Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Collaboration vs. Working in Groups

Yesterday I lead PD with a wonderful group of teachers who are preparing for the coming school year. The topic of the day was writing effective, standards based learning objectives and assessments. Although the day was filled with great conversations, questions, ideas, and just overall good fun, one particular conversation really caught my attention. We discussed the question... 

How is “collaboration” different than “working in groups? 

A rich discussion ensued in which it became quite apparent that no one in the room could clearly define collaboration or explain exactly what it would look like with a group of students. Further, it was stated that this is why students fail to meet our expectations of working "collaboratively" and ultimately may end up simply "working in groups." After all, if the teacher does not have a clear understanding of what collaboration is and what it looks like, how can one expect the students to "collaborate effectively."

We did however reach consensus on a few points.

  • Collaborative work requires that all members contribute in a meaningful way
  • All members must improve their understanding of the topic/task through the work
  • Clear communication is a must
Some other ideas were tossed around but were not agreed upon.
  • All members have an established role
  • Divide and conquer is a form of collaboration (this was quite controversial)
  • All members do an equal part
The conversation lasted at least 15 minutes and could have carried on much longer but we decided that our collaboration on the topic must cease so that we could try to get through the remained of the scheduled activities. Another great point came about was the impact of status in the classroom. We all know those students that are looked at as experts in the classroom and others depend on them for the answers. Status can have a great impact on how students collaborate (or fail to collaborate) with one another.

As I reflect, I was still struggling to identify a set of characteristics that could be used to identify effective student collaboration. I did a little Googling this morning and read some information about effective collaboration. Although some of what I read was focused on education, the majority was about collaboration in the business world. Much of it can be applied to classroom settings. Especially since one of the major goals of education should be to prepare students for life after school. Many students will at some point need collaboration skills in the pursuit of higher education and/or in their chosen career.

I first read "What is Collaboration?" The article defines collaboration as; a working practice whereby individuals work together to a common purpose to achieve business benefit. It also lists two keys features 1) synchronous collaboration such as online meetings and instant messaging 2) asynchronous collaboration such as shared work spaces and annotations. The author points out that collaboration depends on openness and knowledge sharing but also some level of focus and accountability.

Clearly the "math guy" I am was going to need a bit more investigating to figure this out. Synchronous and asynchronous are not words used in my vocabulary with any regularity (or ever if I am being honest). But thanks to the good ole interweb, my suspicions were confirmed. Now time to apply this to teaching and learning. It appears that our discussion was on track if we follow this definition. Synchronous collaboration takes place while individuals are working on something at the same time, or at different times. The key is that they are all contributing to one product and all portions of the product. Communication, openness, and knowledge sharing are important to successful collaboration. This confirms our thoughts that all members must contribute their knowledge and understanding and be willing to provide and receive feedback in an open manner. 

Now we are getting somewhere. In the haze, a shape is starting to take form.

I like the visual representation, but at first was unsure how many of these relate to school and students. After reading the descriptions, a few fit really well. 

Lead by example - Some teachers tend to work in isolation. How can we expect students to collaborate or see the value in collaborating when we don't collaborate with our peers. It's also a good idea to collaborate with your students. Let them see that they do have value and that their ideas can help improve the class. Letting go means you don't have to have all the answers and models how to discover, learn, and adapt through a collaborative process.

Create a supportive environment - This is vital. In order for students to collaborate effectively they need to feel comfortable taking chances and sharing their thoughts and opinions. This is especially true when there are students of differing status within a group. 

Persistence - Collaboration is not innate to students. We need to have persistence in helping them collaborate with one another. The article speaks of following through with creating a collaborative atmosphere even when initial attempts fail. Persisting, even in the face of failure, is another opportunity to model attributes we would like our students to develop. 

Collaboration can make the world a better place - Students are social beings. Why not use this to our advantage. Collaborating brings energy, excitement, and new ideas to a group. Not to mention a sense of responsibility. If I know my team is counting on me, I am more likely to do my part. Especially if I know that I will be supported and appreciated. 

So back to the initial question, how are collaborative groups different than groups that work together. Collaborative groups are interdependent and interactive. The groups strength is the group itself. Without the group the individual parts will experience a lower level of growth. Groups that are simply working together are not dependent on one another. One member of the group may simply do most or all of the work and tell others what they have done with no critique of input from the others. Unfortunately I see this happening in classrooms (including my own). It is a difficult task to create a truly collaborative experience for students, but one that holds great value. 

I have now outlined what I feel differentiates "working in groups" from working collaboratively. What are your thoughts?