On Collaborative Spaces

Report cards were handed out at our school yesterday. If you’ve read my blog before, follow me on Twitter, or have ever had a glass of wine with me, you can probably infer how I feel about these days.

It seems to me that no matter how we frame them, report cards have a perplexing, if not devastating effect on the way our learners approach collaboration. Never mind the other ways it impacts self-efficacy and motivation (see Joe Bower’s For the Love of Learning blog). I stood aghast watching a school full of little people play the wadjyaget game. I threw up in my mouth a little.

In Ontario, we are supposed to assess and evaluate something we call Learning Skills. These are broken down into the following: Responsibility, Organization, Independent Work, Self-Regulation, Initiative, and Collaboration (see @benhazzard and others’ great resource which clarifies what these concepts mean).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the latter skill, collaboration. Or, rather, collaborative environments. Here’s where I see the distinction.

Collaboration occurs when two or more parties join powers in an effort to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. For true collaboration to be taking place, all members of the team need to be equally invested in the result. In classrooms and schools around the world, situations that demand collaboration are normal if not pervasive. Of course, the extent to which the advanced skills required to be successful collaborators are being fostered is another question altogether.

Collaboration is the most wonderful thing in the world. When you’re in that team zone where members are clear about their roles, communicate with ease, and have an intrinsic impulse to succeed, there really is no pharmaceutical to match it.

The thing about collaboration though is that it can still be just an event. As in, Man, that project we did together was so awesome! I wish we could do it again. What is more, we often associate these times as ones shared with relatively like minded people. For instance, I love working with friends like @techieang and @slouca11 (just to name a couple) because we share certain foundational world views.

I see the creation and fostering of collaborative environments or spaces as a little bit of a different animal. Collaborative spaces don’t necessarily have a clear end in mind. Or, rather, it is an end in itself. A collaborative environment means that every single person says this:

I cannot be who I want to be without these other people.

My number one goal as a teacher is to do everything in my power to remove barriers to this process. I am in no way implying that I have actually managed to achieve this ideal, nor am I suggesting that it does not ebb and flow (there’s no finish line). What I am saying is that I am trying as hard as I can.

Forget words and rhetoric. No need to tell people, let alone kids, to be nice to one another, share ideas, and to put group interests above selfish concerns. It’s not about what you preach, it’s about what you do. It’s about the structure. So what are the barriers?

I don’t have all the answers. Still, I think there are two big areas we selectively ignore on a regular basis.

Literally Practicing What We Preach

If you want to create a collaborative learning space with kids, try your best to learn in one yourself. For instance, until I personally experienced collaborative teacher moderation of student work samples, I had no conscious idea of how to transfer that model to the classroom. It completely dumbfounds me, for instance, that I am frequently meeting educators asking me for assistance on leveraging social media in their classrooms while not participating in a professional learning network themselves. If you want to explore how social media fosters collaborative attitudes and practices in your group of learners, I would engage in one yourself.

Assessment and Evaluation

The way we assess progress and evaluate quality has to match what we say is important. So, if you are telling your kids that goal setting means to strive for ten more percentage points, then by all means, use those functions in Excel or Markbook and put a percentage mark on everything that happens in the room (I am fully aware that some of us are mandated to use these tools). But I might also suggest that you should perhaps avoid simultaneously clumping kids together in group work and projects as well, for there exists a paradox of sorts here. On the other hand, if you are telling kids that everyone is an expert at something, and that leveraging of individual differences in a group results in larger, wider reaching, and sustainable success, then you should probably put that gradebook with the millions of tiny boxes in the recycling bin.

Sometimes it’s not what you ‘teach’, say, or even do. Sometimes collaborative spaces are created and maintained by simply stopping certain processes that are directly in conflict with them.

And now for a somewhat apt but mostly gratuitous Voltron analogy:



  1. In order to have students involved in collaboration, teachers need to be involved in collaboration themselves. We need to talk with our students about how we work together and treat each other with respect. That might be a huge shift in some buildings. My students see and hear about ways I collaborate with other Educators. I share e-mail feedback, talk about teacher moderation and share what happens when I’m out in at an l@s planning session. But most importantly I treat my colleagues with respect and speak well of them to my students.
    Lets find a way to make our schools more collaborative and maybe we’ll see our classrooms become collaborative environments.

  2. This past week, my gr. 7/8 students produced a shared writing story with students in another province. No marks were on the table. The best part of their learning was what they wrote during their reflection on the value of working collaboratively with others. A few of their lines…

    I learned” ….to slow down and be patient. Not all of us think alike and we work at different speeds. …to stay cool with someone and not be annoyed, because you never know what could be going on with the people on the other side.”

    They blew me away with what they learned.

    Like you, my students participate in the “whdtchaget” discourse. If there’s no mark to get, then the pressure is off and the collaborative learning skills soar.

  3. Your post addresses exactly what has been on my mind for the past week. education seems to be spinning its wheels. We want collaboration and to develop 21st century learners yet there’s still so much focus on how to bump up a “level 2” student to a “level 3” student. With so much emphasis on grades and levels, we are sending the wrong message to our students: The purpose for learning and collaborating is to achieve a level 4. The result of this misperception? Students doing the bare minimum to pass, students immediately tossing their projects in the garbage when a unit is finished and students constantly asking, “when am I ever going to use this in my everyday life?”

    Thanks for your reflection! The Voltron reference made it even sweeter.

  4. Fabulous post, I couln’t agree with you more. If I could, whittle the report card down to one anecdotal paragraph per term, I would be happy – let formative assessment be the driver and mark of success. We have the technological know how to make this a reality. As teachers we know formative asessment is what makes the difference, but do parents? The backwash effect of high stakes assessment is so pervasive in our societies and cultures that people are always looking for the divisive “grade” to validate themselves.
    Collaborative, like experiential learning is emotive and memorable because it involves others who help us validate and construct our undersatanding. As educators this is where we need to direct our assessment energy and innovation.

  5. Excellent post. At my site, we’re still trying to topple the separate silo climate that is quite pervasive. But we’re taking baby steps and I’m optimistic that momentum will build. Eventually, hopefully, it will become an intrinsic part of the instructional practice in the building. But the challenge is sustainability. Once we’ve moved on, will that practice remain?
    And thanks for the Voltron video. I loved that show as a kid – we role-played it all the time!

  6. I believe one of the hardest things about collaboration is the attitudes. From my view as a student I would say that the attitude of people today can make a barrier. I hear all the negative attitudes and once had one myself. I believe we live in a world today where people do not really care about doing things the right way. As you said they just want to get by without learning anything.

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