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Why Collaboration is More than Groupwork

Making Collaboration Truly Work int the Classroom

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Making Collaboration Work

Why Collaboration Is More Than Groupwork? – How long does it take to have kids make a PowerPoint? A Prezi? A Slideshow?…Ten minutes. These activities and tasks lead to a world of divide and conquer or one person doing all the work in the group. This often a point of challenge when entering into the world of Project Based Learning. We don’t want to model a culture of PBL that is just about putting kids in groups.  Students gain collaborative skills by contributing to the learning of others and building upon each other’s ideas…not just dividing and conquering tasks to complete the final product.

What we want from students in group work is to focus on the “3 I’s” to be Interactive, Innovative and Interdependent around content and learning outcomes. Let’s use a sports analogy. As a swimmer and water polo player we were required to be in groups and a team constantly. In swimming, we had a great relay team. However, each morning and evening in practice, we didn’t practice as a relay team. We focused on improvement on the individual level, to see progress on the team level. We worked together in each stroke to identify how we can contribute to the relay team as 1st leg through 4th leg of the relay. I want the work in my project groups to interact the same way.

Collaboration doesn’t always mean a group of 4. Students can still learn valuable success skills such as collaboration outside of the group. Students need have appropriate scaffolding on the onset to learn and gain feedback on what it means to be interactive, innovative and interdependent. We want students to interact content knowledge and be innovative with the solutions they provide to an authentic problem. In the project design, ensure the process requires student interdependence among the group members. In the midst of the World Cup, no country can play the game without the team. The team needs to be adaptive and agile to make it work. Provide project twists or sprinkle in new turns to the projects to add rigor and ensure the adaptability and agility of the group. In your design and implementation, design your project etched in sand so you are mobile and flexible as well. Do your project designs and implementation ask this of your students?

Teach your students what it means to be in a group. In swimming, we had to be taught, this is what a warm-up is, this is what a turn looks like, this is a great relay start. We worked on what the foundations (learning outcomes) and what high quality swimming looks like, then we used collaborative groups to challenge, push and come together as a team. As a swimmer in high school, we won 1 swim meet as an entire team all year. However, together a team of 4 of us went on to have an All-American relay time. How we got to that point is a mirror of how groups can be highly effective in Project Based Learning.

To actively collaborate we want to have students develop values to engage with others in ideas and different perspectives. Riley Johnson, Principal of New Technology High School in Napa, California writes in his blog “Collaboration vs. Group Work” about the push to move away from “group work to collaboration nirvana.” One of the graphics that we use to help prevent the divide and conquer in PBL is the “Release and Catch” method. When the learning outcomes are clear in a Project and rolled out to students in the first stage of the project launch it is clear what the expectations are to be successful.  Success in the project needs to be more than just what the group produces and putting kids in group. Separating the learning outcomes (core content knowledge and how each individual will demonstrate mastery) from the context of the project (real world authentic problem) provides clarity and reduces the “divide and conquer” mentality within a group. This also develops the interaction, innovation and interdependence of the group members.


An example of interaction, innovation and interdependence in a group is show in the “Release and Catch” method. In the “Release and Catch” method students demonstrate their learning of core content in the project individually. Then students can be grouped to apply their learning to an authentic context or problem. On the surface of this it may look like a “dessert” type of project. However, students can still gain collaboration skills outside of a group of 4 during the early stages of the project. They can gain those skills in think-pair-share activities, jigsawing content and giving and receiving peer feedback to building on the learning of others.

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Imagine a kindergarten project and having a group of 4 students together the whole time…yup..I had the same shivers go up my spine! What if in that Kindergarten project, learners were building their foundational knowledge early on in the project. Then they were slowly building the skills and going deeper into the content via the context of the project. All along the project process, learners use feedback, reflection on their own learning to go deeper into the content. Throughout the project, students use teacher designed content based collaboration activities that are built strategically to scaffold their learning. The same example can be led with high school students. Students who have been conditioned in a non-PBL environment for 9 years. Even a high school student who hasn’t been asked to be in a group and contribute to the learning of others needs the foundational knowledge and skills to learn in this method!


The challenge with the “Release and Catch” graphic is it is stagnant in its appearance which may lead to misunderstanding. However, on the other hand, the graphic may also help show the  need of individual accountability of their learning. Meanwhile, throughout the project, students are being interactive, innovative and interdependent as a group to provide a solution to an authentic problem. In the Release and Catch method, I see a lot of opportunities for students to be Interactive, Innovative and Interdependent throughout the project process and at the same time a reduction in students dividing and conquering and being divisive.


Before your next project or even with the project you are currently running, what is the “why” behind putting your learners in groups? Can they get the skills of collaboration in a different way from being in a group of 4? When and where might you scaffold the process for learners to they are more interactive, innovative and interdependent in the process of the project? It all starts with clarity of the learning in the project. Is the project just to get kids to work together? Is the project just to get kids collaboration skills? Those are not why we do projects. We do projects to get learners to go deeper into content with success skills. When you are clear with the learning outcomes of each individual learning at the front end of the project, it makes clear the expectations of student learning and how they might apply it in an authentic context as a collaborative group.


When we as teachers start to focus on “who is in a group?” “how to group students?” “what happens when a student doesn’t pull their weight?” “When will I have time?” etc., I would argue that these are questions that distract us from the core of what we really want in collaboration (which is often why groups don’t work in PBL and we spend so much time on management issues in groups rather than how can we go deeper in core academic content and apply it authentically). What we really want are learners to be interactive, innovative and interdependent in PBL. The true question we need to be reflecting on is “How might students contribute to each other’s learning to get the most growth academically as possible?” It is when our focus is on the integrity of the learning while students are collaborating, giving and receiving feedback on each other’s learning and their application of their learning….that is when we get groups to work in PBL.

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