African wild dogs are fascinating hunters. They hunt in packs of 6 to 20 animals. They often hunt prey that's bigger and faster than they are. They wear it down together. They are persistent and precise.
A single dog who catches up to larger prey will wound it, slow it down enough for reinforcements to arrive. Together, the pack bites chunks out and the tired, helpless, and hopeless prey dies of shock and loss of blood. The feast is on!
What makes these small slim dogs so efficient, so deadly? It may be that each understands its purpose. Each knows the end goal benefits them all. To that end, they communicate. But most importantly, they collaborate.
I have a confession to make. I am one of those teachers. It's hard to accept, but it's the truth, and if I'm to learn from my mistakes and change, I have to admit it. So here’s the truth.
I was born in Transylvania and I am a vampire.
Just kidding. Let's try this again :)
I do a ton of collaborative activities, but I don't teach my students collaboration.
This is not to say collaboration does not work in my classroom. In most cases, it does. Most students learn. But in some cases, it’s a disaster. In all cases, it could improve.
The easy thing to do would be to ride it out till the end of the school year. The second term (trimester) is about to end and it is tempting to just wait till next year. But I've learned that growth and progress often require roughing it. So I must.
I don't know how my students will respond to this. Maybe they'll hate it, but it would border educational malpractice if I did not teach them to collaborate. So, I'm committing. And this time, I know how.
Use body language to communicate you are engaged and involved. Lean in. Don’t cross your arms. Keep them wide open to let others in. Put your device away and be present when talking and listening. Use it with a purpose to help the project. Show the rest of the team you care by maintaining eye contact.
Those are things teachers can and should teach, because most students do not understand how body language impacts teamwork. You can look up videos of both successful and painful to watch collaboration and show them to students. Then you can analyze them and help students process the difference between effective and detrimental body language.
For good measure, have students play out scenarios in which they use different kinds of body language. Ask them to share how they felt and what they have learned from this experience.
Teammates will have ideas that others disagree with. How do we prevent our students from dismissing others’ ideas when they have their own take on things? The best way is to model and have students practice restating their teammates ideas and practice asking follow up questions to move the project forward.
Arguments will happen, but it's important to teach students to move past them by using constructive language and questions that aim at understanding not undermining their peers. This will be an invaluable skill they'll use all their life.
To help students learn better verbal communication, you can look at the same videos as before through the language lens, or find ones that model both proper and toxic use of language. Reflect and discuss.
No one likes to be wrong or be thought of as dumb. Compromise is difficult, because it asks us to admit that our idea was somehow deficient. This is why teachers need to promote the idea that creative conflicts often lead to grater products.
In fact, it is beneficial to have students practice generating ideas on their own first, and then brainstorming together, with the understanding that most of the ideas will be thrown out anyway.
To facilitate this, use videos and vignettes that evoke strong emotions so students remember them better. You may also consider telling stories or reading articles on cultural icons and the compromises they had to make to achieve success. Even Lebron James needed to sacrifice personal stats and accept help of his teammates to finally win one.
Summing It Up
I've read several articles and books devoted to team building and collaboration. I even made an infographic on teamwork, but after reading chapter 2 of Hacking Project Based Learning by Erin Murphy and Ross Cooper, I feel I have a classroom specific blueprint for collaboration.
Here’s a quick review:
- Teach students to engage with others using the right body language.
- Model and practice the use of constructive language.
- Address the importance of being passionate and empathetic at the same time.
To culminate the learning about collaboration, you can assign different scenarios to student groups and ask they analyze them through different lenses or break them down by what was done well and what impeded project completion. Have them reflect on what to do and not to do when collaborating in a 1 minute video.
And then? Create the group guidelines together and put them in one place; a product everyone can see. Put into practice on projects. Practice persistently. Revisit rules regularly. Apply and adjust as issues arise.
You have the power to change the world. Use it often.