When my son was a 9th grader, he was on a team with a student who struggled with completing tasks. After a week, my son shared the team’s frustrations, as they felt helpless to convince the student to move past excuses and make attempts at the work. Fortunately, the teaching staff trained students on a 4-step process for how to address internal team problems.

Because I was aware of this, I advised my son: “Follow the process. The teacher will not step in until you start the process.” My son met with the student 1-on-1, twice, per the process’ first step. They devised a solution that got the student working, and identified what the teammates could do to be supportive.

Collaboration and communication skills are important tools that help students use their voice to navigate their education. This form of differentiation provides active experiences during their school time with teachers, and helps them hone skills for successful navigation of the world outside of school, including college, technical training, careers, and the global community. Students do not develop these skills to a high level without direct teaching, coaching, and reflection on the various practices. The adults in their lives, especially teachers and administrators, have the extensive experiences and practice of collaboration and communication skills. As mentors, teachers can differentiate through a variety of experiences, where students can learn, practice, and master these important skills.

Establish a learner-centric culture through Norms
What are the guiding norms that staff and students practice so that everyone feels supported during activities? Students buy-in is likely when they craft the norms. Otherwise, the “real” norms go underground where only the students know the rules. An example of a common unspoken norm is to not volunteer answers when a teacher asks a question, because it’s likely the teacher will answer the question if given a few seconds.

Official norms are behaviors that govern collaboration and communication by students and staff. Learners are empowered to help peers self-correct behaviors that support the work, and reduce issues of misunderstandings and lack of effort, as exemplified in my son’s experience. One approach to creating norms are:

  1. Class discuss the behaviors that makes for a positive culture as found on teams or community groups.
  2. Alone and/or in pairs, students generate a list of 3-5 behaviors that support collaboration and communication.
  3. In teams, share the ideas and craft a joint list of the top 2-3 behaviors.
  4. Teams report out their list, and clarify meaning based on peer questions. Teacher helps revise norms into positive behavioral descriptors.
  5. Students vote on the 4-7 norms.
  6. Students and teacher sign the final norms chart, giving their consent.

Once completed, the teacher and students reflect on the norms at least once a week as a formal practice. Informally, the teacher uses the norms to coach students on making better choices when problems arise. Students are encouraged to speak for themselves and others based on the norms.

Use a variety of teams to address tasks
Based on in-classroom interviews, students value the timely support they give and receive to their peers in teams. From a differentiation perspective, this eliminates the “waiting game” where work halts as students wait for the teacher to arrive to jumpstart their efforts with “the answers.” Instead, students learn to find answers and solutions from within their team. Student voice is valued.

Team formation can be for unit-long projects to paired reflective discussions. Group by similar skill level or shared interests depending on the academic needs. Using a mix of team formations offers students experiences to practice communication and collaboration as they address content based on the focus learning outcome(s). Some group strategies include:

  • Project or Study Teams
  • Clock Partners
  • Jigsawing
  • Think-Pair-Share

Ensure that each member has a role that contributes to the learning expectations, especially when grouping by a mixture of skill levels. A student with low academic skills can still be the team leader, who must use collaboration and communication skills to guide the team to move forward in the work and work together. The Managing Editor does not have to be the best writer. The person must understand how to facilitate the team’s conversation around critiques and revisions.

Use protocols that encourage mutual learning
There are a variety of protocols that serve the dual purpose of building deeper learning of content and concepts, while also providing practice of collaboration and communication skills. Once taught, students lead the protocols, and thus their own learning. The teacher is freed-up to coach and assess student progress with the collaboration and communication skills, along with content understanding.

  1. Harkness Discussion
    Students lead a discussion about subject-related topic, while the teacher draws a graph of the flow of communication. Some areas that may be noted: who’s talking and who is silent, are comments and questions substantive, and how is air-time self-managed. Here is a quality example by Dayna Laur.
  2. Mediation Process
    This is a version of the 4-step process that my son used to help his teammate start to contribute. The process helps students to self-manage teams so that curriculum assignments get done. The time taken to train students on this process, along with establishing classroom norms, pays off in the long term with students taking care of their team.
  3. Save the Last Word for Me and Say Something Protocols
    These two reading comprehension protocols guides students through discussion of assigned readings. Students chunk the reading in 2-3 parts. The team reads the first part, follows the discussion steps, and then repeats the protocol for each part. Students practice collaboration and communication skills as they develop a substantive understanding of the readings.

Preparing for an Evolving Global Community

Students need to develop a wide-range of Global Professional Skills (GPS) to navigate social and business networks to learn and build successful careers. Collaboration and Communication skills can strengthen other important skills that students need during and after their school career.

One constant about careers and job opportunities is that they are constantly evolving. Traditional careers adapt to global needs, and new jobs grow from the innovations that continue to shrink the distance between countries across the globe. Some careers that exist today may likely look different by the time our students are ready to be employed, and some jobs may not yet exist until after students graduate. High school graduates who get years of practice with collaboration and communication skills will have the tools to greatly impact colleges and career opportunities: #GameChangerED