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Fostering collaboration in and outside the classroom

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What is collaboration?

 The word ‘collaborate’ is derived from the Latin collaborare which means to labour together. It involves a group of people working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create something meaningful. 

Collaboration is a vital ingredient for learning. According to Vygotsky (1978), learning is a social process occurring in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), that is the distance between a student’s ability to perform a task under adult or peer support, and their ability to solve the problem independently. Vygotsky’s Social Development theory refers to learning contexts in which teachers are not the only providers of knowledge but where students play an active role in learning with and from their peers.

Is collaboration the new competition?

It most certainly is. In the past, much work was accomplished by individuals working alone, but today the scenery has changed.  Due to globalisation and the advent of technology, all significant work is accomplished in teams, and in many cases, global teams. Wikipedia, social media, and web 2.0 technologies highlight how interconnected our world has become and demonstrate how people working together can share knowledge and produce valuable resources.•

Collaboration in and outside the classroom 

Getting students to collaborate in the classroom is great but extending collaboration outside of it is even greater. It helps you to best maximize the scarcest classroom learning resource – time – and it also gives students more time to think, reflect, and process ideas. The ability to collaborate in digital environments is likely to be an important real world digital literacy so by setting up online collaborative projects you are actually preparing them for what they are likely to encounter in real life

Here are some very simple ways you can do this:

1. Group projects and assignments – Students work in groups of four to complete an assignment or project. After brainstorming, they break the work into four parts and each member undertakes to research part. They then group together to synthesise it into a collaborative product. Google Docs and Wikis are old-time classic tools for this kind of work. Encourage students to try and make it a cohesive text rather than just stick the four parts together. 

2. Peer editing of individual assignments – Students read each other’s drafts and provide feedback before the paper is handed in. Student A shares their paper with student B who leaves comments with their feedback. The reviewer’s comments are included when the paper is handed in for grading and the teacher evaluates both student A for their quality of work and student B for quality of feedback. Apart from helping them with their writing skills, it will push students to accept that writing is a process that needs revisions and redrafting.

3. Blogging – Blogging is a great way to encourage collaboration among students. They can write blog posts together, comment on one another’s contributions, and participate in blog challenges. A class blog is a collaborative effort per se and students can take up important roles to make sure it’s up and running e.g. blog master, administrator, comment moderator, editor etc

4. Students scaffolding the learning of others – Stronger students usually get bored in a mainstream class because they find tasks too easy for them. Challenge them by asking them to scaffold the learning of others and give them credit for this. Let’s not forget that the best way to consolidate something is to teach it, so both students will benefit from the process. Make sure though that stronger students do not do all the work but rather, guide and facilitate weaker students’  learning.

5. Discussing post-reading/listening questions – Often, class time runs out before students can fully participate in the post-reading/listening discussion. Extending (or moving altogether) the discussion outside the classroom would provide students with an excellent opportunity for consolidation and reflection. Students can do this

synchronously using Google Hangout in groups of four, or

asynchronously in a Virtual Learning Environment. Post the discussion question on Edmodo, a Facebook closed group or your class blog and ask students to leave comments. Another great tool is Lino.it, a sticky note digital board where students can leave post-it notes with their answers. Their responses are likely to be more thoughtful than they might have been in the frequently hurried class atmosphere and shy students may feel more comfortable to express themselves.
 

Setting up collaborative learning

Let’s face it. Beneficial collaborative learning is not easy to set up and just arranging students in groups does not necessarily constitute meaningful collaboration. Also, conflicts within the group might prevent learning. It is therefore essential that students are equipped both with language skills and teamwork skills to actively participate in discussions, deal with conflict, exchange ideas and be productive. Teach them how to debate, negotiate and disagree politely. Cultivate an inclusive culture where no one mocks or laughs at other people’s ideas or mistakes. Collaboration is a celebration of diversity and students should learn to value and respect different opinions.

Encouraging collaboration with other classes

After establishing collaborative learning in your classroom, the next step would be to get students to collaborate with other classes, preferably from around the world. Not only will this enhance learning and provide them with a real purpose to use English; it will also give them a perspective of what being a global citizen means.

In a future article, we will look into the best practices and tools  for global collaborative projects.  

Conclusion

Establishing a culture of collaboration does not take hours of preparation or professional development. But it does need a shift in perspective and authority. In collaborative classrooms, students are invited to make decisions, provide options for activities and assignments, and reflect on what they learn. As Plutarch suggested, the mind is not an empty vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.  So, if you want your students to collaborate, you do need an open mind and the willingness to trust them with their learning. You need to value students’ strengths and believe that they can learn from each other.  If you don’t, then no one will.

References

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.