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Collaboration:  Why and How Should Students Work Together?

Collaboration: Why and How Should Students Work Together?

Written by Todd Lash
August 17, 2015

Collaboration is a major buzzword.  It is often heard in conjunction with grit, perseverance, “failing forward” and other such ideas.  What does it mean for students to collaborate?  What is the difference between collaboration and “helping”.  Is there such a thing as too much collaboration and if so, how does one know when to step away?  These are all questions we are asking at Kenwood around student computing and computational thinking.

Two years ago, when we introduced coding at Kenwood, it was obvious that students loved to collaborate around the coding process.  Working in isolation was the last thing they wanted and it was something that we actively discouraged as well.  How often have we seen the stereotype of the loan programmer sitting in the basement, chugging Mt. Dew and coding in isolation?  This image is just one of many that turn many kids, including females, away from computing and we knew that we had to focus on creating social learning opportunities around coding.

Student collaboration around coding also helped to ease teacher concerns around their own perceived lack of expertise.  If the kids were allowed to collaborate, they could “teach” each other, learn together and grow using the combined brainpower of the group as a whole.  Teachers didn’t have to be the sage on the stage.  They were free to learn alongside and with the students.

So we knew that students liked to collaborate, that it was great for helping to bust through some stereotypes around coding and that it freed teachers to become learners with their students.  But how exactly should they go about this?  Was there a way to focus our students’ collaborative energy?

In order to address this question, we developed the Collaborative Framework.  It has five simple steps.  Once a student decides they need assistance and ask for it, the collaborator will begin by asking:

  1. What are you trying to do? (Can the student identify their goal?  Have they identified the problem?  Often times, kids seek help before they ever really wrestle with the work.  They just default to help seeking.  If the student can’t identify the problem, they are not ready to collaborate.)

  2. What have you tried already?Why did you do it that way?  (Restate in steps what they have already done and explain your thinking as to why you attempted to solve the problem in the way you did.  All too often, kids just try the first thing that comes to mind without any real thought behind it.  Guess and check is a legitimate strategy but it shouldn’t be the only one students utilize.  Asking students to explain their attempt and justify it is a great tool in helping them to me more metacognitive in their problem solving.)

  3. What else do you think you can try?  This stage is about brainstorming and encouraging each other to take a chance.  Come up with some possible solutions, talk about why they may or may not work and pick the one that seems most logical.)

  4. What would happen if…?  Time to give a bit more help, but put the burden of thought back on the person needing help by asking them to hypothesize possible outcomes.

  5. Celebrate!  We encourage kids to celebrate their success when they collaborate and solve a difficult problem together.  It is natural, fun and reinforces the community learning we value so much.

Two years after we first began using the Collaborative Framework, we are seeing tremendous transfer.  Kids are using it outside of coding time.  They are jumping into collaborative conversations to help solve all kinds of problems, including interpersonal issues.  That in turn is causing teachers to take another look at the kinds of learning experiences they are designing for kids, to make sure that they are including real opportunities for student collaboration.  We have positive student habits of mind pushing and driving the school’s culture of learning.

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