Three Ways to Boost Collaboration in Student Projects

We’ve all been there before when we were students. You’d hear the dreaded words “group project,” and immediately begin calculating the additional work that you would need to do to keep the group afloat; especially if the teacher chose the members. You check the list of names on the board. You’ll be with the drifter, who wanders around the class chatting with friends. You’ll have the needy student who wants to ask the teacher questions before making any decisions. Then you’ll have the feisty fighter who picks arguments because he’s bored.

But then as a teacher, you see a new perspective. That floater is actually avoiding work because she’s scared of doing it wrong. She’s been burned too many times in group projects where she tried to contribute only to have other members redo her work. Might as well give up. And that needy student is also scared — of getting it wrong, of doing something embarrassing, of letting down his teacher. And that feisty fighter has such a drive for autonomy and such potential to lead but is still learning what it means to work collaboratively.

It’s no wonder that you end up with group dynamics where members split up or where one member does all the work. Collaborative work is hard. Really hard. But it’s also vital for life. Despite the myth of the lone artist or inventor toiling away in isolation, creative work is often rooted in community. If we want students to think like artists, engineers, architects, makers, and problem-solvers, they’ll need to learn how to work collaboratively.

When Google began Project Oxygen, they assumed the best predictor of employee success would be university program and grades. Instead, the top of their list was, “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues.” In other words, the most critical factors for success involved collaboration. Later, when they studied their teams in Project Aristotle, they found the top skills were, “equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence.” Again, these were the soft skills most closely aligned to collaboration.

But how do you actually do this? How do you create projects that boost collaboration in a K-12 environment?

#1: Begin with Ownership

When I first attempted project-based learning, I created hyper-detailed project directions. I wanted to make sure that every student understood exactly what they needed to do. If a student said, “I’m confused,” I responded by adding details to the original document. When a student asked, “how many blog posts do I need?” I clarified by tightening the parameters. However, something strange happened. The students grew less engaged. I realized that they were working for me rather than working for themselves.

I love this quote from my friend, Chris Lehmann, who writes, “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.”

That was my problem. I had created recipes with the best of intentions. Over time, though, I shifted toward student ownership of the entire project process. Consider the LAUNCH Cycle framework that A.J. Juliani and I co-created:

Look, Listen, and Learn: You start from a place of student ownership by tapping into their geeky interests, their questions, or their prior knowledge. If they observe a natural phenomenon, you encourage them to jot down their findings.

Ask Tons of Questions: Students ask their own questions. Although you might provide sentence stems or sample questions, you can ask students to self-select their scaffolding.

Understanding the Process or Problem: Students engage in their own research. They ask the questions, find the sources, and paraphrase the information. Students can also decide which research strategy they want to use, including note-taking, spreadsheets, or sketch-noting.

Navigate Ideas: Students generate their own ideas and then create their own project plan. When this happens, you avoid the recipe projects that Chris Lehmann describes.

Create a Prototype: Students engage in their own project management, choose their own approaches, and ultimately own the prototyping process.

Highlight and Fix: Students own the assessment process as they engage in self-assessment and peer assessment, including a critical friends structure (that I’ll be getting into in the last section).

When we empower students to own the project process, we increase buy-in. Students who might initially seem needy become confident as they internalize the reality that they are no longer working for their teacher. Their designing for themselves and, more importantly, for an authentic audience.

Ownership also increases metacognition. Notice the connection between the design process and the metacognition cycle:

However, ownership is not enough. For collaboration to work, students need to work interdependently.

#2: Incorporate Interdependence

The best projects are the ones where the group creates something way more epic than what any individual student could have created alone. This is why I love interdependent structures. Too often in group projects, one member works independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. However, when they work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Interdependence begins with trust, with each member depending on other members to complete their tasks. It can feel risky and even vulnerable, which is why it can help to establish norms or engage in team-building. This is also why, as an eighth-grade teacher, I often had teams work for an entire quarter on different projects before changing up the grouping.

Once you’ve developed trust, you can incorporate project tasks that build up interdependence. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group.

Or consider the following structure for inquiry and research:

Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.

Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.

Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role:

  • Member #1: Is this question fact-based?
  • Member #2: Is this question on-topic?
  • Member #3: Is this question specific?
  • Member #4: Quality control

Members #1–3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a top level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

#3: Provide Structure

Although you want to avoid recipes in collaborative projects, there’s a danger in doing a total free-for-all in PBL. Early on in my PBL journey, I would give students loose guidelines and then say, “Have at it. Make it work.” But they didn’t make it work. They actually didn’t do the work at all. Still, I felt like structure would squash the creative impulse and hamper their collaboration. It felt artificial. Authentic projects didn’t need structure. But then I realized that I always used structures in my creative work. I had systems that I used to facilitate my creativity.

The truth is, structures are vital for creative work. They provide the necessary creative constraint to push divergent thinking and they help facilitate the actual work of creative work. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned in researching collaboration and innovation is how often organizations, teams, and companies use structures to facilitate creative work. Pixar uses the Brain Trust concept and countless companies have used the Radical Candor structures developed by Kim Scott. If you haven’t checked out her book, I highly recommend it.

Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work, it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. However, these structures should inspire creativity and respect student agency.

For example, when students engage in research, I use a specific critical reading structure:

Or consider the following critical friends structure:

I’ve found it helpful to provide sentence stems, examples, and tutorials as well. If we want every to succeed in creative collaboration, we need to ensure that they can all access the project tasks.

Making It Work

Note that ownership, interdependency, and structure all work together. The best structures incorporate all of these elements in a way that is seamless and interconnected. However, even when things are working well, you’ll still have challenges. Group members will sometimes fight. Students will be having a bad day and simply not feel like working. Fear and insecurity will still creep in.

There’s no magical formula to make creative collaboration work. However, as the architect, you can design the structures that build creative collaboration among your students. It’s not easy. It will never work perfectly. Yet, ultimately, it worth it as students develop the lifelong collaborative skills they will need forever.