“collaboration is essential not only for individual success but also to moving society forward” (Muir xvi)

A source of endless guilt for me as a teacher has always been making students do group work.

Why do I feel guilty?

Because I remember when I was a student and had to do group work. I remember what it feels like when you are the only one contributing and carrying the group. It’s exhausting and remarkably unfair. It feels even more so when you’re young.

As a junior in high school, I worked with a peer — we’ll call him Chad — in Honors United States history. We were learning about the 1950s, and we had to create “nuclear families” and maintain a perfect household. When Chad didn’t contribute, and I found myself doing all the work, I went to my teacher, Mr. Schaffer, to complain.

“Welcome to the 1950s,” he said. “Men often relegated maintaining the household to women during this time.”

Touché, Mr. Schaffer, touché.

Still, it sucked having to do all the work, and I’m not sure Chad or I learned anything about collaboration.

Nevertheless, collaboration is a vital skill in today’s workforce. I feel as though I let students down if I don’t explicitly teach them how to do it.

This is what motivated me to get a copy of Trevor Muir’s The Collaborative Classroom: Teaching Students How to Work Together Now and for the Rest of their Lives. While my students worked in book clubs during one autumn, I noticed they struggled to communicate with their group members, resolve conflicts, and listen to one another. I planned to do another book club activity with them in the spring. Still, I knew I needed back up and better resources to facilitate collaboration in the classroom.

Muir defines collaboration as:

“That ability to work with others, communicate, problem solve, give critical feedback, brainstorm, and not lose our minds in the process to successfully produce a specific outcome . . . . It is a skill, just as reading, writing, shooting a basketball, computer programming, or operating a machine are skills”

Muir xvi

Group work was part of the landscape when I was in school, but no one told me how imperative it would become in all aspects of my life: work, relationships, and even my side-projects that I do for fun sometimes require me to collaborate with others. I muddled my way through my early adulthood, and I know there is a lot more I could learn about collaborating with others effectively.

I certainly don’t want my students to feel as lost in the dark as I have when it comes to collaboration. This is mainly on my mind as I read more and more about how the workforce will look entirely different for my students than it ever has before. An intimidating challenge for teachers is preparing students for a world that hasn’t even emerged yet.

“Collaboration is a skill required by all levels of industry in the constantly modernizing twenty-first century, a competency that was not as vital during the industrial twentieth century. . . . most employers would rather hire people with collaborative skills than with hard skills specific to that industry . . . . [collaboration is] growing only more crucial as the world continues to develop and change”

Muir xv

Muir calls for educators to shift their instructional focus from the individual to collaborative to prepare students for the world outside of their walls. Each chapter of his book makes recommendations about how to make this happen.

He first encourages teachers to create a collaborative culture within their classrooms. To make this happen, he recommends that teachers focus on clarity about the expectations for collaboration, give students time to reflect on collaborative experiences, and foster intrinsic motivation to collaborate with others. He outlines how to do a gallery walk and one of my favorite activities — “The Missing Tape Project” — to do this. We did “the Missing Tape Project” before beginning our second book club. It illustrated for students why they can’t be the missing link when they work in their groups.

“Successful collaboration cannot happen if we don’t first lay a foundation for a collaborative culture”

Muir 15

One of my fears about using group work in my classroom is students getting off task and wandering off in an unorganized pall where learning and engagement don’t happen. The part of me that wants to control everything gets scared when it comes to group work, making me what Muir calls a “lawnmower teacher.” But, part of teaching collaboration means teaching students to develop self-reliance and how to rely on others. To keep students motivated and on task, Muir walks teachers through how to create their visions and create a system that allows students to stay on task and problem-solve together.

“It’s tempting to be a ‘lawnmower teacher,’ mowing down any obstacles our students face and solving their problems for them. If we want our students to develop these skills, we must have patience and be willing to let them struggle. Luckily, the product of our patience and their struggle is more independent yet communal people, something our society desperately needs more of, especially if it means getting to Mars someday”

Muir 30

Another roadblock that frustrates me beyond measure when it comes to group work is holding students accountable, making sure everyone contributes, and that everyone is respectful of their peers’ right to take up space. Muir writes about strategies that dissolve these anxieties. He discusses how to reduce the strain caused by students who hog a project and students who do not contribute by providing actionable tools for accountability that teachers can use in their classroom the day after reading the book. (Teachers love resources like this). When a teacher develops a culture of collaboration, a culture of accountability automatically comes with it. A classroom that truly collaborates needs both, Muir says.

“Teammate accountability can become a part of class culture, and when it does, the need for it becomes less and less. As students learn the natural consequence of not contributing to a group’s effort, they adjust and work better in their teams”

Muir 46

As the workforce evolves, so do the old structures and professional ladders previous generations are used to. A significant part of preparing students to collaborate beyond their school years means teaching them how to adapt. Muir encourages teachers to assign work that fosters students’ agility, focuses on relationships, and teaches students to develop a growth mindset. 

