Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Collaboration: How do you start?

No surprise, but I am inspired to write after another great online, live professional development collaboration on Twitter with the weekly #Edchat group.  For anyone who is new at using Twitter as a means of professional development, #Edchat is a great way to get started - every Tuesday at 11 am CDT.  Just reading the conversation thread is informative, even if you don't respond yourself.  Great ideas from a wide mix of educators.

Today's topic was "If collaboration is high on everyones list as a needed skill; how do we work it into every aspect of our education system?"  There were lots of suggestions and questions - a true collaboration, where everyone contributed their thoughts, their strategies, asked great questions, all to further the discussion and work towards some solutions.  Not get a solution, but work towards strategies that can get things started, since there really isn't just one solution - every situation is different and what works in one place may not work in another. But, I think what the Twitter conversation exemplifies is true collaboration. Perhaps therefore, as this question actually came up, I should address the difference between collaboration and group work, from my point of view.  Group work, or maybe cooperative learning is often used synonymously with collaboration, but they are NOT the same.
Image from images.google.com 'collaboration'
 Group Work/Cooperative Learning: The group is working together to solve a problem, and usually each member is given a portion of the problem to separately work on and bring back to the table. Each piece from the individuals in the group comes together to create the completed solution.
Collaboration: A group coordinating their efforts together to solve a problem, but with each member directly interacting with others, creating the knowledge together, and interacting through negotiation, discussion, and listening to others' perspectives to reach a solution.
I think the key difference is the negotiation, discussion and listening that is involved in collaboration.  Collaboration to me is noisier, less structured as far as what everyone is contributing, and more flexible in it's end results. Group work/cooperative learning seems to have a much more well-defined solution or goal and vision of what the solution should look like - hence the ability to split apart the component pieces, whereas collaboration has more potential for many possible solutions and very different solutions among different groups working on the same problem or goal. As the graphic says, collaboration creates NEW possibilities, not predetermined possibilities which I think are often the end result of 'group work'.

How do you start this process of collaboration, or working together and bringing together diverse people and ideas and solutions to achieve a goal or solve a problem? This is not just a classroom process, but a school process, especially if you are trying to create a culture of collaboration. Clearly, it is easier to begin this process at the beginning of a new school year, when everything is just fresh and new so that it becomes a part of the structure right from the get go.  (Note to self: revisit this in August).  But, even though things are winding down for this school year, there are still steps that can be done to end the year on a collaborative note.  I offer one idea for both the classroom and the school at large as a way to 'test the waters' so to speak.
Classroom Collaboration Idea: Most folks are immersed in 'test review' at this stage of the game.  So - make that a collaboration.  Put students into small groups (how you design that is up to you) and have each group 1) brainstorm content/topics that THEY struggle with and think need review; 2) among the brainstormed ideas, the group chooses 1 or 2 - this involves discussion/negotiation/listening to various perspectives about which of the many topics thrown out are the most crucial, or most difficult, etc.; 3) the group, by looking at there top 1 or 2, using notes or examples, work together to identify difficulties and solutions or questions that need answering, and these are then shared with the class as a whole.  What you end up with is a very student-centered review of key topics that really need review because they come from the students.  This could be just one way to help prepare for testing that is not the traditional lecture, practice worksheet, and other similar, uninspired types of test review that are occurring these days.
School Collaboration Idea: Similar to the classroom, at the next staff meeting break everyone, including administrators, into groups (try to mix it up with different grade/content folks in a group).  Each group 1) brainstorms what they deemed as the biggest challenges for the current school year; 2) among the brainstormed ideas, the group chooses 1 or 2 - again, we get discussion, negotiation, listening and listening to various perspectives; 3) looking at the top 1 or 2 challenges, the group comes up with some ideas/strategies they think might address those challenges or that they would like to consider to address those challenges and these are then shared with the entire staff. These could then become some of the goals for next year.  It begins the conversation, let's everyone have input and starts the path towards working together.  But it's focused on specific needs that those involved experience.
 Starting small is just one way to start a culture of collaboration. 

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