Collaborative learning, in which students work together to solve a problem or complete a task, is becoming more common in today’s classrooms—and for good reason.
The ability to work with others as part of a team is the skill that companies most desire among new hires, according to a recent survey. Collaborative learning helps students develop this critical skill.
But even beyond preparing students for the workforce, research suggests that collaborative learning offers a number of important social and academic benefits.
As students are working collaboratively on an assignment, they must explain their thinking to others in their group, which helps them develop their own understanding of the topic.
What’s more, students have an opportunity to learn from their peers and hear other perspectives that further advance their own knowledge.
They learn to think critically about these various perspectives, and they tend to retain what they’ve learned.
While the benefits of collaborative learning are clear, using this strategy in the classroom can be challenging.
Here is some advice on how to create a classroom environment that allows collaborative learning to flourish.
- Don’t be afraid to get messy. Collaborative learning can be noisy and might appear somewhat chaotic at times, with students discussing, debating, sharing, and creating in small groups. Teachers must learn to embrace this chaos, as it means students are engaged in active learning.
- Learn to give up some control. This can be hard for teachers who are used to having students sit quietly while they lecture. But teachers will find that when they give up some control over their classroom, they allow students to take charge of their own learning, which is ultimately what we want for our students—to be self-directed learners. And when teachers talk less, they have more time to listen, observe, and provide feedback to students.
- Set up your classroom to encourage collaborative learning. For students to work together, they must be sitting together. Don’t be afraid to rearrange the furniture to support collaboration. Flexible classroom furnishings, such as desks and tables from Paragon that easily can be arranged into multiple configurations, allow you to create groupings of various sizes and compositions to suit different types of projects throughout the year.
- Set clear expectations, and pay attention to transitions. Learning to give up some degree of control doesn’t mean ceding control of your classroom to students altogether. Your transitions in and out of collaborative learning time are important, because they signal to students when it’s OK to talk with their peers—and when they should be listening to you. Start collaborative lessons by establishing clear guidelines; explain the task and your learning goals, including how students will be evaluated and the behaviors you expect from them. Then, turn students loose on the project. To bring the focus back to you, include a debriefing session at the end. And always make sure that students are following the rules for respectful collaboration while they are engaged in the project itself.
When students work together on group projects, they learn critical 21st century skills that will help them in the workplace—and they also develop a much richer understanding of core content.
But implementing collaborative learning in the classroom can be tricky. One of the biggest challenges is teaching students how to collaborate with their peers effectively.
Students cannot be expected to know instinctively how to work well with others. This is a skill that needs developing, like any other.
And as educators would do with any other skill, it’s important to teach the elements of successful collaboration explicitly before having students apply this skill on their own.
The interpersonal skills needed for effective collaboration include listening to others, respecting other people and their opinions, asking clarifying questions, communicating one’s own ideas clearly and concisely, trusting other members of the group, learning how to compromise, and managing conflict.
Students should know what each of these behaviors involves and how to practice it in their daily interactions.
Here are some ideas for developing these skills among students:
- Use conflict as a teachable moment.“Instead of seeing conflict as something that you must immediately step in the middle of and put a stop to, see conflict as an opportunity,” says the Association of American Educators (AAE). Help students learn to mediate their own conflicts, providing guidance where necessary but stopping short of imposing your own solution.
- Model effective collaboration for your students. “Set a good example for collaboration by working with other teachers and faculty members often,” AAE says. “Talk about your planning sessions and your experiences working with other teachers, and allow (students) to experience the rich interdisciplinary results of such collaboration. This way, they will see both the how and the why of collaboration.”
- Give students opportunities to build trust and rapport among their groups through icebreakers and team-building exercises.
- Reflect with your students after collaborative projects. Spend time wrapping up the task by discussing not just the project itself, but how students worked together. Highlight both good and bad examples of the collaboration you saw, always being careful not to call out or embarrass particular students.
Of course, creating a classroom environment that is conducive to collaborative learning is important as well. Flexible classroom furnishings, such as desks and tables from Paragon that easily can be arranged into multiple configurations, allow you to create groupings of various sizes and compositions to suit different types of collaborative projects throughout the year.
