Collaboration sounds like a good idea. You are keen. You have watched the video. Your desks are in groups. And…it isn’t going as well as you’d hoped. Your students are not acting like the kids in the video. What are some of the factors that you need to consider once you have decided to try collaboration?
The Task. The task you ask the students to do needs to be meaningful and challenging. There is no need to collaborate if the answer is apparent. There is no desire to collaborate if the problem is irrelevant.
Summarizing or gathering information is not collaboration. A few years ago I was taking a course on line and we were supposed to collaborate in a wikispace. The problem was that usually the task was to summarize the chapter. Philip, another participant, always did that first. After he had done it there was really nothing more to say. There are lots of reasons for students to share summaries or compare summaries or write a summary together but that is not collaboration and you need to recognize that. The same goes for dividing up the work load to gather information. It is sometimes a good practice but it is not collaboration.
Collaboration needs to be knowledge building. A great structure for building collaboration in your classroom is to use knowledge building circles. If students are working towards collectively answering a collective question (e.g. Should the tar sands be developed?/ How can we best protect the swamp habitats?/ What is the best design for a paper airplane?) then having them share their learning as they go creates a collaborative culture. In a knowledge building circle, students react to each other and not the teacher. While the teacher may begin the conversation with a question, the student who contributes first then chooses the next person to contribute. If you have never tried this, the following link will get you started: http://www.naturalcuriosity.ca/pdf/NaturalCuriosityManual.pdf
Background knowledge and curiosity are key. It is hard to collaborate and work with others if no one has any background knowledge about the topic. If my girlfriends and I were asked to collaborate about fixing a car engine, I suspect that we would get off topic fairly quickly. Students also need to be curious about the topic if they are going to proceed with the inquiry. If I am in a group that is discussing a topic in which I have no interest, I probably will not collaborate. Check out this article for more information: http://goo.gl/TECxKu
Organize your group members carefully. Depending on the topic you may want heterogeneous or homogenous groupings. Groups that don’t collaborate well, however, often have a member with considerably more knowledge or interest than the others. Groups with similar interests or similar skill sets may work better at collaborating. I rarely let kids choose their own groups. It is not that some kids won’t choose a group that works well; it is that some kids will never be chosen to be in a group and you have already lost if members of the group are feeling unwanted.
You are still the teacher. Collaboration doesn’t mean that kids will figure everything out on their own. You are there to guide, facilitate, ask questions, fill in the tricky bits, lend a hand, suggest an alternative, listen, summarize, find the teachable moment, join in, model. There are still times when you will need to stop the whole class and do some direct teaching. Collaboration is not a replacement for good teaching. It is a pedagogical tool that supports and scaffolds learning for students.
Relax. Groups are social. When you go to a meeting, are you always on task? Does your group get off track or make jokes? Of course you do. Do we need to have higher standards for students than we do for ourselves? Kids are kids. Kids have been trained through years of schooling to NOT talk to each other. If you are introducing collaboration after years of individual silent work, you will have to teach them about collaboration. It might not go well at first. But, take a deep breath, regroup and try it again. If your expectation in the classroom is that this is how we do things, it will work.