Guest Perspectives

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Collaboration: It's Got to be Taught (and How to Do It)!

We were recently involved in the implementation of a study around the efficacy of a technology-driven, project-based learning tool called Meridian Stories. The projects demanded that the students work in teams. In short, collaboration was one of the skill sets inherent in the project.

After over nine hours of observation of middle-school classrooms, we learned something very important: Collaboration needs to be taught. Its component parts need to be broken down, presented, reviewed, discussed and then practiced. When teachers just place students into teams and let them go with a set of tasks and goals, the collaborative aspect of this can be the obstacle to learning. Some students can naturally problem solve, but for those who are less communicative or social, the benefits of collaboration (establishing leadership roles, delegation of tasks, the scheduling of team communication, listening, debating and the re-delegation of new tasks, all to make the final piece richer as a result of multiple minds working together, rather than one) are lost on them. It's just onerous.

As one teacher put it:

[Students] have to be taught how to collaborate.... I have to constantly go over what are the expectations: How do you collaborate and role play it? Even appropriate language. How do you treat one another's ideas?... It's exhausting at times, but it's so what we need to do as educators: You have to go there. It's a mindset that translates into other skills, other content areas. And it helps them to get deeper.

Let's unpack this a little. The set up was that student teams had to produce short creative videos (about specific curricular themes) based on prompts from the Meridian Stories program. During class, students worked independently with their teams to move the project forward. Tasks included scripting, searching for images on the Internet, voiceover recording, etc.

Though our observations we identified four kinds of groups.

  • Type 1-Naturals: Some students settled easily into productive working groups. For the most part self-selected, these students knew exactly what they were doing and immediately set out to do it. Working together was not an obstacle.
  • Type 2-Jumpers: This group could look and feel busy (turning on their computers, etc.), but not accomplish much. The ability to make a plan together, determine who was doing what and then execute individual tasks was lacking.
  • Type 3-Goofers: Left to their own devices, students in this group just fooled around. Group work was an excuse to chat and use computers to share cool stuff for as long as they could get away with it.
  • Type 4-Non-Starters: Typically made up of students who were assigned to their respective team, students in this group were not happy to be working together. Students would wait for someone to tell them what to do. Setting goals and delegating tasks was foreign to them. Productivity was at a minimum: too much freedom, too little direction.

So, given these varied profiles, how does one teach 'collaboration?' We can gain inspiration from the way sports are taught. Teamwork is critical to the success of a sports team and is an inherent element of sports pedagogy.  The simplified breakdown looks like this:

  • The task is clearly defined: Win!
  • The players all have their positions and know the responsibilities of their positions. And within that hierarchy of responsibility, leaders are usually designated.
  • The team practices set plays that essentially focus on effective communication in order to reach their objectives (scoring a goal or basket or run).

The good news is, that, given their experience on the field, students actually do know the components of collaboration. The problem is that this knowledge has not been contextualized for the classroom. Yet it could be, and here's a suggestion for how to break it down for students into simple and familiar ideas:

  • Clear, Concrete Goals — The team needs a clear sense of the task, including the process needed to get the job done, and the desired outcome for that team. In the sports analogy: are they playing to be respectable, to tie, or to win?
  • Leadership and Delegation of Responsibilities — The team members need to divide the responsibilities as based on strengths: who does what well? Who wants to do this or that? And the team should consider designating leaders (in classroom collaboration, each member can lead a different component of the project — there does not have to be a "captain" as based on talent). In the sports analogy: each position has a function that needs to be served (defense, offense, etc.) and team members tend to play in the positions in which they are most comfortable...but not always, and that is where the learning takes place.  
  • Effective Communication — Classroom Collaboration entails the belief that a variety of perspectives can yield surprising and rich results: one often has to fight hard to oppose the power of the singular, alpha perspective (in sports, the ball hog). And one has to learn to listen, make decisions and move forward. Interestingly, effective communication is different on the field. It is based on a strong shared sense of purpose — like in the classroom — but is executed as based on synchronous communication: everyone communicating in the same way. Whereas in the classroom, effective communication can be very asynchronous to start — ideas clashing — but then becomes synchronous. Either way, effective communication is the third key elements to effective collaboration, in the classroom or on the field.

Recognizing that the concept of 'collaboration' needs to be taught is the first step toward maximizing this extraordinarily important tool in the classroom. Recognizing that the students actually already know the components of this critical skill set — something that they don't know that they know! — can expedite bringing these key 21st century skill sets to the fore in the classroom.

About the Authors

Brett Pierce has spent most of his professional life at Sesame Workshop, serving as a Co-Executive Producer on media projects about early childhood education, ESL, math, science and conflict-resolution for youth around the world, including projects in China, Macedonia, Indonesia, Poland and the UAE. With two Masters Degrees (English — Middlebury; Education — Columbia), Brett is the founder and Executive Director of Meridian Stories, a digital storytelling nonprofit for middle and high schoolers. Brett teaches an annual intensive course at Colby College called 'Developing Media for Social Change.'


Charlotte Cole, Executive Director of Blue Butterfly Collaborative, leads the non-profit's work assisting producers in low-income countries in developing high quality, localized educational media. Formerly, as SVP of Global Education at Sesame Workshop in NYC, she oversaw the education, research, and community engagement activities of the company's international co-productions of Sesame Street in over thirty countries. Cole received her doctorate in human development/psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is the editor of the publication, The Sesame Effect.


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