With the Internet now just a finger swipe away, students and teachers no longer need a library to access critical information. But that doesn’t mean school libraries have become irrelevant.
On the contrary, school libraries are transforming from archives of information into vibrant “learning commons,” where students gather to learn key digital-age skills and construct new knowledge together.
As you redesign your own school libraries to meet new 21st-century needs, here are some ideas to help inspire you.
A ‘think tank’ for solving key challenges
At Swan Valley High School in Saginaw, Mich., “our library is the hub of the school,” writes Library Media Specialist Kay Wejrowski. “Each year, our library morphs itself into what the school needs.”
Wejrowski and her aides help teachers plan lessons using probing questions that get students to think more deeply.
Library lessons for all incoming freshmen lay the groundwork for their success in high school, teaching them about the resources that are available, how to be safe online, and how to create a digital footprint they can be proud of.
The school has turned part of its library into a maker space, and students also use the facility to video conference with authors, Holocaust survivors, and people from other parts of the world.
Each spring, library staff help students research their senior projects and give constructive feedback on students’ presentations.
When the Swan Valley School District cut funding to take preschoolers to the public library, the high school created an early childhood center in its library, with teens developing and teaching weekly reading lessons for these children.
When the school went 1:1 with tablets for all students, a library workroom was converted into a technology troubleshooting and repair station.
It short, it is the school’s library—which earned the 2013 Library Program of the Year award from the American Association of School Librarians—that “often serves as a think tank for evolving ideas and programs and finds solutions to local challenges,” Wejrowski notes.
A ‘barrier-free space’ for learning and innovation
When Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, redesigned its library, Librarian Carolyn Foote saw this as an opportunity to think beyond the traditional confines.
“I knew that I wanted the library to be a campfire space where students could gather, a collaborative space where they could work together in small groups, a transparent space where learning in the school could be ‘seen’ through the windows, a more barrier-free space in terms of student use, and an innovative space where the design would reflect the innovations that are going on inside our campus,” she writes.
To achieve these goals, the Westlake library includes glass walls, an outdoor courtyard area, and a “juice bar” that encourages students and teachers to come together, communicate, and share in the learning process.
Foote took inspiration from how other public spaces were designed to be both comfortable and attractive. She hoped for a place where students would want to gather and hang out as they learned or studied together.
So, she paid attention to small details such as the lighting fixtures, seating options, and colors in her own library’s design.
Her advice for other K-12 leaders as they redesign their library spaces? “Watch how students are using your current space. Watch what is giving them problems or causing confusion. Watch what their preferences are. Try to identify those key things about the space that do—or do not—work for your customers.”
Moving from a ‘transactional’ to a ‘transformational’ space
In transforming the library at Pomperaug Elementary School in Southbury, Conn., Media Specialist Jane Martellino began by changing the way she taught information literacy skills to students.
“The focus should be … on the shift libraries must make from transactional to transformational. I believe this shift occurs first in mindset, and then the physical transformation of the library space follows,” she notes.
“By changing both the way I taught, as well as the expectations for student learning, the results were obvious. Students were collaborating, creating, communicating, and dropping in any time they had moments to spare.
In no time at all, mindset shifted.” However, changes to the physical space had to be made incrementally, owing to budget constraints.
Martellino began by making simple changes, such as cleaning out her librarian’s office and transforming it into a “green screen” room and recording studio.
She also enlisted the help of custodians to move furniture in order to create larger spaces for specific learning needs as they arose.
Her vision going forward includes more flexible, agile furniture that can be moved easily without the help of custodians; portable dividers with writeable surfaces, such as Plexiglas walls on wheels; comfortable seating with built-in electrical outlets to welcome students and teachers to gather informally and chat; and collaboration centers where students can connect their mobile devices to flat screens for group collaboration or Skyping with experts.
Close your eyes and picture the school libraries you spent time in as a youth. Chances are they all looked pretty similar: Rows of thick wooden shelving piled high with books. Students sitting quietly at tables, reading independently or perhaps working together in hushed tones.
