Collaborative Learning: The Art of Letting Go

by Allen Fowler

at desk 03I worried the most about the one table, four students – two with cognitive challenges, three with notable social anxiety, all marginalized for one reason or another in their experience of school. Mastering my anxiety when turning over control to students doesn’t come naturally to me.  And they were going to be working as group for the next three days of Signal Success career readiness training. By the end of the first day, however, I started to let go of my concerns. By the end of the third day, after fifteen hours of working around the table together, these youth showed me flashes of collaborative brilliance.  In reporting out, they respectfully offered those needing it a bit more time to articulate their thoughts, one youth visibly softened his demeanor as he stepped into a leadership role during a negotiation exercise, and, at one point or another, all four smiled at having an idea taken down, a suggestion implemented, or a contribution acknowledged.  Collaborative learning provides the space for real time development of the soft-skills essential to success in school, work, and life.  Here are some tips around letting go and capturing the results:

  • Trust your students – give up some control and trust your students to be able to work together, teach each other, and learn to learn from each other.
  • Model collaboration – propose a project with a general purpose/intent then work with the class to identify the steps and the more specific outcomes/expectations.
  • Provide time for reflection – encourage students to understand the collaborative process as challenging and organic; when a strategy or dynamic is not working – reflect and discuss how to best correct course and move forward.
  • Tally the transfer/practice of skills – have students keep track (post-it notes, stickers) of when collaboration skills carry over from one class into other classes, work, family, and other interpersonal relationships. (This could be a year-long total.)
  • Shout outs – provide students with the opportunity to accolade each other for specific acts of collaboration, effective communication, leadership, initiative, problem-solving, etc.

In part, collaborative learning provides a rich space by creating a sense of parity – students work together toward a common goal rather that individually in competition, so a cognitive challenge might become merely a difference rather than a disadvantage. The resulting confidence then allows a youth a bit more traction in navigating the next new school or job assignment where they find themselves part of a working group.  Studies also show that with peer to peer learning knowledge is constructed rather than delivered, and thus is a more authentic and deeper learning experience.  The practice offered by a collaborative learning experience in first acknowledging then working with differences or in code-switching to accommodate and test out new skills has currency in the workplace and beyond.

So the real challenge might be in how to tamp down your initial concern because the reward in letting go comes in providing collaborative opportunities where students practice interpersonal skills that they can use for a lifetime.

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