Structuring High-Quality Collaboration

Great activities to encourage collaboration….

I like to think of collaboration in school as practised teamwork orientated towards an academic problem or project. When a school or an individual teacher approaches collaboration in a mindful fashion, it not only results in high-quality academic results but it shapes and reinforces a positive school culture.

Strangely, it has been my experience in many of the classrooms I have visited that collaboration and teamwork are scarcely valued. This is most obvious in the absent-minded manner in which a teacher may say, “Do this task in groups”, without carefully planning the composition of the group. What inevitably happens, in this case, is that students turn to those next to them, usually their best friends. In every German classroom that I have visited students are seated ‘freiwillig’, that is they are free to choose where and with whom they will sit. Therefore, group work usually means hang-out-with-friends time. This is both negative for school climate and for individual student achievement.

When teachers do not mindfully create groups for collaborative activities they are reinforcing cliques in the classroom. Especially in urban classrooms, a lack of intervention by the teacher leads to a strengthening of ethnic, religious and gender divisions. I recently observed a Hauptschule classroom in Ulm where three Turkish girls, friends from childhood, told me that they had sat together in every single class since they began primary school. At this point, they were in their fifth year of second level education. In a Realschule classroom, all the desks on the left of the room were filled with ethnic Germans from the surrounding little villages while the right of the room was filled with urban students from at least eight different migrant nationalities – themselves also subdivided, Turkish with Turkish, Russian with Russian etc. Chiefly because of the concept of ‘freiwillig’ seating, even though students share a classroom for years, a German could well leave school without ever having social contact with a Turk and vice-versa.

This lack of mindfulness also has a major impact on students’ academic performance. Because students remain within their own clique they are never exposed to alternative opinions, knowledge and skills. In their collaborations, they are restricted to the familiar personalities and processes of the clique, and the vast reservoir of skills and knowledge in the classroom is inaccessible. This point I again observed with the three Turkish girls above. The German Hauptschule aims to produce students for manual trades and training programmes. One of the girls, in particular, spoke of her ambition to go to university and obtain a degree. Sadly, because of the power exerted by the clique, it seems highly unlikely that she will realise her ambition, the gap between Hauptschule and Gymnasium in German education being so great.

Students at the University of Augsburg try the Magic Stick routine

What makes these team-building activities and not simply games is the reflection process that the teacher should undertake at the end. After the Human Knot, I like to have students reflect on the different personalities within the group. For example, I will ask them:

  • “Were there strong leaders in the group?”
  • “Why did these people lead?”
  • “Were there quiet people?”
  • “Why do you think that they were quiet?”
  • “Did anyone in the group surprise you?”
  • “What was your role in the group?”
  • “Why did/didn’t the group succeed at this task?”

I like to use the Magic Stick to have students reflect upon their own behaviour and role in the group. For example, I will ask them:

  • “What did you learn about your personality from doing this task?”
  • “Were you surprised by how you reacted to this task?”
  • “How did you contribute to the success of this activity?”
  • “What was the biggest problem that this group faced and how did you help to overcome it?”

Establish Emotional Trust

One of the great benefits of the team-building activities mentioned above is that they allow the teacher to step away from the problem which forces the students to self-correct and correct one another in order to achieve success. This has the effect that the group will regulate the behaviour of individual students who seek to disrupt the outcome of the activity. This has a number of positive consequences in the classroom. For example, it is a constant fear for engaged and motivated students in the typical classroom to risk answering the teacher’s question when they know that they will be called a swot (a “Streber”) by members of a disengaged clique. These subtle acts of emotional bullying happen every day in classrooms. With reflection, these team-building activities empower the group to correct this negative behaviour and this is a first step in establishing emotional trust in a team.

To establish emotional trust I find it best to speak in a cluster or huddle about the issues that undermine team spirit in the class. To begin with, I use a “Trust-Box”. This affords anonymity to the members of the class so they feel safe to speak about what concerns them. It may, depending on the group, be necessary to set some ground rules about what language is acceptable and all students should agree that whatever is discussed in the cluster, remains there and does not find its way out onto the playground. Hopefully, the group will have already, through physical trust exercises, regulated behaviour in these discussions. The ultimate aim is to have students openly discuss any personal, social or academic issues, knowing that they will face support from all members of the class.


Once students have established physical and emotional trust, they are ready to orientate themselves towards academic problem-solving and group work. A good indication of whether or not students are ready to collaborate is their reaction to the teacher assigning groups. If all has gone well with the first two steps, where once students saw collaboration as social time to be spent strictly with their clique, now they should welcome the opportunity to be exposed to the ideas, perspectives and skills of all members of the class.

Because the teacher will have observed the social and emotional dynamics of the class in the first two stages, he will now be able to experiment with different groupings of students with the aim to develop students’ social and academic development. Some of the things I like to think about when I devise groups are:

1.    Does each group have an array of academic skills suited to this project?
2.    Does each group have a mix of academic abilities?
3.    Is there a mix of nationalities in each group?
4.    How am I going to distribute introvert and extrovert students?
5.    How do these groupings allow students to take leadership roles?
6.    Are groupings likely to spark positive conflict based on differing worldviews/perspectives?

At this point, students should be ready to undertake meaningful collaborative project work or problem-solving. It is now the task of the teacher to provide a goal and a structure worthy of their time. What is certain, however, is that if a teacher takes the time to forge his class into a team and present it with a meaningful academic goal, he not only enhances school culture but also enriches the academic experience of every student.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Eoin Lenihan and published with kind permission.

Read other posts by Eoin by clicking here

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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