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The Essential ‘C': Why Teaching Collaboration Skills Matters

By Deidra Gammill — October 03, 2016 5 min read
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As teachers, we know the value of collaboration, creative thinking, and other soft skills that prepare our students for the “real world” beyond the schoolyard. But how often do we think about deliberately teaching these skills? About treating our classrooms as though they are the real world and eliminating the dreaded question: “When are we ever going to use this in real life?” I’m not talking about providing opportunities for group work or peer feedback. I’m not talking about having well-planned peer-editing criteria or even literature circles. Those are all effective instructional methods, but do they really teach students the art of collaborating with their peers?

In order to teach collaboration skills, I utilized two tools in my classroom this year: the leadership-compass activity and BreakOut EDU. I chose these specifically to help my students understand not only how they process information and approach learning situations, but also how their classmates approach learning. Self-knowledge is important, but empathy is an essential component for collaboration.

The Leadership Compass

I participated in a leadership-compass activity as part of a professional-development workshop over the summer and was intrigued by the discussion that followed the activity. Understanding how my colleagues processed information and events gave me a totally new perspective on their work habits, leading to more intuitive collaboration in my department.

There are several versions of the leadership-compass activity readily available on the internet (I used one from the League of Women Voters). Participants group themselves based on the attributes listed with each compass point. For instance, someone who identified with North on the compass tended to be a “take charge and get it done” kind of person. The East compass point appeals to big-picture people, those who have a vision for the way things can be; West describes the detail and data collectors, while the South appeals to nurturers, those who don’t want anyone left out. Or as one of my colleagues noted, “North gets it done while West gets it done right. East knows what needs to be done, and the South asks if anyone needs a hot beverage.”

Creating successful collaborative groups in classrooms requires much more than simply mixing ability levels (high, middle, and low-performing students) or making sure that best friends are not in the same group to circumvent talking issues. Through use of leadership-compass activities, my students learned to recognize how their peers approached project work—the get-it-done person is great at keeping the group on track, while the visionary is more likely to have good ideas and less likely to have any clue how to make those ideas come to life. After we completed the compass activity, I had my students create pages in their interactive notebooks that allowed them to refer back to their personal compass point as well as providing a reminder of where classmates had identified themselves.

It’s been interesting this year to hear students talking to one another knowingly: “Alyssa, that idea is so cool; it’s easy to see why you’re an East,” or “Kayla, if I start to get irritated with you for always taking charge, all I have to do is remember that you’re a North and getting things done is where you thrive.” While this might not seem like much, my students’ ability to relate to one another has improved dramatically, as has how they work together on projects. Groups have less to do with ability level and more to do with individual strengths.

BreakOut EDU

While the leadership-compass activity helped my students practice strengths-based collaboration, BreakOut EDU got my students collaborating and thinking outside the box. BreakOut EDU provides a classroom-appropriate “twist” on the popular escape rooms that are popping up all over the nation. With BreakOut EDU, students focus on solving puzzles, determining combinations to multiple locks, and uncovering a solution while racing against the clock (a 45-minute time limit is standard). The website contains free games that cover all subject areas and grades, as well as directions for creating your own breakout game.

My students have not only played several of the games from the BreakOut EDU site, they have begun creating their own games. The process is rigorous and challenging, often proving harder than playing a game. Once a game design is complete, students from one class set up the game around the classroom for the next class period to play. This “field test” quickly unveils how difficult the clues are or aren’t (they need to be challenging but not impossible), and how well the storyline flows. Once the class reaches the solution by successfully unlocking the box, they offer written peer feedback. Generally, there are a few suggestions for improvement that are echoed time and again: “I loved the chemistry clue, but I wish there had been a equation to solve or something—it was just too easy,” or “If you’re going to use a map as the clue to unlock the directional lock, make sure you check the geography a little better.” Students focus on the game’s strengths as well as the rough spots, practicing the skill of solutions-based feedback. Once the game is revised and checked, it can be shared with another class.

We read Phil Goener’s article in School Library Journal which included a top 10 list of reasons to play BreakOut EDU (beautifully illustrated by Sylvia Duckworth). I asked my students to share their thoughts on using BreakOut EDU in the classroom to teach collaborative skills. They created their own “top 10” list of reasons BreakOut EDU fostered collaboration skills in our classroom.

1) The games are fun, both to play and to create.
2) You learn to work with your classmates towards a common goal—everyone wins if the puzzle is solved.
3) Every student is involved in the game so no one is “left behind.”
4) It challenges you to think in new ways because it’s different than traditional school work.
5) It teaches patience and tenacity.
6) It provides opportunities for success for every type of learner: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile.
7) It highlights every student’s strengths and allows people to shine where they might not shine doing regular academic work.
8) It makes you look from different points of view.
9) Solving the puzzle and beating the clock are things done by the entire class, not just a few individuals. Everyone celebrates success when the puzzle is solved.
10) Everyone contributes; there’s not just one or two people doing all the work.

Teaching collaborative skills doesn’t have to be intimidating or “one more thing” that weighs teachers down. If anything, as students begin to understand how to work as a team, to play to one another’s strengths, and to see things from one another’s point of view, the teacher’s workload is decreased because issues of discipline or drama between students are replaced with empathy and common goals.


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