Collaboration: 21st Century Skills for 21st Century Students and Communities
My first year of teaching—Day 1: I had my lesson plan all printed neatly in my plan book. It called for the 7thgraders to work in groups for 20 minutes—you see, I learned in one of my courses that students excel in cooperative learning activities. So I put them into groups with a task (I don’t remember what it was and I am sure that none of the students remembers either) and then I, oh, I don’t know, I was probably checking the lunch menu or straightening the framed diploma that hung behind my desk—you know, I was doing what you do when kids are working in groups. Five minutes later I looked out on the splendor of the environment I had created—what a disaster. Here I thought that by using
a collaborative learning strategy that I was developing 21st Century students, and it looked more like Hobbes’s 17th Century description of the state of nature. Clearly, I forgot an important step…to teach them HOW to work in groups.
Developing students and citizens who work effectively on teams is a valuable 21st Century Skill. Service learning projects offer ample and authentic opportunities to teach and to have students demonstrate their ability to work successfully in groups throughout the project and on civic groups throughout their lives.
Like other 21st Century Skills I’ve discussed in this blog series , the opportunity for teachers and program leaders to instruct discreet skills and to model respectful attitudes, then be able to give feedback when students are actively applying the skills and attitudes in the most authentic of contexts is wonderful instruction and assessment.
When KIDS Consortium facilitates a four-day summer institute we make time to review a few of the basics to help a class become a collaborative unit.
To help teachers help their classes to develop collaborative environments, we model the creation of group norms and how to encourage students to democratically, not autocratically (although, back to Hobbes, he would have approved of the autocracy approach), maintain a respectful environment.
Throughout the institute we engaged in activities designed build trust, communication and a sprit of cooperation through facilitated team-oriented initiatives, starting with low-personal risk activities and building to more difficult challenges as the group’s cohesion grows, as a model for working with youth.
An activity that helps students to know and appreciate the different preferences for working with others —typically falling into one of the four categories of Action, Caring, Structure and Meaning—that their classmates have, is an important part of preparing students to be successful collaborators.
An activity that is always appreciated as a helpful reminder is Stages of Group Development. Based on the work of Bruce Tuckman, this activity has two important outcomes: 1) it reminds teachers to remind students that through the life of a project, groups will go through predictable stages and not to give up when stage two, STORMING—arrives with its challenges 2) it gives teachers ideas of how identify where a group is in the cycle and how to support and guide the group successfully in the various stages. Teachers frequently acknowledge that they eschew the inevitable conflicts that collaborative work brings and have shied from group work because of it, but that the activity gives them tools to make those situations into learning opportunities.
A beautiful example of the benefit of careful modeling, instruction and assessment of collaboration comes from a middles school team led by a gifted and experienced service learning teacher. The teacher, as always, intentionally helped the team to develop skills and attitudes that contribute to collaboration. About half-way through the team’s project, one of the students, I’ll call him Ben, was diagnosed with a serious illness and needed to begin intensive treatments that kept him from school. In a gesture of respect and unity, a life-sized cardboard cut-out in Ben’s image was made and included in all the activities for the remainder of the project. The cut-out did field work with the water samples it “took” (fell in the brook, really), posed for pictures and sat in the debriefing circle. And when the team was posed with a decision and they were tugging back and forth, genuinely, someone asked, “I wonder what would Ben say?”
Listening for, seeking, including, valuing everyone’s voice…those are skills, habits and values that sustain our communities in the 21st Century.
How do you help to develop skilled collaborators? Share your tips and tools the comment box.