Cultivating Collaboration in Blended Learning

If you have tried station rotation as a blended learning activity and felt less than impressed by your collaboration station, you are not alone.  Of over 25 K-12 teachers who were exposed to station rotation and tried it out in their classes, only 2 said the collaboration station went well.  Students didn’t know how to talk to one another; they didn’t know how to get started; they didn’t know x… they didn’t know y…they didn’t know z.

What do we do when students don’t know how to do something?  Do we force them into it and let them figure it out?  Of course not.  We give them time to learn it and practice it.  When we are confident they will be able to apply the skill with success, only then should we put students in a situation to apply the skill on their own.

What is Collaborative Learning?

According to the Global Development Research Center,  “Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves. It is through the talk that learning occurs.”

Further, “Collaborative Learning is a relationship among learners that requires positive interdependence (a sense of sink or swim together), individual accountability (each of us has to contribute and learn), interpersonal skills (communication, trust, leadership, decision making, and conflict resolution), face-to-face promotive interaction, and processing (reflecting on how well the team is functioning and how to function even better).”

According to Hari Srinivas, “Collaborative learning is not simply a synonym for students working in groups. A learning exercise only qualifies as Collaborative Learning to the extent that the listed elements (below) are present.”

  • Positive interdependence. Team members are obliged to rely on one another to achieve the goal. If any team members fail to do their part, everyone suffers consequences.
  • Individual accountability. All students in a group are held accountable for doing their share of the work and for mastery of all of the material to be learned.
  • Face-to-face promotive interaction. Although some of the group work may be parcelled out and done individually, some must be done interactively, with group members providing one another with feedback, challenging one another’s conclusions and reasoning, and perhaps most importantly, teaching and encouraging one another.
  • Appropriate use of collaborative skills. Students are encouraged and helped to develop and practice trust-building, leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict management skills.
  • Group processing. Team members set group goals, periodically assess what they are doing well as a team, and identify changes they will make to function more effectively in the future.

Is a Collaboration Station Necessary?

Ted Panitz lists 44 Benefits of Collaborative Learning.

The collaboration station serves many purposes:

  1. It is more engaging to work with a partner than to work alone,
  2. Technology has dampened social skills and has encouraged people to live alone in their own worlds
  3. Collaboration is one of the top 4 skills employers are looking for.

How To Teach Collaboration

Collaboration is a desired soft skill for good reason.  It is important to real teamwork, powerful discussion, and inclusivity.  Knowing how to disagree with someone without making them feel rejected is a skill that many people don’t have innately.  Sharing new vocabulary, modeling the skill, and practicing the new skill are necessary.

Click here for Hints for Better Learning Groups from the University of Texas, Teaching Resource Center (Srinivas).

Srinivas, Hari. “GDRC | The Global Development Research Center.” GDRC | The Global Development Research Center. Web. 25 May 2017.

Changing Climate and Culture Building-wide

Changing Climate and Culture Building-wide

As a coach assisting teachers with technology integration and personalized learning, I notice patterns arising from teacher to teacher.  One pattern that I have noticed is that a teacher, no matter how strong he/she is, hits a wall whether earlier or later when it comes to progressing to the next level.  In every situation in my experiences, the reason is the same: absence of climate and culture.  Although I didn’t see it early on, I see it clearly now. The importance of climate and culture in a classroom and across a school are imperative to positive technology integration, personalized learning, and empowered learning. In this post, I share my experiences and ideas for how to improve climate and culture both in the classroom and across a school.

Climate & Culture at the Classroom Level

Students need to a non-threatening method to measure their behavior. This is a sample Code of Cooperation Rubric.How a person feels is paramount to achievement because if a person does not feel safe, appreciated, or successful, he likely will not be motivated to work hard.  He will not want to come to school at all let alone spend 6-8 hours there. On the flip side, a person who feels appreciated and feels success will work harder to continue feeling successful.  It is a cycle that can be reset, and some schools are already trying to do that through PBIS and Capturing Kids’ Hearts. However, that is not enough. Students must feel that they are part of a classroom family and a larger school family.  They need to feel responsible for the successes and failures in the classroom.  One successful catalyst to changes in student behavior and empowerment is the Code of Cooperation as seen in the sample above.  Self-control, organization, accountability, and respect are four powerful pillars to start from.  Students are tasked with self-reflection and self-evaluation. Even the youngest learners can be successful doing this. Even the youngest of learners can self-reflect and self-evaluate.

