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The Focused Student: Learning to collaborate pays off in the classroom and in later life

The Focused Student: Learning to collaborate pays off in the classroom and in later life
Students cut and pull tape to secure their computer to a cardboard display at the first invention convention for fifth through eighth grade La Cañada Unified students at La Cañada High in 2018. Educator Robert Frank writes that collaboration is a multifaceted teaching tool. (Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, in many schools locally and nationally these days it takes a team to complete a project. “Collaboration” has moved from buzzword to sophisticated educational strategy.

In the context of education, collaboration — students functioning on teams to complete a defined project — is seen as a multifaceted teaching tool that works to simultaneously teach a variety of essential skills while also conveying subject-matter information. A student working autonomously can cram him or herself full of “facts” about a subject. The same student working collaboratively also learns how to integrate information from different domains, partition workload, assemble parts into a coherent whole, and ways of dealing with intragroup disagreements, methods for organizing a coherent public presentation requiring integration of disparate, interrelated information, and perhaps most important, how to see the big picture.

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Collaboration instills in students the capacity to stand back and analyze where the information they have gathered fits (or doesn’t) with that gathered by other members of the team. It teaches valuable interpersonal skills such as negotiation, empathy and logical argument. And it compels students to consider differing points of view based on varying backgrounds, personal experiences or facts acquired in the course of pursuing the project. Collaborative endeavors also help combat the “it’s all about me” tendency that seems to prevail at the middle and high school levels.

There are several ways collaborative learning can be accomplished: within an individual subject or class, or within a group of subjects. The school-within-a-school or subject grouping, where teachers share the same students, is a prevailing concept in La Cañada middle schools. This approach was originally designed to share project-based learning across a grouping of subjects. For example, if a problem dealt with homelessness, history students might investigate the origins, math students might look at statistics and English students might look at authors who wrote novels about the issue.

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All of this takes careful planning by the teacher. The subject selected needs to be carefully researched. Organizing the groups so no one is marginalized and everyone has a clear task is next. Setting up a rough plan with flexible procedures provides some structure while allowing room for unexpected situations. Having clear expectations is very important and defines the anticipated participation and work product for each member of the group. Finally, there must be a clear evaluation plan for each student and the group as a whole. One of the most important lessons of collaboration is that the group rises or falls together. Collaboration encourages students to work with one another rather than competitively. There are more teams than solo acts in the business world, so this is a valuable life skill.

Project-based learning has to be built on a foundation of knowledge. Collaborative efforts do not and cannot replace all traditional learning. Collaboration, much like reading or writing, is a strategy that adds to a student’s educational and vocational toolkit. As teachers, we are often pleasantly surprised how collaborative projects provide incentive and opportunity for students who do poorly when going solo. Collaborative projects create a sense of obligation to others and an incentive to participate, while also creating a peer learning environment that is supportive. Nobody swims alone.

Parents can help by seeking opportunities to create collaborative “projects” at home. Encourage your student to be the organizer and group leader on the weekend project to clean out the garage or get the patio furniture ready for summer. Work on a family budget together or parcel out planning for next summer’s vacation trip — one person on accommodations, another on travel, a third on places to visit.

Collaboration is replacing competition, to the benefit of learners at all levels. Help your student collaborate for success personally, educationally and ultimately professionally.

Robert Frank is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at frank@hillsideforsuccess.org.

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