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How to Foster Collaboration and Team Spirit

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By Thom Markham

Once they get to the working world, most students, in almost any job, will collaborate as a member of a team. And every student needs to be prepared for that environment -- partly for employment opportunity, but mainly because the deeply embedded mental model of learning and creating as an individual process is obsolete. Collaboration has become the chief way in which things are done. Powerful collaboration is driven by incisive communication—and out of that process come the very best expressions of innovation, creativity, and critical inquiry.

But collaboration doesn't necessarily come naturally to students. High-performance collaboration requires training and the development of key personal skills. For teachers, two initial steps will help foster this process. First, reframe the conversation by using the terminology of teams rather than group work. Think of your favorite sports team and now call them a group. Feel the difference? Teams focus on accountability and commitment; they form for a purpose and operate through norms and shared expectations.

Second, import and adapt the high-performance principles common in the work world to teams in the classroom. This requires time, good coaching skills, a relentless focus on the quality of interaction between students, and a set of team tools, including contracts, rubrics, and exercise. But the payoff is noticeable. Once students form teams over an extended period and begin to collaborate well, they learn more, get better at teaching others, produce more powerful products, and enjoy the process. Here are 10 principles that can help you design high performance teams.

  • Examine individual strengths within collaborative context. Teams form through an intentional process. One starting point is to have members begin by sharing their individual strengths. Who will need help on certain aspects of the task ahead? Use simple tools, such as a basic Myers-Briggs test, to have students individually assess themselves. Have them share results using respectful communication. In this early phase, always debrief the process. Were we fair? Straightforward? Inclusive? Are we on the way to becoming a team? The goal is not to judge differences, but open up the discussion so students make room for everyone to participate.
  • Speak the language of commitment and character. Groups fail because members don’t pull their weight, aren’t accountable, and don’t really collaborate at all. Have a thorough discussion about the meaning of teamwork. What do students see in their sports experience that translates? Have them grapple with the question: How will we, as a team and individually, hold ourselves accountable for deadlines, shared products, and overall quality?
  • Set the rules. In the adult world, full participation in the team is the expectation (although not always the reality.) Students, however, need support for learning to be a good team member. After a thorough preview of who we are as a team, have members agree on norms or a contract, define their roles, and design specific remedies for situations in which members do not live up to agreements. For students who seem incapable of participating in a team, you might have to make special arrangements. But this should be the exception, not the norm.
  • Prepare teams to fall apart. The old formula for ‘forming, storming, norming, and performing’ is a great comfort to anyone working in a team or on a project—because it is a constant. Teams may start off feeling inspired and unified; by week two, personalities emerge, agreements get broken, and—suddenly—everything’s off. Prepare your teams for the process; help them notice when productivity is breaking down. Reserve time in the teaching schedule for teams to sort out differences, regroup, reassess, and renorm.
  • See conflict as opportunity. No one likes conflict, but this is the exact point when students in teams learn the ways of non-judgment and conflict resolution they will need in the future. Teach the language of constructive feedback and the golden rule of good listening: Are you listening—or just waiting to respond? Often, you can head off issues by having teams practice this at the beginning of a project.
  • Stress design and prototype thinking. After teams become cohesive, the focus turns to work quality. First, make sure teams understand why they are a team. Their goal is to mind-meld themselves into a high-functioning set of individuals focused on creating and crafting the best product they can. Allow time for brainstorming. Encourage failure as a step to eventual success. Give them time to mull, share, and redo. Make sure every idea goes through the filter of feedback.
  • Schedule critical thinking. A very powerful training tool is to use protocols, such as a critical friends protocol, visible thinking routines, or other tools for inquiry, to encourage and teach focused communication that uses the vocabulary and terms of the discipline. Early in the team process, teach them to respond to ideas with a “I like…I wonder…I suggest” approach. Once they have the basics, mix and match. Break the teams into pairs to come up with an idea, then pair-share. Have teams present ideas to each other, then debrief. Keep it in motion and, as they proceed, expect teams to get better at questioning and constructive feedback.
  • Reward innovation. Teams are designed to produce top quality work, but often they exceed that standard. The team process is inherently creative—and they very well might deliver a product that earns an ‘A” but goes beyond the requirements of the assignment. In our standardized system, we desperately need a way to recognize and acknowledge out-of-the-box thinking. Use individual and team assessment rubrics that contain a breakthrough column. This is a blank column that rewards innovation and invites inspiration.
  • Use online collaborative tools. Collaboration and invention have moved online, but the same high performance standards are in effect. Teams should be able to show rich interactions, critical inquiry, and clear communication in their online collaboration. They should hold each other accountable. In this case, teachers need to be part of collaborative teams by being online as much as students. No more hiding behind statements like, “I don’t know much about Edmodo, but my students are really good at it.”
  • Reflect and move on. Before teams disperse, close the circle of learning. Allow a class period to debrief and reflect on the experience. Reinforce high level collaboration by using a formal debrief process. What did we learn? How did we function as a team? What gaps were there? What did we learn individually and collectively? How was the quality of our work, and how do we improve it?

Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. To download the tools mentioned in the blog, go to the PBL tools page on the website,








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