Remediating Collaboration…Activities for Success

Effective collaboration lies at the heart of all problem solving when students face the messy problems of the future.  Not only will students need to work in teams, but they are also now challenged to develop a collective intelligence and co-construct meaning, in new and innovative ways.  Here are five simple exercises to remediate this all-important skill.

Dana MacDonald, grade five teacher and fellow First LEGO League partner coach, identified collaboration as a competency in need of remediation with her group.  Together, we sought to design a series of micro-collaborative experiences (10 minutes in length) that would allow students to learn key communication protocols through a series of scenarios.  Each scenario would challenge the student to voice an option, listen to their other teammates and make a choice.  Initially, the scenarios had little personal value or importance to the students.  Yet, as they developed the communicative protocols, each scenario had more personal value to the students, giving rise to constructive debates, compromise and collective decision making.  Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 10.39.51 AM

The steps of each learning phase were discussed with the students, at first with direct teacher prompting (e.g. “now we will share”), until they grew in confidence.  

Team Work Tasks:

  1. Brainstorm
  2. Share
  3. Decide

What is a Team?  

The team were asked to brainstorm ideas around the following stem: “a team is…”, here were the results from the class (pardon my poor board writing; a skill I have yet to master) 

The discussion was rich but really got exciting when Dana and I shared our own past experiences with teams, most notably with FIRST LEGO League teams.  We really stressed that, in the end, the collective problem-solving capacity of a team is always greater than one person working through the messy problems that FIRST LEGO league presents to students.  Any breakdown in communication and collaborative principles will ultimately lead to failure.  

Get it Out

Groups of 4-5 students sat around a chart paper and asked to brainstorm as many colours as possible in 40 seconds.  Many of the students looked dumbfounded at the simplicity of the task.  The goal was for students to experience rapid brainstorming sessions; being careful not to judge their ideas but to simply get them out.  This activity was done several times to build this capacity; ensuring that all students share and that no ideas are judged.  It gradually became a competition…what team could get the most ideas in 40 seconds?  While many students fear to say the wrong thing, this activity sought to normalize brainstorming as a regular part of the learning process.  It also forces teams to make a decision rapidly and fairly, a necessary skill if any progress is to be made.  

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Examples of no value questions:

blue or red

yes or no

Examples of high-value questions:

cat or dog

sports or arts

best sport

Of critical importance to effective communication is ensuring that every member has an opinion (a choice must be made!) and that they justify their thinking by saying “I think this…because….  

This game really encouraged students to think about the problem-solving process. It builds skills such as creativity, negotiation and decision making, as well as communication and time management. After the activity, teams are better equipped to work together, and to think on their feet.  

Team Name

Students had two minutes to create a team name.  This was a tough one in that the students took more of a personal stake in the naming of their team.  No guidance was given with this, Dana and I wanted the cracks to emerge that would be discussed at task completion.  As you can imagine, teams came up with some pretty interesting ideas.  

We then asked students to close their eyes and silently reflect on the following questions:

  1. Did everyone have an opportunity to share their ideas
  2. How did you, as a team choose a name.  

Students described that some people shared, some members didn’t have any ideas and some teams described that while no consensus could be made on a name they instead chose to modify the team name to integrate as many ideas as possible (clever students).  From there, the teams identified protocols and strategies that they would use to ensure that all members have a voice, that each idea is valued equally and that personal bias (he’s my best friend) doesn’t enter the decision-making process. 

Fun Storming

Students were given a pack of sticky notes and 3 minutes to brainstorm as many fun things as you can come up with.  Before this session, each team agreed upon and reviewed their own code of conduct for sharing ideas and making decisions.  After the 3 minutes, students had to agree upon categories that they would use to organize and manage the mess of sticky notes.  Duplicates were matched and gradually order was created.  Ultimately teams that had agreed upon categories by way of their own code of conduct were successful while a few teams could not move past making decisions.  Again, this child-sized failure became the starting point for new learning and rich discussion; each team gradually practicing strengthening their teamwork skills and working more efficiently together.

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Build an Alien 

Teams were then challenged to brainstorm the five most important things an alien would need to learn and why, after crash landing on Earth.  This was by far the most challenging and truly was a test.  After each team reviewed their own code of ethics and the protocols they would use(I know this sounds repetitive, but they really need to explicitly agree to this before beginning each task), teams were let loose on the problem.  

As teams brainstormed, discussed their ideas, created categories and voted, it was observed that not only had they dramatically improved on their communication and negotiation skills, but there was a considerable improvement in active engagement and overall efficiency with the task.  


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Building Collaboration-Creating Crisis?

After more than a decade of teaching intermediate students, effective collaboration is the single most important determining factor that affects student outcome.  It always surprises me to witness the initial excitement of working in a team followed by the tailspin of a team who is frustrated, angry and unsuccessful.  It is of no wonder why teachers likewise fear team projects:  “Billy isn’t doing his fair share” or “I had to take it home a redo everything” to “Sir, I hate working in teams”.  

Collaboration in a 21st-century context requires students who can work in teams, learn from and contribute to the learning of others and demonstrate empathy in working with diverse others.  At its heart, teamwork is more than simply dividing up the work that is done independently but is a task that challenges students to develop collective intelligence and to co-construct meaning, becoming creators of content as well as consumers. 

Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate the solutions and strategies used at the intermediate level.  

When mediating groups of intermediate students, two things become immediately apparent.  First, you can talk all you want about strategies, but until students actually experience a collaborative crisis, they will see no value in what you are saying.  Second, when the collaborative crisis occurs, students will forget the strategy you taught them and revert back to oppositional roles.  

So, how do we get students to recognize the importance of collaborative strategies and make use of these strategies with little or no teacher monitoring? 

Create Child-Sized Crisis

No doubt, the idea of intentionally creating a crisis in the classroom is crazy, yet when done properly can yield long-lasting fruit.  Here are the perimeters for the learning experience.  The task must be inherently simple and require no additional technical or content knowledge.  The task will require all students to collaborate and work towards one common goal.  Finally, the task must restrict teacher intervention and not solve the problems for the team (this takes considerable will power to fight a natural teacher urge).  

The Task

Using the LEGO EV3’s, each student was assigned a robot (this could be done in pairs).  This activity was originally designed by Damien Kee, as explained in his book: “Classroom Activities for the Busy Teacher: NXT” and thoroughly explained by Ian Chow-Miller on LEGO Engineering.  The task is simple,  students are asked to line up their robots in a straight line and depart that line at the same time.  At regular intervals, the outer robots stop until a wedge shape is formed by the robots.  Finally,  the robots reverse, with all robots arriving at their original starting position at the same time.  See the video here; it’ll all make sense. 

The students already possessed the EV3 basics (knowing how to connect their robot, make it go forward and backwards and how to pause the program) and confidence was extremely high after watching the video and they began to work together as a class, without teacher intervention.    

While all were engaged, one-by-one the quieter students faded to the background while a few leaders duked it out.  Robots would start at different times, programming was off and the tension grew.  To make matters worse, poor robot placement and a less than spotlessly clean floor caused robots to run into each other, further raising tensions.  Although many students had answers or solutions to these problems, they weren’t being listened to.  Shouting further compounded the chaos, leading to progressively worse results.  Students looked to me to get them out of this disaster, yet I encouraged them to go and talk with their team.  

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Much to the relief of myself and many of the frowning students, we called it quits to begin debriefing about the insanity.  As an educator, this was probably one of the most insightful and useful conversations that I have ever had with a class.  We began with considering how each student experienced the ordeal, getting into the frustrations of the task and working with others.   Students described not being listened to or students being frustrated with each other as a major cause of failure.  Also, with no assigned roles or code of conduct, it made working together impossible.  

It was agreed upon by everyone that we needed to create some team rules before every task.    They targeted the following must-haves:

  1. a protocol to ensure that all ideas are heard
  2. a protocol to ensure that all decisions are made fairly
  3. a protocol to identify and assign particular roles at the start of a task
  4. a protocol to ensure that all members are treated in a respectful and caring way

A lot of care and thought went into each of the four categories as students articulated what each of these rules should look like in practice (a talking stick, voting, pre-planning, etc).  Students discussed a variety of solutions that a team could use for each rule or category.  


While this may be immediately common sense, for the students, this was groundbreaking.  Each student all had a common reference point after the experience and could quickly identify the indicators of poor collaboration.  The students were personally invested in the experience, recognizing that when one member fails, they all failed (every student had full control of their robot, no hand-sitting was possible).  Throughout the year, we would constantly refer back to the “disaster lesson” and appreciate that only when good collaborative practices are followed can we effectively co-construct solutions to complex and messy problems. 

Students were also more able to recognize strategies that should be in place when a team discussion started to go south.  While this approach was not the magic bullet to all collaborative troubles, I must say that it was a springboard where students not only created their own code of conduct but were challenged to transfer their own realizations to the many more deep learning challenges over the year.