Not So Simple Collaboration

The concept of collaboration seems simple but it’s not. Anyone who has actually attempted to collaborate with other teachers or team members in their community knows that great collaboration is both difficult and messy. The potential for all sorts of difficulties abound. Over-communication, under-communication, miscommunication, micro-managing, inefficient task completion, lop-sided workloads and unhealthy relationships are just a few examples of how things can go wrong.

However, being apart of a great team can be a really rewarding experience. There are things that a team can accomplish that an individual could never achieve on their own. A good team can motivate and support you in difficult moments, help you see blind-spots in your teaching practice and teach you new skills. Teaching teams also provide the potential to develop meaningful relationships that will last far beyond the present job or task.

As I write this blog post, I think of a number of teachers dwell in classrooms on my wing of our Middle School that have encouraged me to write this year. I would have never had the motivation to start blogging more regularly during this school year without their input and encouragement. I’ve become a better writer and had some great conversations this year due to their engagement with my writing. This blog is really an expression of collaboration and inspirations with the colleagues at my school.

Collaboration is equally as difficult and beneficial for students. For example, there are so many learning benefits for students when they provide each other with formative feedback. There are so many things that students can say to each other that they would never accept from a teacher. For example, they might admit and that they don’t understand a certain concept to a peer but feel defensive about admitting this to a teacher. Having good collaborative teams in the classroom multiplies the amount of formative feedback in your classroom exponentially. Sometimes students come into my classroom with the expectation that learning happens in a direct exchange between the teacher the student. I attempt to change the culture of learning in my classroom so that students recognize that much of the learning in our classroom also happens through interactions with classmates.

Two Pitfalls of Collaboration

Over-dependency on Others

In general, I think there are two major ways that collaboration can fail. I imagine these as two ditches that we can fall into while trying to move forward on the road of collaboration. The first is over-dependency on others. Over-dependency is a mind-shift that can happen the instant that a teacher mentions the words, “group project.” Immediately, someone in the class is devising a way to escape the essential struggle that is a part of every learning experience. An over-dependant collaborator might think, “The group can complete this task without me” or, “I can’t add anything to this conversation or project.” Under-valuing your own contribution or just refusing to put in the effort that is needed can get in the way of meaningful collaboration.

In my experience as a teacher, over-dependency on other teachers leads to a lack of innovation and creativity. Often there is a lead teacher that is made the front-runner for the group and the other teachers fall in behind simply mimicking his/her pedagogical moves. Is not that copying doesn’t help us learn sometimes, it does. However, if this kind of pedagogical mimicry becomes a pattern, it can inhibit the teachers impact on the unique learners in his/her classroom. Further, it can also prevent teachers from engaging in critical and creative thinking about their own practice.

Retreating to Silence and Safety

If over-dependency is ditch on one side of the road to effective collaboration, safety is the ditch on the other side of the road. By safety, I’m thinking about avoiding the necessary relational messiness of collaboration. True collaboration involves some sticky situations–there is no way around them. It depends on strong relationships with others, listening to each others story and members being vulnerable with each other. When we open ourselves up to offer ideas, give our opinions and perspectives, there will be opposition, disagreement and sometimes it will seem like discussions or project isn’t going anywhere. When confronted with those who aren’t doing their fair share of the work or those who act as if they know everything, it can be tempting to close your classroom door push forward alone. However, withdrawing into the safety of isolation doesn’t help anyone over the long term. Those who are not willing to take the relational and creative risks don’t learn anything new from their colleagues.

Suggestions for Staying on the Road

Group Norms Help Establish Expectations

One of the most helpful concepts from the Professional Learning Community model that I found helpful is the idea of establishing norms for collaborative groups. This post from Jigsaw Learning contains a Google Drive folder of many helpful samples of group norms. The idea behind the norms is not primarily to establish a code of rules. Instead, they help establish a common expectation for all the members in the group to prevent hidden expectations from separating group members. For example, consider a norm about disagreement or conflict that says, “We always communicate those who we have disagreements (or conflict) with before we communicate about them with others.” If I find myself in a situation where Teacher A is sharing about a conflict or exchange where they were hurt by Teacher B, it becomes a normal expectation for me to ask Teacher A, “Did you tell Teacher B that he/she offended you with his comment?” These common expectations help communication and enable us to build stronger relationships.

Group Norms Create a Sense of Ownership

It is also helpful to teach students to set norms for their group work because it gives them a sense of ownership. Writing down norms as a group gives a helpful reference point for everyone in the group and helps encourage ownership and self-regulation of behaviour in the group. Consider one of the most difficult group norms in my class, “We will contribute evenly to the workload of this team.” Having a group of students write this down and agree on it is often more powerful, at least in Middle School, than the teacher telling these expectations to the class. Sometimes Middle Schoolers are more concerned about pleasing their peers than the teacher. It also provides a student-centred basis of accountability. If students have discussed these norms, then they can hold each other accountable.

Further, if my students are feeling disengaged with what I’m teaching them, it is sometimes because I haven’t invited them co-construct the assignment or project that I’m asking them to complete. Empowering others by including them in the decision-making process often leads to feelings of ownership and engagement. The same is true of collaboration. Giving the student guidance and exemplars is important, but having them set the norms and giving them a chance to work through disagreements with those norms in place is equally important.