The school library was a place you came to check out books, or look up information in encyclopedias or other reference materials as you compiled a research report.
Younger students would have story time, and older students might use the library for studying.
But that’s changing. Mobile devices and wireless broadband have given students limitless access to information in the palm of their hands.
With a world of information now just a click away, the teacher’s role is no longer just to impart information but to have students co-construct new knowledge—often in collaboration with each other.
Learning is becoming more active and engaging, with students in charge of their own learning.
As teaching and learning have shifted in these fundamental ways, school libraries are transforming as well. Consider these examples:
- At Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., where all students use laptop computers for learning, the school has transitioned to a “bookless library.” A database with millions of digital texts replaced its 20,000-volume collection of books, and a café replaced the circulation desk. Instead of being a quiet place for students to study individually, the library is now a vibrant hub for digital learning and conversation.
- Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School has redesigned its traditional library—with its cubicles and stacks that hindered collaboration—into one that fosters communication and cooperative learning. The school constructed a flexible, multipurpose space with moveable chairs, desks, and even bookshelves to support group projects, and students can write on the sides of the bookshelves with dry-erase markers.
- At the International School at Dundee, a magnet elementary school in Riverside, Conn., students aren’t told to keep their voices down in the library. In fact, it can get noisy as students question guest speakers or give presentations to their classmates. In a maker space area of the library, students use a 3D printer to bring their creations to life. The school’s library is no longer a place for students just to check out a book or read; instead, students come for a variety of activities. They visit more often and stay longer as well.
From information archives to ‘learning commons’
In today’s information-rich society, students and teachers no longer need a library for access to information. But that doesn’t mean school libraries have become irrelevant.
On the contrary, it can be argued that school libraries are more important today than ever. They serve as a focal point for helping students and teachers navigate the flood of information available online and distinguish fact from fiction. In many school libraries, teachers and media specialists are teaming up to teach classes together, with the media specialist focusing on the technology and information literacy skills that students need to become effective citizens in the Digital Age.
As learning becomes more active and participatory, school libraries are transforming from archives of information into “learning commons,” where students come to learn key 21st-century skills and construct new knowledge together from many sources.
This new model is changing the design of school library spaces. Printed books are still important, but library spaces are no longer consumed by rows of bookshelves. There are now more open spaces and common areas that allow students and teachers to get together for creating, sharing, and collaborating.
As school libraries evolve to meet the changing needs of staff and students, K-12 leaders are redesigning their library spaces to support these emerging needs—and Paragon has created a free guidebook to help with this task. It includes action steps to follow, ideas for inspiration, and key issues to consider.
When the leaders of Ohio’s Pickerington Local School District decided to redesign their learning spaces to better meet students’ needs, they turned to the real experts for help: the students themselves.
In return, district officials received a wide range of classroom designs that are more engaging, inviting, and supportive of 21st century teaching and learning.
As director of instructional technology, Brian Seymour has been leading the district through a change in pedagogy. Pickerington has given every middle school student a Chromebook to support a style of blended learned that it calls “tradigital learning”—a mix of traditional and digital instruction that focuses heavily on cultivating the five Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and citizenship.
But Seymour and other district leaders realized their learning spaces also would have to change to support this shift more effectively.
During the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in San Antonio, Seymour described how including students in the design process has made a big impact.
One of the reasons Pickerington involved students in the design process is because the district tried purchasing new chairs in the past, but the students didn’t like them. “The last thing you want to do is buy new furniture and then when kids come in August, they hate it,” he explained.
Including students in the design process has encouraged them take ownership of their classroom spaces, which district leaders hope will lead to more investment in their education. What’s more, Seymour turned the project itself into a learning opportunity.
“We decided we would use this as a problem-based learning exercise with kids, modeled after the TV show Shark Tank,” he said.
Working in groups of four, students researched ideas for effective, flexible classrooms. “We didn’t give them a budget; we simply told them to be ‘reasonable,’” Seymour said. “Kids used 3D design software to map out their designs, and they had to present their ideas to the community.”
Each design had to include a teacher station area, a place for independent work, and a space for collaboration. The top designs were chosen by a committee of adults—and now the district is working to redesign the classrooms in every middle school based on these winning designs.
