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Learning to thrive: 5 ways to build collaborative classroom culture

This is the second in the 2-part blog post on collaboration. I encourage you to click here and read the 1st part on how our collaborative assessment systems do not align with our pedagogy.

So why is it when we figure out that we are ALLOWED to be collaborative, our instincts tell us that it doesn’t work? The juxtaposition between teachers’ belief about collaboration and the research shows a breakdown in understanding. How can collaboration be so effective and yet so poorly embedded in our schools?

I think it begins with understanding three fundamental things that collaboration is not: it is not just the grouping of students, it is not a one-off event, and it is not unstructured. Here’s what it is: it’s a classroom culture.

For collaboration to truly take hold, we need to build it into a classroom culture. This is no easy feat but here are some suggestions that I think begin to go a long way to seeing effective collaboration take place.

Promote a collectivist culture

Ultimately, as teachers, we shape the culture in our classrooms. Assessment systems and neoliberal structures can only dictate so much. Teachers have to take responsibility for building a collectivist culture within their classroom. This begins with messaging. It begins with language. Teachers need to articulate that student success is both dependent on & independent of others. If we believe that collaboration can work, then it is more likely to. Teacher belief in instigating collective classroom culture is not airy-fairy self-actualisation. Hattie (2009) argues that teacher’s belief and expectation has one of the highest effects on student achievement. This truth works conversely, when teachers believe that students will not achieve, what follows is a teacher-fulfilling prophecy. When we believe they can, they believe they can, and they do. If you believe that collaboration can work, quickly you’ll see that students begin to.

Use collaborative messaging from the outset. Inclusive pronouns such as ‘We’ or ‘Team’ are a baseline. From there we need to promote that the success of one, is the success of all and vice-versa. When one of us fails, we’ve all failed. Learning to celebrate the successes of those in your class builds this culture. When a student succeeds, there is no shame in publicly acknowledging success. We need to remember, however, that success may look different for different students – I’ve applauded students for achieving their first credits in a subject, as much as any who get an Excellence grade. Promoting a collective vision of success offers an opportunity to reframe what learning looks like. If we want to understand collaborative spaces, we have to start with how we view learning, through a collectivist lens as opposed to the individual attainment of knowledge.

Design for Success

A key component of cooperative learning is being face-to-face (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). Since Johnson & Johnson’s research, educators have come to see a distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning. However, in either space, face-to face learning is crucial. In the ever-growing digital world, I fear that this element of collaborative learning will be the first to go. As more and more devices proliferate our schools, how can we effectively teach students the social skills required to collaborate? It was curious then that one of unexpected outcomes of lockdown at our kura was an increase in collaboration between staff members. It begs the question: what is face-to-face learning? In a digital world, using classroom design to engender collaboration moves beyond mere architecture. Designing physical spaces where desks are in groups and students sit kanohi-te-kanohi is just the beginning. With the challenge digital learning presents, we need to be aware of the ease with which learning may become a siloed experience. Engaging with digital tools that are allow us to see each other face-to-face (Zoom, Teams, Meets) remains imperative if we want to see the full benefits of collaborative learning online.

Using Collaborative Platforms

However, using video conferencing platforms is not where our ability to collaborate online stops. Most online learning platforms are designed with the potential for collaborative capability, despite not necessarily being marketed as such. During lockdown, it became too easy in Google Classroom to click the “make a copy for each individual button”, so I set myself a challenge. At least once a week, I would design a task where the class could share ideas and work collaboratively. Why create your own quote bank for the novel, when instead each student could find 2-3 quotes? Why construct your own historical timeline on Padlet, when you could collaborate and add in a single event each? These activities still promote cognitive development as students have to place their work in the context of others, processing and creating simultaneously. It decreases workload not only for the student but for the teacher also.

Promoting Accountability

So, let’s talk workload. One major bugbear that many people have with collaboration is that it’s hard to assess equally. Remember that one student in group assignments who never really contributed? Now remember that you, who spent hours slaving away, got the exact same grade despite having done all the work. Effort inequity is a common argument against collaboration. Why collaborate if one person is going to do all the work anyway? Let’s go back to what collaboration is not. It is not unstructured. Ensuring that workload is shared is about holding both the group and the people in the group accountable. Johnson and Johnson (1999) identified this as crucial. “The group is accountable for achieving its goals, and each member must be accountable for contributing a fair share of the work toward the group goal. No one can ‘hitchhike’ on the work of others. The performance of each individual must be assessed, and the results given back to the group.” Exploring what is an effective group size and what team roles to offer to students minimises the likelihood of ‘passengers’ (students who are just along for the ride). When we plan our tasks in such a way, we minimise the ability for people to piggyback on the success of the individual.

Redress the power imbalance

Who holds knowledge in your classroom? This is a question I reflect upon regularly. The benefits of power sharing are numerous, lower teacher workload, increased motivation and agency, ownership of the learning by students.

Power sharing is not a radical restructure, it’s merely a repositioning of yourself as a learner. In Te ao Maori, this is referred to as Ako, the shared practice of learning. For Ako to take place, both the teacher and student are teaching and learning from one another. When this becomes part of our world view, the options are limitless. We can collaborate with our students to discover new information, to form new understandings. We can even work collaboratively to design our courses. Power sharing doesn’t stop there though. Another helpful concept from the Maori worldview is Tuakana (older sibling) and Teina (younger sibling) relationships. This model reflects a natural whanau environment, where teaching and learning are integrated, where babies and older children play together, each learning fundamental skills. Tuakana learn how to care for, support and teach teina, whilst teina learn wisdom and understanding from the tuakana. It is an ako relationship.

The research says collaboration can work. It is effective and yet we keep getting it wrong. In order to bridge the gap between our own expectations of collaboration as teachers and the espoused benefits by researchers, we must first shift how we think about learning. Learning and knowledge can be collaborative pursuits but shoving students into mixed-ability groups and hoping for the best is not going to cut it. Using the suggestions above and our own personal experiences, we need to build a culture of shared learning, understanding and collaboration. When we do, we can all succeed together.


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