Team Innovations Encourage Creativity

Writing an article for Forbes, Stephanie Cartin suggests that team collaboration can be improved by hosting “Team Innovations” where each member of the team is encouraged to present an original/new idea for the team. This fun activity can help others come together as a group and give members of the team the chance to share their ideas. It also gives other team members a sense of what kinds of things are going on in other classrooms around them.

Implement Effective Task Management

Another key to successful team collaboration is implementing an effective system that manages the tasks and projects that your team is to accomplish. This is particularly helpful when a team of teachers is organizing a school-wide or grade-wide event with a number of different teachers and organizational tasks. Optimally, a task management system would include a place to store data such as a calendar, documents, and chat functionality. I’ve just discovered a task management, cloud-based software called Smartsheets. I love its compatibility with Google but am not sure if I want to pay for the subscriptions to use it regularly at this point. There are many task management tools like this that allow everyone to work within the same framework.

Spencers Seven Keys to Collaboration

Recently, I used John Spencer’s video Seven Keys to Collaboration video to remind my students about some helpful principles of collaboration. I recommend it as a great resource for teachers or students to create some good discussion about collaboration. Spencer’s Seven Keys are ownership, dependability, trust, structure, shared vision or directions, fun and candour.

If you have some helpful resources that you use with your students or teaching team, I would really appreciate it if you linked a website or named a book in the comments below.

Math Projects that Matter

Math matters when it’s connected to authentic tasks and situations in life.  Doing loads of textbook questions that aren’t connected to authentic situations isn’t engaging for anyone.  This is one of the reasons I have shifted my approach to teaching math over the last few years.  At the beginning of my teaching career, my math class consisted of marching chapter by chapter through the textbook.  In the past few years, I have moved to a project-based approach that has benefited my students in many ways.  In this post, I want to share a few of reflections that I hope will move more educators in the same direction.     

Adaptable to learners at different levels

One difficult part about teaching math is engaging students at different levels.  Unlike the textbook-driven approach, math projects can easily be customized to fit learners at higher and lower levels.  Often this is because the task is more open-ended and can be more or less structured to fit the learner.  Instead of boring advanced students with a set of questions that they quickly motor through and become disruptive to the rest of the class, math projects are easily expanded or made more complex.   

For example, in my pool project last year, I had my students build a circular, model swimming pool out of cardboard to show their knowledge about the area of circles and the volume of cylinders.  I also gave them certain requirements for the pool, such as its capacity and the target audience it would be designed for.  I made sure the target audience included people with a range of heights so that their pool would need a deep and shallow end. Once the advanced learners had this information and we developed success criteria, they began working independently.  I knew a few of my students were very advanced and challenged them to design a pool with a graduated floor.  Others, who were struggling with the general concept of volume, designed two, joint, circular pools with a flat floor.  

This adaption of the project was much more efficient than the traditional textbook approach I had taken in the past.  This adjustment didn’t require research to find more questions and answer keys.  There were no fancy math websites needed for advanced students to stay challenged.  Separate tests or evaluations weren’t necessary. Nor, did it require dividing students into ability groupings that may have prevented the more advanced learners from helping their peers.  In short, the open-ended-ness, that scared me when I started, proved important for customizing the learning to fit my students.  

More side-by-side time

One disadvantage of project-based math units it that they require more time on the front end.   The learning maps, assignment guides or learner playlists are more like a little unit a syllabus than a lesson plan.  In my experience, inquiry-based units often take many more hours of preparation than traditional units.  However, this additional time at the front-end of the unit has also bought more time mid-unit to do mini-lessons with small groups, or work side-by-side with students who need extra support.   This is a huge advantage when you consider that many parents don’t know how to help their children with math at home and others simply aren’t there to help them.  Students need assistance delivered during school and teaching math projects has been extremely helpful for this.

Student choice and engagement

I didn’t actually think about how passive my math class was until I started teaching with projects.  The first large math project I attempted asked students to design their own vacation.  Not long after the project launch, I received dozens of questions from students about the design process.  “Mr. Mayer, will I need to rent a car?” To these questions, I often answered with a question like, “How close is your hotel to the activities you are planning?” My students weren’t used to being able to make choices in math.  Narrowly defined problems with a very specific scenario and a single outcome were the norms.  Giving students dozens of choices to create and design gave them a sense of ownership and pride while engaging them deeply in mathematical thinking.  Recently, one of my students was so proud of the trip she had planned to Vancouver Island that she suggested that her family actually go on the trip at Spring Break.  Her parents adopted the idea and she was able to experience the trip she planned and budgeted for.

Cross curricular and cross competency 

In a textbook-driven approach to learning math, it’s sometimes hard to find opportunities for students to communicate about the math decisions they are making or improve financial literacy.  However, teaching math projects gave students multiple cross-curricular learning opportunities.  For example, in my vacation design project, the students were required to write a travel itinerary for their trip and make a commercial on Abode Spark to “sell” their vacation package to the class.  Writing appealing summaries and video-editing are typically not skills that students associate with math.  In fact, there were a few competencies that seemed quite unique to a project-based approach.  Skills like:

  • Students generating their own ideas about how to solve problems
  • Students comparing information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students answering questions in front of an audience
  • Students justifying their financial decisions using math
  • Student presenting their findings to an audience

I think it’s often this lack of complexity and cross-competency work that makes math boring for students.  Working on bigger projects allowed them to use many different compentencies while building their number sense.

If you would like want to shift your practice toward a project-based approach, I’ve linked some of my favourite resources below.  Or, if you have some have a resources that you would suggest, please link them in the comments below.  

Suggested Resources