How to Foster Collaboration in the Classroom

By Tim Needles, Art Teacher

McGraw Hill
Jul 28 · 5 min read

The greatest learning experiences I’ve been part of in the classroom have been a result of collaboration. Working together with other educators and students, from the local level to the global level, continues to offer a range of different perspectives as we work on engaging projects together.

The advantage of collaborating is that it can teach students elements of our curriculum and how to collaborate with others along with a blend of added social, interpersonal, and cultural learning.

What does collaboration in the classroom look like?

Collaboration is a term you likely often hear in positive discussions with educators but the way it appears and the amount of learning that takes place can be vastly different. I’ve had the pleasure to be part of some life-changing global collaborations that paired my classes with schools in Japan and Pakistan and included both student and teacher visits to collaborate as well as short but fruitful programs with schools within my own district that continue to evolve. Three big questions to ask yourself before you begin are:

  • How much time do you have to dedicate to the project?
  • Which tools do you plan to use?
  • Most importantly: what will the students learn?

The projects can also have varied levels of success depending on the platform, goals, mindset, and communication skills of those involved. In my book STEAM Power from ISTE, I explored some of the factors that make for a more successful experience in collaborations, the most important of which is clear and honest communication. I always suggest communicating your learning priorities and goals from the start in collaborative projects, shared goals generally lead to more successful projects.

How can teachers set collaboration projects up for success?

Experience has taught me to always approach collaborations with an open mind and a positive attitude because it sets a good example and allows the experience to unfold naturally. In order to do this, it’s often necessary to manage any expectations you and your students have and to try to not make assumptions. Another important element in successful experiences is being mindful of the unexpected learning that occurs.

Collaborations are usually a departure from the regular structure of school work, so learning can sometimes go unnoticed. Tools such as check-ins, exit-tickets, and short reflections can point to some of the important learning taking place.

The structure of the collaboration is also a major factor to consider as different groups may have limitations in terms of tools, time, or privacy, especially in global projects. I have found beginning the project with short, fun, getting to know you activities helps build a sense of community between the different students and classes especially when they involve different elements and approaches such as audio or visuals. As you progress to working on the project itself, having a respectful and realistic schedule is always helpful. I find having clear tasks is always more productive as small, manageable steps avoid feelings of being overwhelmed. Finally, celebrating both the learning and the process as well as the outcome is key and benefits everyone involved.

How do collaborations lead to learning?

One of the best aspects of positive collaborations is that they continue to evolve over time and lead to more dynamic learning and results. A great example is a project I’m currently working on focused on the environment. It began as a school collaboration with my art classes partnering with science classes to learn about water conservation and ecology. The goal was to design and paint a mural that could be displayed in school which we accomplished and celebrated but the partnership continued to evolve and spread into the community. We began working with local artists and town officials to design smaller murals to paint around our town to spread the learning about keeping water clean into the community. As we progressed we also reached out to larger global groups who shared terrific resources and I documented and shared some of our process so that other educators could also use our project as a model.

Tim Needles is an artist, educator and author of STEAM Power: Infusing Art Into Your STEM Curriculum. He teaches art/media at Smithtown School District, is a TEDx Talk speaker, and his work has been featured on NPR, in the New York Times, Columbus Museum of Art, Norman Rockwell Museum, Alexandria Museum of Art, Katonah Museum of Art, and Cape Cod Museum of Art. He’s the recipient of ISTE’s Technology in Action Award and Creativity Award, NAEA’s Eastern Region Art Educator Award & AET Outstanding Teaching Award, and The Rauschenberg Power of Art Award. He’s a National Geographic Certified Teacher, PBS Digital Innovator, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, an ISTE Arts & Technology and STEM PLN leader, NAEA ArtEdTech interest Group leader, and Adobe Creative Educator and Education Leader Emeritus. He’s active on social media at @timneedles.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.