, and knowledge to share with the group. Everyone contributes towards the common goal using their unique talents for the good of the entire group.
As teachers, a great majority of us have experienced the same frustration our students have when trying to collaborate with our colleagues. I thought I would take an opportunity to share with you some of the practices my students have learned through our years collaborating with peers both locally and globally. By preparing these in advance, their likelihood of success is greatly improved.
Communicate expectations up front. The first step my students take when forming a new collaboration partnership is to outline a list of the norms and expectations that they have for their upcoming project. They discuss timelines, deadlines, behaviors, work ethic, and accountability to the group. Through these conversations, they have the opportunity to share their goals and their concerns about their impending work together. This dialogue lets every member know before they begin the first step exactly where they are headed. It not only helps them create a relationship with one another where they feel safe to be transparent in their thinking, but also connect with one another as individuals on a deeper level. Although this may seem time consuming in an already jammed packed learning day, the group will make up the time in the long run as their project will not suffer from constant derailing due to miscommunication.
Remain flexible. Things happen. People get sick. Schedules get rearranged. Parents set appointments. We understand this is part of life, but sometimes students get frustrated when a deadline isn’t met by a teammate, one member seems to fail in following through with their part of a project, or they miss an appointment for real time communication. Often when a student comes to me aggravated because something has disrupted their project, we can lean on the strong foundation that they set in the beginning. Once they open that dialogue, the learners discover a solution together that’s often stronger than their initial plan. They learn to listen to one another, have patience, and pull their resources to reach towards their common goal.
Keep an open mind. We understand not everyone is like us. However, many students, in spite of being globally connected, often live under the false premise that everyone is like them. I’ve discovered over the last several years that this is often the most challenging part of collaboration for students. Students may feel they are the expert, the smartest, the most organized, the most creative, and/or the most talented individual in the group. That’s why I believe collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Students need to have experience with students who in many ways may not be like them. No single person is who they are with the talents they have without the guidance and input of others. We become the best version of ourselves by working and learning with others.
By preparing our students in advance for the shifts they will need to make in order to successfully collaborate with the peers, both in the classroom and through digital means, we give them the tools to open a world of learning possibilities. Through collaboration, students find commonalities with a diverse community of learners and apply content knowledge and higher order thinking skills for an authentic audience while becoming the strongest version of themselves. Collaboration, although challenging at times, is well worth the investment for us, our students, and the future.
Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?: Collaborating in Class & Online, Grades 3-8. She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.