Collaboration is my reality. Day in and day out. We plan collaboratively. We teach collaboratively. So developing these skills in our students has become a huge focus of ours over the years.

Going into this year, as a team of 4 teachers, we were feeling a little underwhelmed. For three of us, this was our fourth year working together in a collaborative teaching model, and our third year in the space. We knew we wanted to change things up a bit. 

We are lucky to have a beautifully designed learning environment – designed by FNI and completed in August 2017. When finished, the designers put everything where they felt it was supposed to be, and it has just sort of stayed “in its spot” since then. 

So, to start this year…we did this…

When the students walked in on Day 1…every piece of furniture we had was in a giant furniture pile in the center of the space. 

Being a PYP school, we were starting our first unit under the transdisciplinary theme of How we organize ourselves. “A healthy community needs all of its parts to succeed” was our central idea. 

This was our provocation. We were turning our first week over to our 65 students. They would need to work collaboratively to plan and organize our first week as a community, and decide what to do with our space as well. 

As teachers, we recognized that this was big ask – especially for students new to this type of learning community. (Grade 4 was not previously using a collaborative model, though they are now! Take a look!

We started off in smaller groups (16 students) to get students thinking and talking about what they were experiencing. We used the thinking routine – See Think Wonder – to document students’ thoughts and ideas about what was going on in our community.

We then posed the following two questions:

  1. What can we do to get to know each other and our space?
  2. What do we need to do to be successful in Grade 5?

Using a Think, Pair, Share routine, students discussed these two questions in pairs/groups of three. These groupings were not deliberately selected (as mentioned in this article), but created based on where the students had sat down. We used a go-around protocol to allow these small groups to share their thinking. In this protocol, all groups are given a chance to share their ideas with no cross-talk or interruptions. There is then time afterwards for students to ask questions, clarify things, or add to another’s ideas. 

After these discussions students were able to identify specific activities they’d like to do, and specific tasks that needed to be completed. 

To get to know each other and our space, they wanted to:

To be successful in Grade 5, they felt we needed to:

Students quickly made it clear that organizing the space was a priority for them. So we set to work on this. 

As a full group, we identified what our non-negotiables, wants and needs were for the space. We then used a random group generator to divide the full grade into groups of four students. (This had been one of the ideas they brought to us – in order to get to know each other, they wanted to work with different groups.)

Without knowing it, we used a few of the strategies from this article to get started. 

  1. We recognized that 4 would be a good number for students to have the opportunity to have their ideas heard.
  2. We reviewed with students how to be good group members
  3. We were giving them a real problem to solve (design our space) and they had a specific task to complete – designing the space. 

We provided them with a blank floor plan; and using the criteria and list of co-constructed criteria, groups set off to work. 

When the plans were finished, we had all teams of four meet with another team of four and share their plans and combine/choose a plan to take forward. These groups then met with another group and went through the same process, and we were left with 4 plans. (It sort of felt like a March Madness Bracket.)

Representatives from the four groups pitched their plans to the whole Grade 5 community, and we as teachers facilitated a discussion that developed the final floor plan. At that point students decided on the rooms they were most passionate about and worked as a team to move the furniture into the space based on the final plan.

One of our goals for opening this up to the students was to increase the sense of ownership for the space and set the tone for the year. We want our students to realize that they have a voice in their learning. 

These are some of the things Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell University recognizes as the benefits of using collaborative learning:

  • Development of higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills.
  • Promotion of student-faculty interaction.
  • Increase in student retention, self-esteem, and responsibility.
  • Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • Preparation for real life social and employment situations.

Many of these have lined up with the things we hoped to achieve, and the benefits we have seen.

In the time since the space was “completed”, we have realized that students feel a greater sense of ownership over the space. They designed it, and therefore are paying more attention and using the space with a critical eye. Through discussions, we, as a whole community, have come to realize that this will be an ongoing process, that may never be fully completed. 

This collaborative learning experience lines up nicely with ISTE Standard 4: Innovative Designers. Students have and are continuing to “develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.” (Standard 4C) Though simplified, the students have engaged in a process of design, do/build, reflect, design…etc. They are also building their “tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems,” (Standard 4D).

As they become more familiar with the space, and use it in different ways, students will continue to identify issues. We are hoping that when these issues are raised, students put on their design thinking caps and also bring potential solutions to the community. In order to facilitate this, we have a wall in our space in which students are able to add their thoughts/issues on the space and suggest changes/solutions. 

So you may be wondering how it turned out…for now, this is what we’ve got. But it continues to change and develop everyday. I am excited to see come June, what changes get made.