The value of sustained collaborative learning

By Jennifer Pustejovsky

Analog clock showing 7:30 A day at school Analog clock showing 4:00
Arrive at school
Make copies
Students arrive in my classroom
First off-period Parent conference
 –  Working lunch to plan with my team
Students arrive in my classroom
Students dismissed
Faculty meeting

This is a typical schedule for most educators, and it can leave us wishing that, instead of attending meetings, we had more time to collaborate with colleagues and work in our classrooms. While we know that it takes a village to support our students, we often don’t have the time to call upon that village. An African proverb eloquently states that, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.”

We do not have to feel independently responsible and isolated when working to improve our practice and advance student learning. We can experience a rich, collaborative learning environment that supports student growth and development by creating collaborative learning groups that help overcome the challenges of time constraints, the feeling of isolation, and the overwhelming new information that sifts through our hands every day. A collaborative professional learning model encourages the building of close relationships, wherein each member feels comfortable enough to express their ideas and practice and experiment with strategies and skills that help to facilitate improved learning experiences, all of which is critical to the learning process.

Collaborative learning offers the support of a group in the implementation of new strategies, allowing group members to choose the direction of their professional development and providing necessary, continued guidance for the learning and implementation of effective teaching practices. These benefits can help change the negative mindset that professional development isn’t effective, to one of enthusiasm that understands the relevance of professional development. In this way, collaborative learning helps to bridge the gap between the newest research, theories, and techniques learned in professional development and their implementation in the classroom.

Setting up collaborative learning

Follow these steps to establish collaborative learning:

  1. Determine membership based on mutual learning objectives.
  2. Determine the outcome for each group.
  3. Determine the effective number of groups for your campus.
  4. Set goals and develop norms, mission statements, and agendas for each meeting.
  5. Identify the preferred method of communication for each group. Examples include blogs, discussion boards, and email.
  6. Brainstorm strategies to elicit and provide ongoing support.

Integrating collaborative learning into the school day

Structures to support collaborative learning can support job-embedded professional learning. Find opportunities to collaborate with colleagues during the school day. Doing so fosters a culture committed to professional and sustained learning. Examples could include collaborating through:

  • Lunch-and-learns
  • Peer observations
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching
  • Student observations
  • Email, discussion boards, blogs

To equip students with 21st century skills and prepare them for life outside of the classroom, educators deserve professional development that is collaborative in nature and strategic in the skills it offers. Collaborative learning can assuage our frustrations about time constraints and provide support by offering educators the time and guidance needed to strategize, assess, and implement learning strategies that will help boost student learning.