In addition to the Code of Cooperation, students often need to drill down and work on respecting one another.  Often, they need to learn how to speak to one another politely and have civil discourse in a safe environment. Classroom teachers can help facilitate that through the introduction of sentence stems, blogging, and Socratic seminars.  With the opportunity to use positive sentence stems, students can change the climate and culture in their schools, and this should be celebrated! (More on that here.)

Goal Setting

Classroom Code of Cooperation as a first step to positive classroom climate and culture.

In addition to treating one another with respect, each person should be celebrated at his own level with high expectations in place. Expectations is a generic term that encompasses so much: behavior, soft skills, achievement, etc.  How can we do that with so many different levels in our classes? The answer is by personalizing learning and allowing students to set goals for themselves. As with yoga, we all start in different places, and we grow at our own pace. For too long, students have been passive learners sitting and getting instead of digging in and getting their hands dirty.  Making decisions is a skill of which we have deprived our students. Ownership in learning is key to academic and personal growth. This can be accomplished through student goal-setting, tracking, and reflection. Too often, students don’t know where they stand in a class because the teacher controls the grade. What if the student decides what his goals for the class are based on his long-term goals for his life? What if students are given time to reflect upon their learning, failures, and successes? Ownership provides students the opportunity to care about, get involved in, and be active in their own growth.

Ownership goes beyond the individual as well. There are rules and SOPs in a full school that contribute to culture. How schools deal with behavioral issues is changing. Research shows that many behavior problems are merely reactions to boredom or frustration.  The former, boredom, arises when students are not being challenged. As a result, they act out. At the classroom level, personalized learning, which is not possible without positive climate and culture, encourages a student to set his own goals for achievement and move at his own pace, thus mitigating boredom. The latter, at the other end of the spectrum, reflects the low-skilled student who feels so overwhelmed and frustrated because of skill gaps.  At the classroom level, the incorporation of blended and personalized learning is key to filling these gaps. Students are allowed the time needed to master a skill with support during station rotation or targeted instruction. However, climate and culture within the classroom are not enough.

Administrators Supporting Climate & Culture


How do positive classroom changes extend into the full school?  Sometimes students make bad choices and are not focused on their personal learning goals.  Some student actions will warrant and office referral. How are they dealt with there? Are classroom teachers 100% responsible for climate and culture.  The answer, obviously, is no. So how does an administrator contribute to climate and culture? What if student goals are reviewed during disciplinary discussions?  What if someone takes the time to talk the student through how his actions are affecting his attainment, or lack thereof, of his goals? What if the student owned his actions and tried to decide whether he wanted to avoid the situation in the future and work to develop a coping mechanism for future incidents?  This would take goals to a whole new level and deal with a student more holistically and on a personalized level. There would still be consequences, and the student would be involved in a fair, transparent process.

Leading By Example

Using Twitter to praise growth.

A vital factor to all-school change is the administration.  In business, the people at the top sell the product by their enthusiasm and belief in the product, not by ordering everyone else to walk the walk.  As a result, the administrative team must be trained and believe in the change and walk the walk. Training admins in climate and culture and having them set goals empowers them to lead by example.  

Initiating Change

As a leader interested in changing the climate and culture in your school, here are some steps you can consider trying out:

  1. Create a tool to measure success before you start, i.e. backward design. Get feedback from teachers and admin to identify the change you want to see.
  2. Present the WHY with examples behind building a school-wide climate and culture that promotes student ownership, agency, and empowerment to all schools.  WIIFM: What’s In It For Me is important to stress at this stage.
  3. Poll teachers and admin to measure interest and create a pilot or cohort group to support for the year.
  4. If you are a district leader, target schools that show interest in modifying school-wide climate and culture.  
  5. Create a focus group made up of the schools with the most interest.
  6. Create a Climate and Culture Team at each school made up of teachers AND administrators who are invested and passionate about creating change.
  7. Create school-wide initiatives with the Climate and Culture Team coupled with classroom initiatives to be shared with the faculty throughout the year.
  8. Use the train-the-trainer model and give intense training to building-level instructional coaches who will be available for support, too.
  9. Track data all year with celebrations and share outs.  Recognition and healthy competition are true motivators.
    1. Digital Badging 
    2. Professional Development Bingo boards for freedom to jump in at your own level (see below)
    3. Incentives at each grade or building level