“the average American has twelve different jobs throughout a life time . . . today’s workers hold a specific job for an average of four years. Younger workers, such as millennials, have approximately five different jobs before they even turn thirty. . . . Currently [there are] 53.7 million freelancers in America, and across the country, 37 percent of all workers are employed on a contract basis . . . . The rigid hierarchies and familiarity of the workforce is increasingly becoming a thing of the past . . . . [which] means that people are constantly working with new people in different systems”

Muir 50

Assessing group work is another reason teachers stay away from it; I am 100% guilty of this. It becomes a tangled web of fairness and unfairness. 

Students: Ms. G. Why are you beating your head against the desk?

Me: Group work.

Muir shares several tools and strategies for teachers to quickly, fairly, and effectively assess student group work (hallelujah!). He offers a rubric, exit ticket ideas, and peer and self-assessment ideas. Again, the materials are actionable and ready to use as soon as the teachers who read the book are ready. 

“Getting a poor collaboration grade in the middle of a project, especially one that uses peer assessments to determine it, can be what it takes to turn an individual’s performance around . . . a wake up call”

Muir 82

I’m an ELA teacher, so it seems obvious that I’d teach how to communicate in my class. But, really, that’s not something anyone really addressed in my training: how do you teach how to communicate effectively? No one taught me to communicate effectively, let alone teach young people how to do it. For years, as I’ve mentioned, it was by trial and error. I love how this book makes teaching effective communication actionable and precise. It’s not just for ELA teachers either; all teachers should teach students how to effectively communicate. Muir’s chapter on it should be required reading for all teachers.

“[equip] students with capabilities they will use throughout their lives as they enter college groups and workplaces where they will have little say about who they collaborate with”

Muir 95

Teaching writing means teaching students how to respond to each other’s work, and I’ve always struggled with this. It’s so hard to introduce students to give constructive feedback to their peers. Muir addresses this through the lens of teaching collaboration. He recommends the Tuning Protocol and provides resources on using “productive language” to teach students this essential skill.

“Students need to know how to constantly vet an idea and its creation if they want to succeed, and it’s up to the teacher to show them how to do that”

Muir 102

Facilitating class discussion is an art form no matter the year. Still, this last year of pandemic-era teaching plus an election had us stumped and a bit paralyzed. How do we facilitate remote class discussion amongst students who refuse to turn on their cameras and mics? How do we create a safe place for students to talk with so much political division in this country? It was comforting to turn to Muir’s chapter on facilitating class discussion and remind myself that no matter the medium of the conversation, the basics still apply: safety, purpose, student ownership, and modeling. 

“Whether someone is an introvert or extrovert, Republican or Democrat, accountant or graphic designer, people need to know the art of strong communication. A collaborative classroom is needed to prevent Snapchat texting, and Twitter from killing the discussion”

Muir 132

When teachers learn how to do new things, it’s tempting to get a little too passionate about something and overdo it. There is a time and place for collaboration, says Muir, and it’s not always the most appropriate learning mode. He points out ways teachers can test whether a situation is suitable for collaboration or not. Focus on the “main course” and not “the dessert,” he says.

“Too often we ask, ‘How can we get students to collaborate more?’ This is the wrong question. This question treats collaboration as a box to check off, and implies that collaboration is key to a task’s success. But collaboration is not the key; it is a tool to achieve success. Instead we should be asking, ‘Will collaboration on this project help or hinder?’”

Muir 139

I was an introvert as a kid, and I still am. I often struggled to work with groups that were not made up of friends. I see this in my students now, and I see their fear. I wish my telling them that this is something they can absolutely overcome. By overcoming it, they will be so much more successful. But, I’m also not about to change my introverted students into extroverted ones. That’s not possible. Introverts are not the problem. Instead, teachers approach creating collaborative spaces for students; whether a student is an introvert or an extrovert, they will need to collaborate in life. It is up to us to help them learn how to do that in their skin.

“A collaborative classroom, even though it is rooted in regular contact and group work, needs to be tailored to call students, including the introvert. When introverts are considered and accommodate, collaboration thrives in a whole new way”

Muir 151

One of Muir’s book’s best features is access to his website, where you can get free materials for teaching collaboration in your own classroom. Muir’s website is linked here. If you’re a teacher, hop on and select one of the activities to try ASAP! If you are a student or parent, share this website with the teachers you know!

We could all stand to learn to communicate and collaborate better, and Muir’s book helps us do that!

“Collaboration was no longer just about getting students ready for the future: it was also dramatically enhancing their present. Simply put: people work better together”

Muir 160

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