“We need to change our learning spaces to meet our kids’ needs,” Seymour concluded. “And we have to include students in this process. What do they want from their classrooms?”
During the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in San Antonio, David Jakes, a former educator and administrator who now helps schools transform their learning spaces, shared several strategies for redesigning K-12 learning spaces to support 21st century instruction more effectively.
Here are eight of his best recommendations for K-12 leaders.
Develop a new mindset and lens to see space.
Try to visualize new possibilities for learning spaces, Jakes said. Most people don’t start with a fresh canvas in mind; instead, they simply look at how to enhance the current space. “The first step in redesigning the classroom is to discard the notion that it has to be a classroom,” he said, “because that comes with baggage. What about imagining it as a studio instead?”
Immerse yourself in resources.
Here are some resources that can help you redesign your learning spaces:
- Learning Spaces (Educause)
- Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Space Design (JISC)
- Leading the Transition from Classroom to Learning Space (NLII White Paper)
- National (US) Summit on School Design (American Architecture Foundation)
- Active Classroom Guide (Paragon) [include link]
Focus on experience, not things.
When redesigning learning spaces, let the type of learning experiences you want to foster be your guide, Jakes advised. “This is not about furniture, it’s about the learning,” he said. “What experiences do I want to create for students? Then, what design would support that?”
The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form follows function,” and this is true of classrooms as well. A classroom with rows of student desks facing the front of the room creates a teacher-centric space that implies students are expected to sit and listen as the teacher talks. But a classroom with students sitting facing each other in small groups encourages a more active, student-centered style of learning, powered by teamwork and collaboration.
Create a multidimensional space.
It’s important to have a space that can assume many different roles, Jakes said, depending on the kinds of learning going on. He used the word “agile” to describe the ideal classroom: a flexible and dynamic learning space where the furniture can be rearranged quickly to support various activities. Paragon makes desks and tables that easily can be arranged into creative groupings of multiple sizes.
Promote movement and activity.
Research suggests that allowing students to move around during class offers both academic and health-related benefits. Consider buying chairs that allow students to rock or move around, as well as height-adjustable desks and tables that enable them to stand or sit.
Studies show that color affects our moods and can make for a more engaging space to be in, Jakes said. Look for opportunities to introduce a variety of colors into the classroom, such as on walls, desks, chairs, trim, accent colors, the insides of cabinets, and carpet tiles.
Design with digital in mind.
Think about electrical power sources for students to charge their devices, he recommended. For instance, Paragon has designed furniture with embedded power outlets for students to plug in their laptops and tablets. Also, consider the surface area of tables and whether it’s sufficient to accommodate student devices.
Get off site.
Take inspiration from how others outside of education use space to create warm, inviting environments for gathering, sharing, or studying, Jakes suggested—such as your local Starbucks, The Next Door Cafe, or 1871 Chicago.
Although technology is not essential for active learning, it can be a powerful tool to support student-driven learning. If students have access to a device with Internet connectivity, they can do independent research and use rich applications for creating and collaborating.
If you are using technology to support active learning in your schools, here are five key considerations:
How will you ensure that all students have equitable access to technology devices for learning? For instance, if you allow students to use their own personal laptops, tablets, and cell phones in class through a “bring your own device” policy, how will you make sure that students who don’t have their own personal device can participate? You might pair students who don’t have a device with someone who does and require them to share, for example—or keep a supply of school-owned devices on hand for them to borrow.
Students using digital devices in class must be taught how to use the devices safely and responsibly. Mike Ribble, an author and IT director for a public school district in Kansas, says digital citizenship education should teach students how to use technology to search for, evaluate, and curate information; how to act appropriately online; how to use technology in an ethical manner, such as not hacking into other peoples’ information, downloading music illegally, plagiarizing, sending spam, or stealing someone’s identify; and how to safeguard their privacy and IT security, among other lessons.