Professional Development Bingo Board

Providing Support

As society moves forward with technology in the 21st century, we in education need to lasso the opportunities available for support.  Here are some ideas for how technology can help us help ourselves:

  1. Virtual trainings and webinars – you can create screencasts for asynchronous trainings that can be uploaded to with multiple choice questions, comments, and thought questions embedded. EdPuzzle also allows us to track who has watched the video and evaluate their answers
  2. Teachers can videotape events in their room to share with support leaders or the Culture and Climate Team for analysis and debriefing
  3. Teachers can be coached virtually via Google Hangout or
  4. Travel for teachers can be minimized by holding online meetings or webinars for teachers to share out their questions and successes
  5. Like students, teachers would set goals for themselves dealing with climate and culture and how they relate to achievement and behavior. The measurement tool will come in handy here, so teachers can measure their growth.

Scaling Out Positive Climate and Culture 

As you try to scale out the positive changes you see, be aware of the business model dealing with adopters: Innovators, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards. Use this model to avoid getting discouraged.  Figure out where each person in your school falls, and pull them onboard based on his/her category. Round one participants are the Innovators: not afraid of change, like to be first to try out new things, adaptable and open personalities. As they share their successes, the second level adopters will encompass the Early Majority: those who want to know it works and need a purpose for change.  This group will be larger than the first, so additional support & resources will be needed. The third level/year will encompass the Late Majority: those who want the kinks ironed out for them and want to be absolutely sure this is not just another “flavor of the year” that will be gone in 2 years. The final group (year 4) consists of the Laggards who will either retire, leave education, or adopt only when forced.

Change is difficult for most people, and education seems to draw that personality; however, teachers historically will do anything it takes to help their students.  If you can make this change about the students and not about referrals or school report cards, it will work. If you want your teachers to create a student-centered atmosphere in their classrooms, you need to revamp everything you do at at your level.  If you do that well, the rest will follow.

7 Steps to Stronger Student Collaboration Activities

7 Steps to Stronger Student Collaboration Activities

If you are trying to encourage collaboration in your classroom and are having trouble, read on.  You will see 7 steps that will help you build stronger student collaborators in collaboration activities.

What’s All the Hubbub?

Why is collaboration such a big deal all of a sudden?  Everybody wants to collaborate: songwriters, businesses, school districts, teachers, and now students.  What is it, and what, if anything, is its importance?

Well, as it turns out, collaboration boosts creativity and thinking.  Teamwork works for big jobs and also for small jobs.

According to,

“The ability to work in teams is one of the most sought-after skills among new hires, yet research suggests that students may not be graduating with the level of skills needed to succeed on the job.”

That’s reason enough for me to start incorporating collaboration into my classes to allow my students the opportunity to practice and attain those collaboration skills.

New Information

For two years, I encouraged collaboration in all of the classes with which I worked.  After awhile, I started to wonder whether all the work to set up collaboration was really that important.  Then I was present for a presentation by Anthony Kim of Ed Elements.  In that presentation, Kim shared some data with us from John Hattie’s Visible Learning.  What caught my attention and subsequent dedication to collaboration is the graphic below.  

John Hattie's Visible Learning Growth Chart

Taken with permission from Anthony Kim’s presentation. @anthonx

In it, Hattie shows that 0.40 is the effect size for one year’s growth.  The highest growth effect comes as a result of … you guessed it, peer collaboration and discussion coming in at a whopping 0.82!

That means that, according to Hattie, peer collaboration and discussion result in students learning more than twice what they would learn in a traditional classroom with a traditional teacher.  Even more than differentiation and immediate feedback.  

That’s worth restating.  Peer collaboration and discussion result in students learning twice what they would learn in a normal year’s growth.

Whoa!  That’s amazing!   With growth like that, we should all be collaborating and discussing all day long, right?

Were We Successful?

Well, my teachers and I worked on collaboration in our classrooms.  We learned about, planned out, tried out, and reflected on blended learning station rotation that required a collaboration station.  The results were very telling.

At our end-of-the-year meeting we reported out our findings.  Of our group, 95% said that the collaboration station was the least successful.  Upon reflection, here’s what we surmised: students don’t need just the opportunity to collaborate; they need to be taught how to collaborate well.

