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.