By Sam Piha
It is important that young people develop the skills and have opportunities to practice working collaboratively with diverse groups, other youth, and community members. Business leaders tell us that the ability to work collaboratively with others and in teams is a primary skill for 21st Century workers.
We concede that teaching these skills and having kids work in teams takes more planning and group management than having kids work independently. Thus, it is important that youth workers believe that working in teams allow young people to form a stronger sense of belonging, understand the value they can bring to a common goal, and work “smarter” than when working alone.
What COLLABORATIVE learning looks like:
Important Experiences and Skills
Successful collaborative learning takes skills and practice, and requires that the group members are able to engage in activities in a teamwork setting. Also important are establishing an environment where participants feel safe, but challenged and keeping the groups small enough so that all can contribute.
Social skills for effective cooperative work do not magically appear when cooperative lessons are employed. Instead, social skills must be taught to students just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills. Leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills empower students to manage both teamwork and taskwork successfully.
Seven things you can do right now to begin promoting collaborative learning:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this learning principle.
2. Building a sense of emotional safety: If we expect young people to work positively with one another, there needs to be a sense of trust and safety between them. It is helpful if the group can contribute to a set of group agreements of how they want to be treated by each other. It is important that one of these agreements is “no put-downs” – that when young people disagree or express their opinions, this does not include calling a person a name or any interaction that would cause a person to close down. Promise that you will help them remember and let them know that they can remind each other as well.
3. Active listening through “check-in circles”: You can develop the listening skills of your youth by conducting “check-in circles” at the beginning of your program. This is the time when every participant has the opportunity to briefly share something with the group or respond to a question posed by the group leader. When you first start instituting the check-in circle, it helps to plan a safe and interesting check-in question, such as, “What is your favorite thing to do on the weekend?” or “If you could go anywhere in the world for one day, where would you go?”. Later on, after some practice, you might have each person share one thing about their day or say how the group is working together. You can make use of a “talking” stick or other objects that the speaker holds and only the person holding the object has permission to talk. Everyone else practices active listening by giving eye contact and not distracting the speaker in any way. People with comments or questions can then raise their hands, only when the speaker is finished.
4. Team-building games: In order for young people to work collaboratively with their peers, it is important that they form a positive sense of belonging with the group. This can be built over time using team-building games to foster a positive sense of group and help kids become accustomed to working positively in small groups and working on a common goal. Program staff can draw upon printed curriculum or activity books and begin by leading group games in the beginning of the year.
5. Resolving conflicts: Teach a specific protocol that all children can demonstrate and use when they have a difference with a peer that is problematic. When young people have the skills to resolve conflict in healthy and respectful ways, they are kinder and happier, and require less adult intervention. They also feel safer in the after-school program knowing that they can solve problems together and that they can get help if they need it. You can also train “conflict managers” to help peers or younger children resolve conflict. They also feel safer in the after-school program knowing that they can solve problems together and that they can get help if they need it.
6. Building collaborative skills – brainstorming, prioritizing, and forging agreements: These are things you can teach during your check-in circle. Involve your youth in decision-making, such as the kind of snacks to be served or things to do on “free Fridays”. Allow all the youth to share their idea. “Every idea is a good idea” – let them know in brainstorming that all ideas are to be respectfully accepted. A good brainstorm session collects more ideas than can be used. To prioritize, youth can vote using colored stickers, with each youth having three stickers to place alongside their favorite ideas. The ideas that have received the greatest number of stickers are the ones that will be used.
7. Begin slowly: Begin with simple collaborative projects that can be completed within one session before moving on to more complex projects.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.