The Collaboration Conundrum

Kate Power, Kelly Trdin, Charity Wilkinson and Daniel Lustrinelli are teachers at Dr Frank J. Hayden Secondary School.  They have been interested in creating cross-curricular moments with their students for some time. Recently, they were able to execute their plan.  This is their story.

“Collaboration is not awesome.”

Some variation of this comment is often heard by teachers of all grades and pathways, no matter the subject matter. The fact is that collaboration often gets a bad rep. We’ve all seen the GIFs and memes about it, and the seemingly universal eye roll that teachers face when they announce that the next activity or project will be done in groups. Not necessarily because students do not like to work with each other, but because there is a concern about who they are working with and how the work will be divided. At the same time, it is not going away. Collaboration is an essential transferable skill which will be carried over in our proposed ‘revised learning skills’ and far beyond.

Is it possible to combat this negative perception of collaboration and connect our curriculum in an authentic way? This was the question posed in 2017 by a PD group at Dr Frank J. Hayden Secondary School that focused on making cross-curricular connections to solve the collaboration conundrum.

We knew that we wanted group work to be more successful for our students. We had the right classroom design; our classrooms are set-up to encourage this sort of interaction. Yet, many students still prefer individual activities. Sure, they sit in groups or share Google Docs with each other, but we wondered how often they act as a cohesive unit, each with their own contribution toward a final task or product? What we needed to figure out was how to do more than simply go through the motions of collaboration and really ask our students to “buy-in” to the idea of working together.

Our overarching objectives were to make group work more successful for everyone involved, to provide an opportunity for our students to show that collaboration is worthwhile - and maybe even fun! - and hopefully see some great results in the form of critical thought, problem solving and mentorship. The first step to creating a successful collaborative activity for students actually had nothing to do with the students at all. First, the teachers had to come together. It takes a willing and enthusiastic group of teachers as well as a supportive admin team to make a project like this happen. From the PD group who first brainstormed the idea, to the subject teachers who jumped on board and volunteered their classes to participate, to the admin who approved the ‘in-school’ field trip and admin staff who blocked out time and space for those classes to come together, this was truly a collaborative effort. Not just on a practical level, but because collaboration between teachers is important and necessary as it reinforces the impact of modelling the kind of engagement we ask of, and expect from, our students.The activity we came up with paired students from our grade 10 Civics, grade 12 World Issues and grade 12 Accounting classes. It asked students to consider an authentic scenario geared towards mass transit, sustainability, politics, and money; two commuter communities in Halton connected by one rail line.

The students were placed in groups of 3-4, with at least one student from each subject per group and were given two full class periods over the course of one morning to decide on the impact (both positive and negative, and on a variety of different factors/criteria) that moving forward with this proposal would have. From there, they were on their own. They had to assume roles (financial analysts, urban planners, city councillors, etc.), and work together to determine the solution that would work best for all interested stakeholders. At the end of the morning, they were asked to upload a final product to the activity’s Google Classroom that summarized their research and showcased their final decision on the proposal, as well as to reflect on their experience.

The activity was not only created to connect students from different curriculum areas, but also to connect students from different grades and pathways. It was designed as a way to both assess our students ability to collaborate and their ability to solve a problem based on their previous learning.

So, how did it go?

It was, in a word, awesome. Over the course of the morning, the students took a little time to get comfortable with each other, no different than any adult does when working in a new group. Each student assumed their positions in the group based on their class and documented their roles, goals, and ultimate  ‘End Game’. We were really impressed with many of our grade 12s who took initiative to lead the group and help their grade 10 colleagues complete the activity, but our grade 10s were not passive participants by any means. They applied their knowledge and made connections to their previous learning while making a significant contribution to their group’s goals and the creation of the final product. All of this without the motivation of marks and very little instruction about the final product.

Was it perfect?

No. This being the first time we have run an activity like this in the school, there were some items to change next time such as forgotten Chromebook carts and mixing and matching groups on the fly. The students were great and just rolled with it.

In the end, the students made the morning. They were willing and engaged collaborators. One of the great student responses reflects this:
“I applied the concepts from world issues by incorporating local concerns like rail taking up housing space, and bigger issues such as emission efficiency. From a world issues perspective, it is important to consider all factors and stakeholders, such as demographics and sustainability. In order to accomplish my goals, I had to search up other sources to gain ideas on sustainable practices. On the VIA Rail site, there were many environmental proposals that were also realistic for trains. Another source that I used was Google Maps. Google Maps helps with the route and seeing exactly what we would be affecting like farming areas and subdivisions. As far as the other courses, I recognized that there are many aspects of a financial budget such as coverage, labour and materials. Also, by working with the civics class, I was reminded of the members in government and their roles, as well as the values of different parties.”

The overall take away, from both the teachers and students who participated, at the end of the morning?

Collaboration is awesome.

If you want more ideas on collaborative learning, click this link.