Recently, my high school freshmen completed a month-long collaborative project in groups of about 5 people. The goal of the project was to develop and perform a play for first graders, based on a traditional folktale from another culture. Having done this project for multiple years, I have developed a series of effective strategies for successful collaboration.
- Teach that conflict is a necessary part of collaboration. I begin with a simulation that intentionally creates controversy, and watch how they handle it. Then we watch a TED Talk, Dare to Disagree, which makes the point that people disagree when they care, and listening to different viewpoints leads to learning. Then I explain four decision-making models they can use to reach a decision after conflict.
- Invest in group design. For short-term projects, this is not necessary, but for long-term projects, it is. My process is to put the tables in groups and let students choose their seats one day, then I put all those people into different groups later. Because this is a creative project, and it falls at the beginning of the year when I do not yet know the students well, I give students a very brief creativity test. After sorting groups randomly (away from their chosen groups on the previous day), I make sure to evenly distribute students who had high creativity scores, have demonstrated leadership, and have earned low grades in my class. Making the groups intentionally diverse leads to a greater opportunity to learn from one another. I’m fortunate to teach in a school with teaming, so I always show my initial group designs to my team to get four more sets of eyes on the groupings. With their feedback, I often tweak my plans.
- Set groups up for success. On the day I announce the groups, I make a big production. First, I give the speech about how to react (never negatively, but also not too positively because that can make others feel left out). I hand every student a numbered envelope with a card inside. The cards contain pictures of farm animals. To find their group, they have to make the sound of the animal. This ridiculous exercise makes them relieved to find their fellow quackers, mooers, and cluckers, so they have instantly bonded. A classic ice-breaker, Two Truths and a Lie, helps them get acquainted. Then a group puzzle activity challenges them to work together, with deep metaphorical debrief conversations.
- Use contracts. On the second day of group work, students negotiate contracts. It takes a full class period the first time, but later in the year they can do this in 10 minutes. Inspired by the contract system at Manor New Tech High School, my contract system has been refined over a year and used successfully with dozens of groups. I define the student roles for the project, and assign prestigious-sounding names, specific tasks, and exact due dates. Students do have the ability to give warnings to their members for violating agreements, and after three warnings, the offending student is removed from the group and must complete the project on their own. Never has a student been removed, but several times they have been warned. Giving the students this authority means they rarely run to the teacher to complain about each other’s behavior or efforts.
- Allow for a feedback system. At the conclusion of the project, each student fills out a survey about their group members (including themselves). I aggregate the data and show them the average scores on each question. Then they have time to analyze the results through graphing their own scores in each category and answering reflection questions. It’s important for students to know that being a good group member doesn’t just mean doing the work: if they are rude to others, don’t express ideas, and don’t ask questions, they are not good collaborators. Last month, my students, as a whole, scored each other highly on listening, while the biggest area for growth was encouraging others. Another excellent tool for feedback is the Buck Institute’s Collaboration Rubric, which I have also used during group projects.
When teachers assign group projects, it’s tempting to assess the final product, rather than the process. But it is the process that is the most important part of the work. In order to produce global citizens with strong collaboration skills, we need to provide structures and systems to facilitate their growth.