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Anne Vilen on "What Makes a Collaborative Classroom Work"

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    Sarah Boddy

Anne Vilen is a staff writer and school coach with EL Education. In this ASCD article, she offers three moves for ensuring that classroom discussions between students are meaningful and equitable.

What Makes a Collaborative Classroom Work?

As a young and idealistic language arts teacher, I believed everything I heard about how much students love to work in teams. I arranged the desks into tables, created beautiful table tents with open-ended questions on them, and blithely expected my 9th graders to sustain deep and productive discussions about literature. Instead, their discussions went off the rails in the first minute. Pencils turned into pokers. The kids I’d been told were the brightest and most responsible were the first to roll their eyes and abandon their peers’ fledgling attempts at discourse. Other students sat stoically and stared at their shoes. How could I get my students—the reluctant and the overconfident—working productively and listening to one another inquisitively?

In the age of ubiquitous screens, many students struggle to talk and listen to one another in person. Yet a recent study confirms that “coordinating with others” is among employers’ most valued job skills. Teachers must explicitly teach the communication skills that create productive discussion and prepare students for collaborative work. Here are three things to keep in mind as you do so.

1. Define boundaries that acknowledge all students’ contributions.

To get along, humans need a common understanding of civic boundaries. In society, we have laws that define “free speech”; in formal meetings, we have Robert’s Rules of Order. In your classroom, two essential criteria for ensuring that students have equitable opportunities to participate in conversation are boundaries for volume and for engaging others with respect and purpose.

Regardless of grade level, start by teaching students what it looks like and sounds like to converse in a small group so that everyone at the table can hear, but those across the room cannot. Young students respond enthusiastically to the acronym “EEKK,” which stands for configurations where students sit “elbow-to-elbow, knee-to-knee.” All students will understand that a “12-inch voice” is one that carries across the distance of one foot—not far enough for the teacher next door to pound on the wall for silence.

Consider creating an anchor chart like the one below that captures your students’ agreements about different volume levels for different purposes.

Volume control anchor chart

The second set of boundaries should provide guidance for students about how to start and interrupt a conversation, particularly when people disagree, in a way that helps both parties move forward in the discussion. High school teachers at Capital City Public Charter School, an EL Education network school in Washington, D.C., use the beginning of the year to teach students how to follow these community agreements for accountable talk.


Accountable talk norms

Our Talk Is . . . 

Accountable to the Learning Community

We …

Listen carefully to each other (to hear rather than respond)
Use and build on each other’s ideas
Paraphrase and seek clarification
Disagree respectfully
Use sentence stems (and eventually, create our own)
Give wait time
Did everyone hear that? Who can repeat that in their own words? Who wants to add on? So, are you saying …? Why? I’m not sure I understood what you meant when you said _________. Could you explain a bit more please? I can see that, however, I disagree with _________. I like what _________ said because _________.

Accountable to Accurate Knowledge

We …

Are as specific and accurate as possible
Refer to and cite the text
Resist the urge to comment just to comment
Get the facts straight
Ask challenging questions that demand our classmates provide evidence for their claims
Where can we find that? How does this/that connect? Do you agree or disagree? How does that work to support our response to the prompt/question/text? I want to go back to what _________ said.

Accountable to Rigorous Thinking

We …

Build arguments
Link claims and evidence logically
Work to make our statements clear/more refined
Check the quality of each other’s claims and arguments
Give and use wait time
Why do you think that? Take your time; say more. Who can give an example of what _______ just said? Who can give a counter example of what _________ just said? Now I am wondering …? I was thinking about what _________ said, and I was wondering …? I want to know more about …. This makes me think ….


2. Teach and practice protocols.

Once you’ve set boundaries and communicated them to students, it’s time to practice. What teacher has not made the mistake of saying, “Discuss the chapter with your table group,” only to accidentally prompt a burst of disjointed conversation and off-task behavior? Instead, teach your students a specific discussion protocol that will help them develop the skills of taking turns, listening compassionately and inquisitively, speaking respectfully, and building on the ideas of others. You can find strong discussion protocols, like these from Harvard’s Teaching and Learning Lab, online or in the EL Education book Management in the Active Classroom. Whatever protocol you choose or create, make sure it includes the following key ingredients:

Organized steps for the procedure (what students must do).
Time frames for each step (when students do each step and for how long).
Norms for students (who participates and how they treat one another).
Remember that confusing classroom discussion I created in my first year of teaching? A fishbowl protocol like the one in the video below would have worked well to teach students how to have an evidence-based discussion about literature.

Students Cite Evidence from Informational and Literary Text from EL Education on Vimeo.

3. Harness the power of reflection and transfer of learning.

Finally, the true secret to productive conversation is ensuring that everyone who participates has a stake in its productivity. Some teachers impose those “stakes” by grading the quality or number of contributions individual students make in the conversation. I suggest a more organic approach—debrief, reflect, and self-assess. When your classroom culture allows students to be honest about their own choices and with one another, then debriefing the effectiveness of a protocol or the productivity of collaboration yields results. You can have students debrief in many ways—by gathering them in a circle and prompting their reflection as a group, by having one student serve as the “process observer” who shares observations and conclusions with the group after the protocol, or through exit tickets that guide students to assess and justify, with evidence, the cooperation and contribution of each member of a problem-solving group (see this reflection tool for group work in 6th grade math class, designed by Lynda Beauchamp at Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning School in Bend, Oregon).

However you spark reflection on the collective experience, be sure to name specific strategies students can use in future collaborations and support students to set individual goals for their next conversation. For example, the students featured in the fishbowl video used the checklist below to record evidence of a partner’s discussion behaviors. Then, students reflected with a partner on the evidence and set a new goal for transferring their skills to the next discussion.

Fishbowl discussion checklist

_____ Brings relevant notes, including evidence from informational texts, to the discussion

_____ Cites relevant textual evidence

_____ Poses questions

_____ Responds to others’ questions

_____ Piggybacks on others’ remarks

_____ Listens actively

_____ Makes eye contact

_____ Maintains a respectful tone and volume

_____ Considers others’ perspectives by paraphrasing or asking respectful questions


Reflection and goal setting engage all students in unpacking the specific behaviors that lead to effective collaboration. Doing so with evidence holds students accountable for their individual parts in collective work. These structures and protocols encourage every student to maintain a growth mindset about the hard work of collaboration and emphasize that all students can master the essential skills of communication and collaboration.