 How Can We Improve Collaboration?7 Steps to Building Better Student Collaborators

All summer I thought about why we failed and how we could succeed.  I knew there had to be a way to teach students how to collaborate well, and I processed and researched and finally put together this infographic called “7 Steps to Building Student Collaborators” (see right) for teachers to follow as a scaffold for building strong collaborators.  As everything else in education, this is a work in progress, so please try it out and send me some feedback to improve it for all who might happen upon it and try it out. Here is a detailed description to help you get started.  As it is a progression, feel free to jump in wherever makes the most sense for your students.

Step 1: Begin with open-ended discussion questions for the students to process their thoughts.  Google Classroom is a great tool for this because the answers to Classroom discussion questions are hidden until after a student submits his/her answer.  No copying, folks.  What you see is what you get.  Set the settings to allow students to respond.  (This allows them to see other’s answers).  However, you must go into the Student section and change the rights to “Only teachers can post or comment.” (see graphic) You want this because in step 2 you have to teach your students how to write an appropriate response to a post.

Step 2: Teach students what makes an appropriate, well-written response to a post.  To do this, share How-To videos 1 and 2 below and Accountable Talk/Moves charts like the one below that demonstrate well-written responses, and practice, practice, practice.  Maybe your students could be empowered to create their own video, blog, vlog, or infographic for others to use.


Step 3: Give students the opportunity to practice using accountable talk (found here and here), and practice responding as a whole group to one another’s posts in Google Classroom.  As a modeling exercise, the teacher will type the responses as the students formulate them together.  You can start out whole group and move toward small groups formulating responses as one entity.  There are plenty of apps to assist you.  Socrative allows students to post their answers and then vote on the best one.  Google Classroom allows teachers to post a discussion question for group responses with only one person per group submitting a response.  A shared Google Doc with a table can be used to share out the final group responses.  A shared Google Drawing can be used with post-it note style text boxes for each group to claim and fill.  Please know that once is not enough.  Students need the opportunity to practice, practice, practice.  Once you are confident that students know how to write group responses, change the Google Classroom settings to “Students can post and comment.”  This will open up discussion questions for peer response.  Once you feel confident that students understand the phraseology in writing, you need to transition to verbal responses.

Step 4: Move to an on-the-spot, think-fast, response system that requires accountable talk or sentence starters.  Socratic seminars are just the activity for this.  If you are not familiar with Socratic seminars, they are basically student-led discussions with the requirement that everyone has to contribute something to the discussion.  The teacher is responsible for formulating questions that are open-ended and draw out student interpretations that should then be supported with text or some other data.  Great Book, Junior Great Book Shared Inquiry discussions, and Fishbowl discussions are similar to a Socratic seminar.  It doesn’t matter what system you use as long as students have to piggyback on one another’s responses.  This is where the accountable talk comes in. It gives students the phraseology to have civil agreement and disagreement.  It also encourages deeper inquiry instead of superficial analysis of a topic.

Step 5: Now that students are becoming comfortable with more academic phrases and sentence starters as a whole group with teacher monitoring, it is time to set them into small groups to monitor themselves.  Create simultaneous small groups each with the same task: run your own Socratic seminar or Great Books discussion for shared inquiry.  Formulate starter questions as a whole group or as small groups, and then share out before beginning the activity.  Formulating questions is a skill that our students could practice more.  Scaffold here as needed.

After the activity, debrief and give students time to reflect upon what went well and what could be improved.  Practice these small group synchronous discussions a few more times until you and they feel confident that they could monitor themselves completely during a station rotation class period.  It’s now time to move toward asynchronous collaboration.

Step 6: Today is the big day!  Your students should be better prepared to rotate into a collaborative station without needing your help.  This is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated by you and your students!  Your job is to create 3 or more stations: Independent, Collaborative, Teacher Directed.  If you are not familiar with Blended Learning Station Rotation, check out Blended Learning Universe through the Christensen Institute.

Step 7: Finally, take time to allow students to reflect on the experience.  Debrief with them to get their feedback, so together you can build a better station rotation each time.

Reflection Tools: Journal, blogs, Google Classroom, Google Forms, Think-Pair-Share, ClassKick, Nearpod, Seesaw, Vocaroo, audio recorder, video recorder, Screencastify, etc.

The Power of Feedback

If you are ready to try collaboration with your students, please try out this scaffold and send me some feedback.  I’d love to hear about your successes as well as your recommendations for how, together, we can make this process better.  It’s all about the collaboration, right?

Here is the infographic in case you’d like to print it out.