Collaborative Learning K-12

By: Allison Sandler

The story of K-12. What is the space/setting/history?

Thinking back on my years as a student I have many vivid memories. What I remember most are not the fun and engaging projects that I have my students engage in today. I have memories of completing math assignments using textbooks, sitting on the carpet and listening to my teacher read text aloud, and completing hours of homework as a middle school and high school student.

I graduated college in 2007 and knew that being an elementary teacher was my true passion and goal. I was raised by a mother who taught as an art teacher for thirty years. Growing up around the arts and watching my mom share her passion with students drove my career plans. I knew that I wanted to shape my classroom in a way where movement and art would be integrated into my classroom and lessons daily. I have seen education change drastically in my nine years of teaching. There is more of a shift toward collaborative learning now then there was when I first started teaching.

Education has changed drastically since my high school days. There is a huge shift toward collaborative learning in today’s classrooms.

Traditional Classroom Setting

As teachers and educators it is our job to prepare our students to become life-long learners, who can be successful in our society today. As students chose their career path they will need to become strong communicators, in order to be contributing members of of society. As an elementary teacher, it is an ongoing struggle to effectively teach my students how to communicate with each other clearly in different settings.

There is a huge need for collaboration within our classrooms. As a fifth grade teacher, I have used several strategies in order to better my students collaborative practices.

Project Based learning (PBL) is a trend that is shaping the way that education looks within our classrooms today. Project Based Learning allows students to learn standards and content through real world application. Students are faced with a real world question or problem and are required to work together, in groups, to come up with a project that addresses the question and/or problem.

For example, earlier this year my students were learning about Colorado land forms in science. I posted the question “How can I, as civil engineer, design a light rail system going from Idaho Springs to Aurora Colorado, that will take into account the land forms along the way?” Students were engaged in the learning because the project was brought to real life context using the current light rail system (which they have background knowledge on).

As a part of Project Based Learning, students are given the opportunity to make their own choice and use creativity. The teacher does not tell students what the end product is but rather allows students to come up with their end result that will address the question and/or problem. For example, students may choose to present the information in a PowerPoint presentation, by building a 3D model, or writing an original play.  In order for a Project Based Learning model to be successful, the Educational Leadership Council says it must meet one of two criteria: students must find the work personally meaningful, and the task fulfills an educational purpose.

The following video clip details an example of a successful Project Based Learning project.

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented Project Based Learning is meaningful in both ways. (Educational Leadership council, September 2010, volume 68, No. 1)

Project Based Learning works well in settings across Kindergarten to twelfth grade classrooms. Project Based learning is allowing students to work collaboratively to produce authentic work that is fun and engaging. This is a trend that will continue to increase across school districts.

It is important that I “set the stage” as an elementary teacher for my students to learn how to work collaboratively together. They will need these skills in order to be successful in middle school, high school, college, and the work force. My role is less as “the teacher” than it is “the model” of what the students should be learning.

5th Grade students at Virginia Court Elementary working to complete a banking project.

What’s going well?

There are many advantages to using collaborative learning strategies in a K-12 classroom. Collaborative groupings and strategies have proven to increase student engagement. When students work collaboratively, they are growing the communication skills that they will need as the enter the workforce. Technology becomes more accessible to students when collaboration is used. Teachers are also able to pair real world experiences to classroom projects.

Jose and Nakeya, 5th Grade Students at Virginia Court Elementary School

Gina Sansivero outlines some of the major advantages to collaborative learning in her article entitled “Challenges & Advantages of Collaborative Learning: Developing Workforce readiness in Students.” She lists the following as major advantages:

  • Collaboration affects personality: increases openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, trust and stability
  • Teamwork strengthens community bonds, socialization and both written and verbal communication
  • Collaboration increases measures of achievement
  • Group work increases subject matter comprehension, efficiency and productivity
  • Collaboration encourages cooperation and exposure to and acceptance of cultural diversity
  • Group work increases self-esteem
  • Collaborative learning increases student retention (sticking to a difficult task, track or course)

Collaborative learning approaches have been proven to create more student interest in learning. Students are not only benefiting academically, but are also gaining self confidence and important teamwork skills, that they will need to succeed in the future workforce.

Is Everyone Benefiting? (Equity)

Although collaborative learning has many benefits to students, it also creates some challenges for K-12 educators. Anytime students work together in groups, the classroom teacher needs to have an accountability system in place. This can be a daunting and challenging task for educators. How do we ensure that the shy and quiet student speaks up and does his/her part just as much as the strong leader and outgoing student in the group? Also, with the wide diversity we see in schools these days, how do teachers ensure that project materials are available in a variety of languages?

According to Bright Hub Education, cooperative learning promotes language opportunities for students who speak English as their second language. When working in smaller group settings, these students are able to observe their peers, and quickly pick up language skills from them.

When teachers are setting up cooperative groups within their classroom they must consider a few things when doing so to ensure equity is established.

  1. Teachers should evenly disperse English as a second language learners among different groups. By evenly dispersing these students you are offering them equal opportunities to be exposed to other students who speak English.
  2. Proficiency levels must be taken into account. It is not ideal to form a small group with all unsatisfactory readers. An ideal small group should include a wide variety of students who vary in their reading and writing skills.
  3. Teachers should also make sure that natural leaders are present within each group.

Dealing with Setbacks (A Critical Stance)

In order to create an environment in which students are comfortable and willing to engage in collaborative situations, teachers must start the year off with a strong sense of community. Not all students are “wired” to work with others. Students must feel comfortable sharing ideas, making mistakes, and speaking up around others. In order for students to successfully complete projects and work together in groups, teachers must introduce the following skills:

  • Listening
  • Speaking (loud voice, eye contact, body language)
  • Respect for self and others
  • Responsibility for their actions
  • Growth Mindset (it is ok to make mistakes and learn from them)

The following article outlines effective ways to teach students communication skills: Edutopia article

Before teachers dive into collaborative learning within their classrooms, it is important they teach their students to communicate. Not only will they be teaching students to be effective communicators, and thus improve their ability to work collaboratively, they will also be preparing them to be successful members in the workforce someday.


The Future of Collaborative Learning in K-12

In my nine years of teaching I have seen collaborative learning evolve and change rapidly. During the first five years of teaching, the focus was around textbooks and a quiet study environment. I have quickly seen a shift from having students use worksheets and workbooks to having students become creators and inventors. This past year, my principal has become a supporter of students creating projects rather than showing their knowledge and learning on paper. As technology continues to evolve Project Based Learning will continue to take on new meaning. Middle school and high school students are able to start developing college portfolios in order to prepare for their futures. Teachers in K-12 are utilizing technology to have students create slideshows, talk shows, newspapers, and other hands-on projects. Teachers are now combining literacy, science, and math to integrate standards, in order for students to produce meaningful projects. Collaborative Learning will continue to shape the way teachers teach in the classroom, by making education hands-on and fun.

Much of our future depends on technology. Students at every age and level should be working in a variety of settings to increase their technology abilities. In our future classrooms, blended learning will begin to play an increasingly higher role in education. It will be crucial for school districts to ensure that all teachers and students have access to up-to-date technology in order to continue to foster collaborative learning environments.


Teaching Your Students How to Have a Conversation

Cooperative Learning Guidelines For English Language Learners


Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning