Friday, November 18, 2011


The first twelve years of my teaching career were spent in England as an elementary teacher. Fresh out of college, I was handed the National Curriculum, given a gentle push over the classroom threshold and told, "Have at it!" And I did, and a marvelous time it was too! Being the only Year 6 teacher in the building I was free to do pretty much my own thing behind my classroom door. As long as my kids did well in standardized tests nobody really asked or questioned what I was doing. 

When I arrived in the U.S. I was fortunate to be hired at Birmingham Covington School (BCS) , an innovative school of science and technology. I was hired to be a 5/6 math and science teacher sharing 54 students with a Social Studies/Language Arts teacher. I was required to collaborate with my teaching partner, the math and science teachers and the whole 5/6 team. To do so effectively required certain skills: active listening, flexible thinking, risk taking, effective communication, and being politely critical. I didn't have any of them! When we started teaching Engage, we discovered that students don't naturally have these skills either.

Engage is a 3-8th grade project unique to BCS. Engage was conceived as BCS sought to reinvent itself to keep pace with the real-world skills that are demanded of our students when they exit our system. The overarching goal of Engage is to engage students in problem-based and project-based activities that integrate elements of science, educational technology, technology education, and language arts as well as the four main elements of the enGauge 21st Century Skills: Digital Age Literacy, Inventive Thinking, Effective Communication, and High Productivity.

We designed challenges that required a team of students to collaborate in order to be successful, and they weren't! They just didn't have the necessary skills. Students were excited and engaged but lacked the ability to listen to each other, to communicate effectively, to challenge each other in meaningful ways and to reach consensus on effective solutions. Realizing that the skills were not inherent and had to be taught, we developed a bank of
resources and strategies.

When teams are first introduced, each member completes a personal skills inventory , assessing their own strengths and weaknesses. They use their findings to allocate specific roles within the group. The roles are determined according to the task but generally include a project manager, materials manager, communications manager and lead engineer. Once students have a clear understanding of their responsibilities we provide them with scripts about how to be politely critical and how to reach consensus .Armed with these tools they can begin to focus on the challenge activity and intermittently take the time to assess the success of their team using teamwork rubrics.

The success of these strategies can be measured by the fact that Engage was selected to be one of the projects representing Team U.S.A. at the
Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington D.C earlier this month. As an attendee I was lucky enough to take part in discussions about collaboration with teachers from all around the world. One teacher likened collaborative projects to making a jigsaw: each student is given an element of a task and they connect the pieces together to produce a complete picture. I had to disagree. This describes co-operation, not collaboration.

Collaboration is more like bread making. The individual ingredients are blended, kneaded and pummeled, flattened, stretched, rolled and ultimately transformed into something warm and nourishing that smells and tastes good. Unlike a jigsaw, the original ingredients are unrecognizable and cannot return to the way they were. In learning to collaborate effectively with my colleagues at BCS I have often felt pummeled, stretched, challenged and transformed into a better teacher and learner.

When we ask our students to collaborate they should feel the same way. They should be able to take their individual thoughts and ideas, stretch them , reshape them and synthesize them to produce creations of meaning and consequence. The process should transform them as learners and take them one step closer to becoming more effective collaborators.

The next time you design a collaborative assignment for your kids, stop and think: Am I asking them to make a jigsaw or am I asking them to make bread?


  1. I love your comparison of the jigsaw puzzle and the bread. Your students are so fortunate to have the chance to really learn to collaborate and to develop strong skills.

  2. This is an extremely effective metaphor for establishing the difference between collaboration and cooperation. I appreciate your candor about the need to explicitly teach kids how to collaborate. It is a critical component of the collaborative learning process that we as teachers frequently overlook.

  3. I agree with Cheryl, the analogy is wonderful. I would love to see the resources you use to help students learn how to truly collaborate and work as a team. What a wonderful life skill they are learning under your care and guidance!