THE GROUNDWORK FOR EFFECTIVE COLLABORATION

by Hanna Walker - 5th grade educator


Why wait until you are an adult to figure out how to work with others?


At Sycamore, our culture is built on the expectation that we explore, nurture, and rely on effective collaboration. We are not born natural collaborators; we develop these skills throughout our lives. It’s essential that we do.


In order for our elementary students to practice effective collaboration, they need to care about their learning and recognize the value of participating in a community. Developing common vocabulary and defining expectations for how to work with peers toward common goals is a process that requires time, critical thinking, and empathy.


For Sycamore 5th graders, effective collaboration “looks like asking your partner how they feel about your idea and making sure you communicate clearly.” Students understand that compromise exists when they “share ideas, take parts of each, and disagree politely.” To identify the components of teamwork, students shared their strengths and weaknesses. As a result, they found opportunities to relate to one another, show empathy, and make plans for effective collaboration.

What are your strengths as a collaborator? How do you hope to grow?


These student-generated ideas became building blocks for creating collaboration norms:

  • Listening

  • Being adaptable

  • Making a plan

  • Staying on task

  • Giving feedback

  • Brainstorming

  • Compromising

  • Leading

  • Expressing feelings

  • Sharing ideas

  • Time management

Did you truly understand your own collaboration strengths and growth-points going into your first job or into a new relationship? What if classmates, colleagues, and friends saw your strengths and nurtured your weaknesses because they also had an understanding of the components of effective collaboration?


With the understanding that collaboration goals can guide them during small moments as well as big projects, our fifth graders developed this set of norms.

The collaboration norms serve two primary purposes:

  • Creating common language to discuss collaboration AND

  • Creating expectations to help hold each other accountable.

What could be learned if your team paused to reflect on its collaboration while working on a project, rather than evaluating after a project is complete?


We encourage students to take this pause and reflect on how they are using the collaboration norms. One student wrote, “I have been relating to the norms and thinking about them. They have been helpful. My partner and I support each other in challenges and ask before we help. However, we have been having trouble dividing and conquering.”

How does it feel when someone on your team disagrees with you? What do you do?


Collaboration norms deepen student’s self-reflection, give them strength to pause and allow them to adapt when problems arise. During a disagreement, our students have started to use vocabulary from the set of norms:

- “I don’t feel like we are sharing the work equally.”

- “We are getting distracted. We need to stay on task.”


These comments lose their sting when students agree to support the norms and collaborate kindly. The language of collaboration is just as enduring as the language of inquiry that we connect to so many of our learning experiences at Sycamore.


Using the collaboration norms as a resource, our students are learning to build on their strengths, identify their areas of growth, and consider the perspectives, personalities, and abilities of others. They are learning to navigate conflict, advocate for themselves, and participate in the exchange of feedback. Developing the groundwork for effective collaboration in the context of engaging projects is life work worth doing.

What does effective collaboration look like to you? Please share your ideas in the comment section below. We look forward to hearing from you.

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