Collections vs. Collaborations in the Classroom

Our lecture last night sparked many enlightening discussions, but the idea of “collections vs. collaborations” was the first thing I thought of this morning after my alarm went off. I couldn’t shake the idea, and I find it necessary to dissect it a bit more to figure out what implications it truly has in education, and more specifically in my classroom.

A collaborative quality is one of the twenty-first century skills that the workplace requires in any prospective new hire. This brought to mind a statistic shared in one of my last professional development trainings at my middle school: the top ten jobs today did not exist ten years ago. How, then, are we to prepare today’s students for the future? We must be constantly preparing for the unforeseeable, and we must give our students skills they may need, not facts which can be committed to rote memory.

One of the problems I am seeing in my classroom is that, when given group work, my students tend to create collective works, rather than collaborative works. It is easy for students to “work together” and divide up parts (i.e. “I’ll take odds, you take evens…”) The parts exist together, yes, but beyond discussing “who takes what” students are not actually interacting or collaborating. We must push our students beyond cooperating and coexisting, and into the realm of sharing ideas and creating better ideas together. “Two heads are better than one” has not stuck with us through the ages for lack of meaning.

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In my English classroom, I have tried various ideas to get students to truly collaborate, and I believe the more heads we can get to work together, the better. In seventh grade, students are just learning to develop and own these collaborative skills. When giving students a group project, one of the first things I have students do is assign each member a role. They are all accountable for creating the product as a team, but they are in charge of a specific aspect of keeping their “collaborative machine” on track. During a stations rotations activity in which groups read aloud various texts and were in charge of discussing and deciding the texts genre, students held one of the following teacher-created roles: Spokesperson, Reader, Genre Judge, Main Idea Master, Time Keeper, Clean Up Crew. While it took a lot of setting up (and debriefing afterward, with students discussing what went well and what they could improve), this “everyone-has-a-role” approach truly aided my students in working efficiently and collaboratively. It is to the point now where I can give my students a new project and tell them to decide which jobs may be needed for the project and who will fit which role best.

Teachers must give and demonstrate to students the framework for a collaborative environment, and after practicing working within the structure, students can truly begin to own the idea of collaboration. My students amazed me as we continued completing more group projects in the classroom; they created unique job titles like captain, encouragement coach, and artist. In my experience, our students may need help seeing what collaborative work looks and feels like. Collective work and collaborative work are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but our students need to know that collective work and collaborative work are not interchangeable.

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