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Collaborative learning in primary schools

07/10/16

It’s never too early to instil a culture of collaboration in your pupils. With that in mind, this article aims to provide practical guidance on the application of collaborative principles in the primary school classroom.

For the theory around collaboration, how it can breed deeper learning and more valuable learning experiences, please see Part 1: ‘What can collaborative learning do for your students?’, where we discussed the principles of effective collaborative learning, and why it’s a critical area of development for teachers preparing pupils for the modern workforce.

What collaboration means for you

‘Collaboration’ is a loose term and collaborative learning activities can vary widely. We don’t seek to make it any more prescriptive than descriptive, as the flexibility of collaboration can be very liberating for educators.

Collaborative learning in primary schools isn’t something that is ‘done to’ students: it’s a behaviour and an approach adopted by a whole school, or other education community. As such, recognise that not one approach suits all there is no blueprint but this blog is intended as a guide to your preparations.

Firstly, it’s important to begin at a level you feel comfortable with, and that your students will feel comfortable with, as they begin to participate in more active learning. Reflect on the teaching and learning as you progress, and add new techniques and technologies where appropriate.

Effective collaborative learning: a pedagogical model

Experience dictates that simpler models work best when it comes to collaboration. Our preferred model takes a three stage approach which highlights how student, teacher and task progress together, from experiencing and exploring to ultimately owning collaboration.

For you, the journey goes from planning to co-design. For pupils, they travel from experiences of respect and sharing to responsibility and co-design. The task progresses from understanding outputs, through the development of the process, through to the agreement of both.

collaborative-learning-matrix

In practice, the model may translate into this:

collaborative-learning-practice-matrix

Preparing the classroom

To encourage and make a success of collaboration, it’s helpful to have the technologies and facilities in place to enable and support different collaborative activities. This extends to practicalities such as the classroom layout, which should facilitate whole class teaching, small group work, independent working and team collaboration. Having the environment set out in such a way will allow you to easily transition between teaching and learning styles throughout the day.

You already know that technology is a valuable tool for more effective lessons: it’s also a key component in creating a collaborative environment. Look for equipment that allows the dynamic flow of information between you and your students. Devices such as touch screen flat panels, tablets and laptops enable you and your students to connect with each other seamlessly, facilitating an easy flow of information and dialogue. To best embed a culture of collaboration and get the most out of students through collaborative learning, technology is a key enabler.

Of course, we recognise that technological challenges can seem insurmountable at times. In many schools, internet access and IT infrastructure is poor, or old kit lies unused, making it seem wasteful to invest in new technology, and making new ventures seem excessive.

However, there are ways to navigate these obstacles. BYOD initiatives, for example, can go a long way to helping overcome such issues: there is no investment required from the school, and pupils are more likely to care properly for their own ‘kit’ than a communal device that they pick up and put down in the classroom. For more on battling IT infrastructure challenges in your school, see our previous blog and infographic which discuss this problem in more detail.

Preparing the students

It goes without saying that simply grouping pupils and asking them to work together is not enough: some ground rules will need to be set.

Establishing group norms from the beginning is essential to giving all students a voice. Perhaps you could introduce your pupils to an adapted (and more age appropriate) version of the ‘Seven Norms of Collaboration’, allowing them to ‘name’ the norms themselves. For example, ‘presuming positive intentions’ becomes ‘seeing the best in one another’.

Discuss with them the skills they will need – and indeed, those you want to hone – in collaborative learning, such as listening. Developing such soft skills at an early age will go a long way to helping pupils become effective communicators as they approach adulthood. Encourage a mindfulness of the actions that go hand in hand with listening and dialogue, such as eye contact, offering empathy, and letting others finish.

Start small in the number of students to a group, especially if your class hasn’t worked collaboratively before. The size of the group should depend on the ability of the students to interact effectively and productively with each other, but begin by grouping two or three together and then grow the groups as their confidence and familiarity with the approach increases.

Overall, it’s about building a sense of autonomous learning. Encourage students to understand that they are active owners of their learning and reinforce this principle by engaging with them to restructure lessons, encouraging their feedback and collaboration with you.

Preparing yourself

Transitioning to collaborative learning isn’t as radical as you might think. It’s not a like for like replacement for more traditional teaching methods and should be implemented alongside your current pedagogies and lesson plans as a complementary alternative take on the curriculum.

In many ways, you’re already facilitating collaborative learning. You will have observed that students sometimes work in parallel, with minimal interaction. Sometimes they work together. Sometimes they compete. All these interactions can be part of collaboration. The point of recognising it and formalising the practice is to understand it better, do more of it, and do it more effectively.

Preparing the school!

Collaborative learning isn’t just for students: it’s a powerful way for teachers to work together. In fact, the more the teaching staff are prepared to use it among themselves, the easier it will be to adopt the approach with students. Introducing an effective working culture of collaboration will put you in the best possible position to implement the practice amongst pupils.

If you’re ready to take a proactive approach to collaborative learning, you’ve probably already been thinking through some of the barriers you might encounter. Without putting too fine a point on it, some of the most challenging hurdles can often come in the form of colleagues. Traditional individualistic ideas still linger in schools, so the concept of learning communities goes against the grain of how many classrooms operate.

Whether due to inertia or lack of experience, teachers may lack confidence and skills in collaborative pedagogy. They may have had negative experiences of collaborative work which was poorly planned or executed in the past, or they may believe they are already working collaboratively and using the practice to its full potential.

They may also misconceptions about the collaborative approach. They may feel that collaborative working sacrifices individual progress, or that certain pupils may sabotage collaboration, deliberately or otherwise.

Finally, they may feel they lack the resources – in terms of time or technologies – to make a success of collaboration. Individual assessments, for example, are perceived to be far easier to carry out and carry more credibility.

To overcome barriers such as these, it’s important, where possible, to begin to approach collaborative working as a whole school or department, possibly with the support of a specialist third party. From the outset, work cooperatively to develop a model and framework to identify how collaboration can best be developed across your institution.

Then, use the model and framework to identify where teachers and students are already exploring or owning collaboration. You may be surprised to discover how widespread the methodology already is. Identify where opportunities for further collaboration exist, between staff and within each class.

Use the output as a focus for the identification of local best practice and for professional development. Influencing departmental heads or heads of year to build collaborative learning into teaching assessments may be an effective approach to embedding associated behaviours throughout the teaching staff.

Finally, ensure that the approach you and your colleagues decide to take is realistic. This means allowing yourselves enough time to learn and develop new techniques, and assess how best they can apply within your curriculum. There should be a common focus on creating and managing learning experiences that engage students, and activate both group goals and individual accountability.

Supporting deeper learning

If you feel you need support to implement real changes, there are a number of resources you can call upon to begin to build your ‘business case’ for a collaborative approach. To learn more about ClassFlow and how it can encourage collaborative learning, read our technology use case: Enabling Student-Teacher Collaboration with ClassFlow.

References
http://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/norms-collaboration-toolkit/
http://www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk/resourcesandcpd/research/summaries/rscollaborativelearning.asp
Slavin, RE (1989). Research on cooperative learning: An international perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 33(4), 231-243

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A quick guide to encouraging teacher and student collaboration
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A quick guide to encouraging teacher and student collaboration

How can collaboration transform teaching, pupil attainment and whole-school performance? This guide explores the impact of collaborative working in schools and contains practical tips for effective collaboration – both inside and outside the classroom.

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