A guide to creating a collaborative learning environment


Over the past few years, I’ve published many examples of collaborative learning in my grades 8-10 history classes. The part that gets the most attention from students and educators is that I don’t give tests. Never. The lecture is also never part of the student’s learning experience. I invariably receive follow-up messages and emails full of questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and their answers.

What is a collaborative learning environment?

Students are engaged in collaborative learning when they work in small groups of 3-6 to solve a problem or answer a question. Together they develop theories, test their ideas and create evidence of their learning. Since no learner works alone, they can benefit from the different creative and skill-based strengths of the collective group in order to develop their own individual understanding.

What are the stages of collaborative learning?

We’ll take a look. Here are the steps I take.

  • Essential questions that connects history to students’ lives
  • Proof from primary and scholarly sources that can be used to find an answer to the essential question
  • Activity to help students explore the evidence and develop their own understanding of the topic. These activities are generally collaborative in groups of 4 to 6 students.
  • Registration their understandings, with both textual and visual evidence annotated using Evernote or Google Drive. These notes are taken independently so that students develop their own understandings.
  • Publish learning on their own blogs. We use Blogger; most students choose to make them public, but I provide all a tutorial on how to create Blogger private in case they have concerns about posting online.

We go through this process weekly and most classes meet for 55 minutes about 4 times a week. Therefore, students are responsible for posting at least weekly reflections on their learning from our class.

Where do you get your content?

The short answer: research. I’ll admit I wasn’t a history major, and my graduate degree isn’t in history either, but after teaching the subject for 13 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what I’m really into. needed. I will never claim to know everything. In fact, most of my colleagues have more raw knowledge of historical content than I do. But the skill I want my students to learn is how to figure out what they want to know, not memorize all the information we cover in our class.

I model this for them every time I prepare a lesson. My favorite sites when I do research are Read like a historian, Gilder Lehrman, Library of Congressand the Internet History Reference Book, to name a few. We use primary source documents, artifacts and works of art. Students study the opinions of historians based on scholarly works as well as high-quality documentaries from established sources such as PBS and Ken Burns. I even use video previews like Intensive course and History of Hip Hughes.

This may make some educators and even some trainers uncomfortable because they want to know what content my district is buying. They want to know where the content model came from so they can duplicate it and bring it to other classes. But the answers to these questions are neither easy nor quick. I learned from a lot of people and found these sources through my own research, advice from colleagues, and awesome shares from the educators I follow on social media like Twitter and Google+.

How do you find your essential questions?

It has been a process for me to develop the skills and mindset to write essential questions that will make history really matter to my students. The “Understanding by Design” expert is one of the best resources for writing big, essential questions as the basis for lessons. Grant Wiggins; for example, here a great article on the important elements of high-quality essential questions that will support meaningful learning. I can tell when I’ve really captured my students’ attention – for me the most important requirement for a good essential question is that it gets to the heart of how human beings treat each other.

How do you manage reading and grading 120 blog posts every week?

Yes, I read every post from my students – every word. This is one of the best and most rewarding reads I have ever made. Their posts affirmed when we truly come together and learn, and were thoughtful when I know their ideas for improvement will make me a better teacher.

My grading scale is quite simple:

  • A = Historians and experts in the field would be impressed.
  • B = The teacher is impressed.
  • C = Your parents (who love you unconditionally) would be satisfied.
  • D & F = Generally not indicated. I do not accept posts that will not earn at least a C. We (student, teacher, parents) work together to make this happen.

That’s it. No fancy headings. However, I provide guidelines for student blog posts which are always available on our class website. You’ll notice that the guidelines are more about blog etiquette and good writing than specific formatting. I want to give students the freedom to write about history in a way that makes sense to them. By the time we get to February, most students are consistently exceeding these requirements.

As for the comments, I conference with each student 1-on-1 at least once in autumn. We talk about trends in their writing and I get to know them a little better. Some students choose to check in periodically throughout the year. Others are happy with the feedback I give to all classes each week. I might remind them to embed media they created in class, add captions to images, or include appropriate citations and hyperlinks to sources. In the end, I often check in with my students without filling in complicated rubrics or commenting publicly with critical comments on their blogs.

This may not work for all teachers or all groups of students. But I’ve taught mixed groups, at the honors level and at the college preparatory level, and most students have felt more invested in the content with this format. I think it is possible to teach in this way in all subjects and I sincerely believe that the transition to this way of thinking and interacting with our students is possible. I can confidently say that teaching in this way has been the most rewarding change I have made in my professional life.


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