Speaking of IT security, K-12 leaders must consider how they will keep their school networks secure from viruses, phishing scams, ransomware attacks, and other online threats. Security measures should include keeping all operating systems up to date; regularly applying security patches; using a multilayered approach to IT security that includes firewalls, web filtering, antivirus protection, and advanced threat detection; and educating staff as well as students about security best practices.
Before investing in devices for your students, make sure you upgrade your network infrastructure so that it can handle all the traffic. Students and staff should be able to get online without a hitch, or else they will become frustrated, give up, and not use their devices for learning. The State Educational Technology Directors Associationrecommends that schools have at least 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) of bandwidth for every 1,000 students and staff members to enable rich, transformative teaching and learning experiences. Plan for more bandwidth than you think you need, however, because network demands increase exponentially as students do more bandwidth-intensive work.
If students are using digital devices to support self-directed learning, they need easy access to power supplies throughout the day so they can recharge their devices as necessary. A survey conducted by NewBay Media reveals that access to power often is a problem for schools: Eighty percent of K-12 leaders said they don’t have enough power to meet the technology needs of their staff and students, 77 percent said power has come up as an issue or complaint from faculty, and 58 percent said a lack of power affects students’ ability to use technology effectively in class.
Solutions to this problem include mobile device charging stations or even flexible power supplies embedded seamlessly within classroom furniture, providing an always-available power source so students can charge their devices while they work. Paragon sells classroom furniture with embedded power supplies to ensure that learning can continue uninterrupted.
Active learning is an instructional approach in which students take a hands-on, fully engaged role in their education, rather than sitting passively and absorbing information. Research shows that active learning is more effective than traditional lecturing, and it helps build critical 21st-century skills.
When students are actively engaged in their learning, they are thinking, creating, sharing, communicating, and constructing new knowledge. They are also taking ownership of their education. For these reasons, active learning is replacing the old-school “sit and get” approach to instruction in many classrooms nationwide.
Active learning can take many forms; here are some common examples.
Michael Gorman, who oversees digital learning and professional development programs for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana, has written a blog post to help educators promote student-led inquiry by giving students a driving or investigative question to answer.
For example: If you were a NASA scientist, and you had to write a proposal recommending which planet should be explored by the next space probe, which planet would you choose—and why?
High-quality questions should “engage the students and create wonderment through relevance to their world,” Gorman writes. These questions should require students to do research from multiple sources, think about their findings, and then synthesize the results into a clear and cohesive argument or plan. “If the question is Google-able,” he notes, “then it probably is not deep inquiry.”
Discussion and debate
Class discussions and debates “can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, fostering intellectual agility, and encouraging democratic habits,” says Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. “They create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and enlist and evaluate evidence.”
While discussions and debates can be valuable active learning strategies, leading them in the classroom can be anxiety-producing. “Discussions are, by their nature, unpredictable, and (they) require us as instructors to surrender a certain degree of control over the flow of information,” the center says.
Careful planning can help ensure that discussions are “lively without being chaotic and exploratory without losing focus”—and the center’s website provides advice for how to plan and lead them effectively.
Creating and composing
Having students create original works that demonstrate or enhance their understanding of a topic—such as public service announcements, movie trailers, rap songs, picture books, blog posts, photo journals, advertisements, business plans, 3D models, or other artifacts—has its roots in constructivist theories of education, which say that learners construct their own understanding of the world by experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences (in other words, “learning by doing”).
Letting students get creative also allows them to become “protagonists of their own learning,” says Mindy Faber, co-director of the Convergence Academies program in the Chicago Public Schools. Students are more highly engaged and motivated when they are given creative license, and they learn how to become innovators and creative problem-solvers as well.
With support from a federal grant, the Convergence Academies program created digital “ateliers,” or workshops, in two Chicago schools. During the school day, students use these spaces to create or compose digital artifacts for class-related projects; after school, students are free to hang out and learn digital media skills under the guidance of digital media mentors.
Since the program began in 2013, both schools have seen achievement rise—and students are learning important technology skills that can put them on a successful career path.
Having students work together in small groups to solve problems and share information not only leads to deeper learning and understanding; it also builds the essential teamwork skills that employers covet.
