How to Ensure Classroom Collaboration Is Successful

Don’t just put students in groups and hope collaboration will happen. Be purposeful and teach them the skills you want to see.

Nick Marty
Mar 19 · 7 min read

Ask almost any teacher what skills they feel students need to be successful in the future. I can almost guarantee that collaboration or working with others will come up. White Bear Lake Area Schools promotes the 4C’s model as a major educational philosophy and collaboration is one of those C’s. The idea that human beings are stronger together than individually is a vital theme in our world and one that I believe wholeheartedly, yet often we don’t teach it as a skill.

As an elementary teacher, I always wanted to promote collaboration in my classroom. I constantly looked for projects that I felt translated well for group work. I meticulously formed my groups trying to find the perfect blends of personalities, behaviors, and skill sets. I’d be filled with such energy and would envision these learning moments in which my students collectively creating masterful, creative work. Then the project would start and reality hit. Groups would bicker. Kids were off-task as certain students dominated the workflow and others disengaged from learning. What I thought would take 20 minutes ended up taking an hour, and I fell back into questioning why I didn’t just stick to teaching from the front of the room.

I realized that I was falling into a common trap. Collaboration is hard. It is not as simple as just getting students into groups and hoping it would just magically click. I needed to start treating it like something that needed to be scaffolded and explicitly taught. It was something that had teachable components.

This post is intended to be a road map to successful collaboration in a classroom. Much of it was learned through my own experiences. Yes, building these skills takes precious time, but it is such a critical skill that it is well worth the effort.

Prepare Students For Collaboration

  • Teach conversation and listening. It seems like a simple concept, yet this is where so much of collaboration starts. Bring awareness to bad habits around conversation and set an expectation that in your class, everybody will work harder to be a better communicator. There is a number of amazing TED Talks that offer valuable advice on these topics. Explore them with your class and use the advice given. Knowledge can bring focus which leads to understanding.
Courtesy of Flickr

Explain to students the “why” behind collaborative work beyond just because it is good for them. Stress that collaboration promotes self-awareness and pools different strengths to often produce better results. It gives voice to all individuals and creates shared value around work. There are many great examples of why teamwork is important. I was a fan of connecting to the Avengers superheroes team to demonstrate that combining powers can lead to bigger things.

  • Practice. Build in low-pressure opportunities to work on collaboration skills as often as you can. I valued active listening with my 5th graders and we practiced each and every week with simple response prompts. We completed a monthly Breakout EDU and reflected on our teamwork after each game. We practiced digital collaboration with simple shared Google Docs and Slides. First as groups of six and gradually building until the whole class was on one document. Prompts like, “create a slide and add your favorite animal.” No grade was on the line, but we learned together the importance of awareness and respecting other people’s work. Don’t just teach and hope. Practice the skills you want to see in your groups.

Create Complex Activities

The next step in successful collaboration is designing thoughtful activities that promote success. Students need reasons to purposely collaborate. We don’t want them just going through the motions of surface level tasks. Teachers need to design tasks that are too complex or have too many pieces to be completed alone. Incorporate the elements below.

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Maintaining Collaboration

The experience of working with kids can change from day-to-day. One day you feel like it all clicks and learning come easy. The next, you are scratching your head. That is the art and beauty of what we do. Creating a collaborative classroom takes constant effort and drive. There are times when a refocus is a necessity. After long breaks away from school or in the middle of those long Minnesota winters were times that my class had to reboot. It didn’t mean that we did anything wrong, but like all human beings we sometimes need reminders. In those moments, go back to the expectation and norms your class set. Use the groundwork you laid at the start. This is why it is critical to involve students in that process. We want them to have ownership over those things.

In my world, 5th graders could be a tricky lot. I remember introducing Kahoot to my class when the tool was new and how they begged to play it all the time. It worked and they were learning until it didn’t. I was amazed by how fast they decided they were done with it and that it was old news. Students need variety. Make sure your collaborative work doesn’t repeat the same exercises because they will lose interest. Sometimes a slight change in approach can hook them back in. After my Kahoot experience, I found Quizlet Live. This game did almost the exact same thing, only it presented it in a different way. My 5th graders were hooked. When that ran it’s course, I used Gimkit and on it went. My colleague and rockstar kindergarten teacher Abby Kath once said to me,

“Sometimes off task isn’t really off task. What I had them doing was boring.”

Lack of student focus often comes from a lack of engagement. I often referred back to the book “Teach Like a Pirate,” by Dave Burgess. It lays forth multiple hooks that add a little sizzle to your content. Change it up, engage them, and refocus back to the important groundwork you built.

Evaluate and Reflect

Collaboration should be viewed as a skill to develop just as you would a core subject area. We don’t expect students to have one good day of math and then never try to improve again. At the end of any sort of collaborative group, give your students a chance to evaluate and reflect on both their own work and the collective work of the group. This shouldn’t be a “gotcha” moment, but instead an intentional reflection and mode of self-accountability.

Courtesy of Mark Garrison

Don’t stop there. Use that reflection to improve the experience for the next time. Ask students questions like, “What areas did you feel stuck?” or “Where could you have used more support or resources?” It is also a chance for you to reflect on the activity or project you designed. Students can be wonderfully honest and it demonstrates that you yourself are always setting goals to improve. Use experience to enhance your craft and each time you will get better.


Stay tuned for more to come in the upcoming weeks and learn how Innovate 624 uses a collaborative process in the creation of this blog. We can be found on Facebook and Twitter and you can comment below. Follow along with the hashtag #Innovate624 for more conversation!

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Inspiring a mindset of innovation.

Thanks to LuAnne Oklobzija

Nick Marty

Written by

Nick is an Innovation Coach in the White Bear Lake, MN school district. He is a former elementary teacher and believes a good GIF can change the world.

Innovate 624

Inspiring a mindset of innovation.

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