By Dr. Monica Burns

As a classroom teacher, I started my career with an overhead projector. Before I left the classroom to host professional development for educators, my students were one-to-one on tablets and my thoughts on collaboration had shifted drastically. With digital tools in the hands of teachers and students, the strategies you use to create collaborative classrooms can shift to leverage the features of technology.

There are steps you can take and tools you can use to promote collaboration in the classroom. Whether you are entering a new school year or semester, or ready to energize your current unit of study, collaborative classrooms help students prepare for the skills they need today and in the future.

Create a Collaborative Classroom

The National Education Association’s guide on the 4C’s, Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society, describes the importance of collaboration in the classroom. “Not only does a collaborative effort create more holistic results than individual efforts, but it also creates knowledge for a greater number of people. As a result of students working collaboratively, the group can generate more knowledge, making collaboration a key ingredient to student success in today’s global society.”

As you prepare to create a more collaborative classroom this school year, reflect on past activities. You might ask yourself questions like: How have students worked together to accomplish a goal? Was time allocated for students to collaborate on a task? Did students have access to digital tools to foster collaboration?

Teachers can introduce collaborative learning experiences into their classroom through a variety of strategies. Whole-class and small-group discussions can help students synthesize information from a variety of sources. Peer feedback in the classroom can help build a sense of community among your students. Students can see their learning in action and speak to the content they explore in the classroom. Within these activities, students can share their thinking with their peers.

Promote Discussion

In a classroom with access to digital tools, discussions can take place both online and offline. Students might prepare for an in-class discussion by reviewing materials hosted in an online space or learning management system. For example, students might access a video to watch or a passage to read in Google Classroom or Schoology. Then they can come to class ready for a discussion. Providing prompts or guiding questions can support this activity.

When students are in the midst of an activity, you might pause the whole class to share examples. This provides an opportunity for students to think-pair-share with a partner, or participate in a whole-class discussion led by the teacher or classmates. In her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins shares a strategy for hosting discussions that promote collaborative learning.

Establish a Feedback Loop

When thinking back to my own experience as a classroom teacher, I know I have been guilty of giving students a chance to share and provide feedback after a fellow student’s project was complete. If you establish a feedback loop in your classroom, students can give feedback to their peers on a regular basis. Providing feedback and soliciting feedback are important components of a collaborative classroom.

Make Learning Visible

When students can see the work of their peers as well as their own work featured on the big screen of your classroom, they can discuss their thought process. By reflecting on the steps they took to solve a problem, or the reason behind a text annotation, students can make their learning visible. In a collaborative classroom, students can see the thinking of their peers as well as their own thought process. This can spark discussions in both small groups and whole-class learning environments.

Designing Collaborative Tasks

In my book, Tasks Before Apps: Designing Rigorous Learning in a Tech-Rich Classroom, I discuss the importance of designing activities for students that promote collaboration. Here’s an excerpt highlighting this point:

“When students collaborate, they learn to think critically, compromise, and develop a skill set essential for success both inside and outside of school… Students need to understand how to collaborate using digital tools— to problem-solve and exchange feedback with partners as they consume, create, and interact with content. Collaboration is an essential component of effective teaching and learning that translates to everyday experiences and innovations.”

Using screen-sharing technology (options range from Google Hangouts on the simple side to something like Airtame on the more robust side) is one good way to help students participate in real-time discussions, view each other’s work, and provide feedback in any subject area. These transferable skills are about more than the technology. In the classroom, you are providing opportunities for students to practice skills they can apply in multiple contexts.

At any time of the school year, you can make collaboration a priority. As you take stock of the ways collaborative learning currently shines, pinpoint your next steps and get started today!

For more, see:

Dr. Monica Burns is an EdTech and Curriculum consultant, author and former New York City public school teacher. Monica’s website ClassTechTips.com helps educators place tasks before apps by promoting deeper learning with technology.


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