On Teaching Collaboration

I’ve seen the phrase “The four Cs” thrown around more and more recently — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. 21st century skills, etc etc. I’m going to zoom in here on collaboration.

I want my students to be more thoughtful and effective collaborators when they leave my class. What I know less about is how to structure experiences that will teach students to do so.

Students should collaborate, sure. I find purposeful partner and group work to help students better learn math. But does it also help teach them to collaborate?

I find it interesting that teachers, who are seemingly charged with teaching collaboration, work in a profession where there is little sustained collaboration between colleagues in many schools. In reflecting on my experiences working in groups it seems I have learned much less than I would like to think about collaboration, the general, all-purpose skill, and more about collaborating with those specific people in that specific context.

This person has great ideas but when I ask him to write something up it will take two weeks and three reminders, I should just do it myself. This person is great at taking the student perspective and thinking through how it will impact their experience; make space for her to share before we make any decisions. This person gives excellent, honest feedback; even when it stings, I know that it comes from the right place and is on the mark. Those are the types of lessons I think I’ve learned from my experiences working collaboratively.

I’m sure I’ve learned broader skills of collaboration along the way. My point is just that my practice of putting students in groups “because they need to learn how to collaborate” is probably insufficient to meet the goal. Seems likely that humans learn collaboration like any other skill: practice and reflection. Plenty of practice, spaced over time, and reflection that is mindful of how lessons learned may apply in new contexts in the future.

Now to figure out how to do that.

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