The College Preparatory School, a private coeducational high school in Oakland, California, weaves collaborative learning into the fabric of its approach, reports Edutopia. Teachers encourage classroom collaboration by assigning students to groups to review their homework, do daily class assignments, participate in moderated discussions, and complete hands-on projects. Often, teachers give students group tests, which are designed to be harder than individual assignments.
“Students quickly realize that they are able to solve problems as a group that they would not be able to solve as individuals,” Edutopia notes.
Project-based learning combines student inquiry, creation, and collaboration by challenging students to solve a real-world problem or complete an authentic learning task.
For instance, in Loudoun County, Virginia, kindergarten students designed the puzzles that are being used to stimulate the minds of orangutans in a Texas zoo—while high school students researched the environmental damage caused by de-icing agents that are applied after snow and ice storms, then launched a public service campaign that changed behaviors statewide.
These efforts are part of Loudoun County’s “One to the World” initiative, writes education consultant Alan November—which is leading to deeper learning and greater student engagement by empowering students to make meaningful contributions to the world. The school division is working with the Buck Institute for Education to help educators develop authentic problems for their students to solve.
“What I hear time and time again from teachers is they’re amazed at how hard students are working to bring their A game,” says Superintendent Eric Williams. “The amount of time they spend on projects is far beyond what is necessary.”
For active learning to be successful, though, a number of important elements must be in place. For instance, teachers need to be taught proven strategies for leading active learning in their classrooms. They need support structures to help them implement these strategies effectively, while overcoming their fears of trying something new in front of their students. And they need the right kind of classroom environment to support and encourage active learning—which includes the design of the learning space and how the furniture is configured.
- A classroom.
- A science lab. Most middle and high school science labs already have sinks, which can be useful for cleaning up after projects, as well as cabinets for storing materials.
- The library. School libraries are centrally accessible to students across all grade levels, and they’re often open after school already. Many schools have converted part of their library into a maker space as they replace their reference collections with digital versions.
- A computer lab. Instead of replacing old computers with newer desktop versions, some enterprising schools have replaced their outdated machines with laptops, tablets, 3D printers, electronics kits, and other fabrication tools.
- A home economics or industrial arts shop. These subjects have fallen out of favor in recent years, and a maker space would be a greatway to revitalize these spaces.
- Ask students what they want. Giving students a voice in the design of the space can inspire their ingenuity.
- Build flexibility into the design of the space. Use furniture that can be arranged easily in many different configurations to promote different kinds of student groupings and activities.
- Take inspiration from the “stations” approach to classroom design that is common in elementary schools. Consider creating separate areas for different kinds of activities, and equip each area as appropriate.
- Include open, informal spaces for students to gather together, brainstorm, and bounce ideas off one other. Soft seating options can make the space comfortable and inviting for students to congregate.
- Equipment and machinery such as computers, laptops, tablets, video monitors, 3D printers, laser cutters, and vinyl cutters.
- Electronics kits and components for building simple circuits, machines, computer motherboards, and robotics. Commercial kits include littleBits, Makey Makey, Raspberry Pi, and Arduinos.
- Digital media production tools such as cameras, tripods, green screens, video editing software, keyboards, turntables, music composition software, and graphic design software.
- Materials to create with, such as paints, paper, cardboard, plastics, wood, fabrics, and metals.
- Tools for cutting, joining, and splicing, such as scissors, wire cutters, glue guns, soldering irons, hand tools, and power tools.
- Does the space have adequate power supplies and internet access?
- Do desks and tables include large surfaces for working?
- Are materials easy to find? Consider using clear or mesh containers for storing materials so they are easily visible, or at least clearly label their containers.
- Are cleaning supplies easily accessible for cleaning up the space when you’re done using it?
- Have you set aside space to showcase student projects? Students love to see their works displayed, and past projects can serve as inspiration for a new wave of creations.
- Make sure you provide enough space for tools to be used safely, as well as safety equipment such as goggles and earplugs.
- Keep all pathways and exits clear.
- Make sure the space is well lit and ventilated. Make sure it’s equipped with a firstaid kit and a fire extinguisher.
- Make sure students clean up after every use to keep the space free from clutter.