Teaching Students How to Collaborate

I wrote extensively about my thoughts on the difference between cooperation and collaboration in the  post Distinctions Between Cooperation and Collaboration. I even briefly discussed how it can be taught.

With the increasing educational emphasis on collaboration, the big question involves how to teach it, which requires a closer look. While it may be obvious it definitely bears highlighting that collaboration is a much higher order thinking skill. It relies heavily on the ability to engage in critical and creative thinking, as well as a certain degree of self-efficacy. Of course all of this gets to the heart of the ideas in Vygotsky and Bandura, some pretty heady stuff.

Perhaps one of the gravest mistakes in attempts to teach collaboration is the absence of teaching. teachers don’t so much teach collaboration as much as they  expect that it will happen. Often it is falsely assumed that working together is natural. Humans are social creatures ergo social learning is a natural consequence. Anyone who has made this mistake almost immediately recognizes the fallacy of this assumption, but have little idea as to what to do about it.

The problem is that teaching collaboration is not easy and requires quite a bit of preparation and scaffolding. Student success in collaboration is the fruit of a lot of earlier labor. In essence, collaboration requires teachers to “work together” with students in the early going to help facilitate successful experiences. They need a lot of practice, however. many opportunities to make mistakes, and reflect That ultimately leads to more successful experiences. Students will become more capable, gaining self-efficacy with each successful experience. Only then are they ready to meet those initial expectations on their own.

Thus, scaffolding is key, and may involve using smaller more cooperative activities that build towards collaboration over time. Moreover, it remains crucial for students  to continue developing individually, gaining more self-efficacy in a range of activities. So partnership activities with equal status and responsibilities build initial mastery and pave the way for additional members and the prospects of a group. Yet, once a group includes three or more members, the degree of complexity increases significantly.

This means that we educators have to celebrate some of the failed attempts at collaboration in the beginning, particularly when they are instructive failures. As students reflect and understand what went wrong and develop preventative measures for the next opportunity, they are one step closer to proficiency.

Accordingly, successful methods and experiences need to be celebrated as well. Additionally, these must be used as models for others. This is important, because it is difficult to use modeling techniques for collaboration without having students observe collaboration happening, first-hand. It can be done, however. In essence, we must catch them when they are good, regularly

In the early going, we also need to establish equally demanding designated roles necessary for successfully accomplishing a task. This may require a greater degree of planning, but is crucial until the roles are assimilated and the students have a level of mastery that will allow them to share responsibilities or deviate from them when necessary. Another layer of sophistication is providing an array of protocols that can be used to both manage the work but also to address problems as they inevitably arise.

With plenty of opportunities and patience, on the part of teacher and students, they can be taught more effective collaborative practices.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Students How to Collaborate

  1. Christian Lehr


    Christian Lehr here (via Pete DiSalvio, who stumbled across your WordPress–think BHS circa ’05). I thought I would reach out to you considering I now teach high school myself (don’t feel too old). I teach English II in Baltimore City, and this post in particular resonates within my own classroom. As my first year comes to an end I am constantly searching for ways to improve. I’m glad you’ve left your footprint on the web, and hopefully we can keep in touch — as colleagues.


    1. Fred Haas - akh003 Post author


      What a pleasant surprise to hear from you. So you are a high school English teacher. Fantastic! I will send you a note.



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