When I first started teaching a decade ago, I would do anything to maintain control in my classroom. Rarely were students allowed to speak without raising their hand. All of the desks in my room faced forward, and I controlled all communication. Collaboration back then looked like the occasional “turn and talk” between desk partners, and sometimes we would have problem-solving partner days where students solved word problems together.
After a decade in the classroom, this year I took a role in my district as an elementary and middle school math instructional coach. Part of my job is going into a wide variety of classrooms between multiple different schools and grade levels. Each classroom I enter is different, but one thing is consistent—the best classrooms feature students collaborating in a variety of different ways. Additionally, the teachers in these classrooms have more of a role as coach, mentor, and guide than traditional “front of the room” practitioner.
Increasing collaboration in the classroom goes way beyond having students work together once in a while. Your job as a classroom teacher should be to create a culture in which teamwork is front and center in everything that you do. There are three types of collaboration in the classroom: between students, between yourself and students, and between the students and yourself.
Fostering voice between students
Students should have the freedom to discuss ideas and learn from one another and their collective mistakes. They should be given the time to do this on a daily basis. Adults collaborate and communicate with one another on a variety of tasks every single day, and so should our students.
Start by setting strict guidelines for classroom conversation. Make sure to model good communication strategies before students collaborate. Start by allowing for partner work, and work your way up to completing group projects with specified roles for each participant in the group. Have students present their findings and answer questions from their peers.