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Collaboration: the well-spring of creativity

This week I explore why learners need to be collaborators, and how we can help them to do so effectively.

I had the great good fortune to spend some time yesterday – with Guy Claxton and others – in Becky Carlzon’s Y1/2 Bristol classroom. A splendid group of small children showed just what five and six year olds are capable of doing once their skilful teacher has helped them understand their learning muscles and how to make best use of them.

There was so much to like about the levels of personal responsibility, forethought, open-mindedness, curiosity and empathy that they showed but what struck me most forcefully was the way they worked together. It’s clear that Becky places collaboration at the heart of all classroom practice; her class are coming to understand its values and characteristics.

How prescient this is.

I came across the following quotations recently on the websites of two of the most successful global companies – I wonder if you can figure out who they are?

  • We strive to maintain the open culture…in which everyone is a hands-on contributor and feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions…Our offices and cafés are designed to encourage interactions between, within and across teams, and to spark conversation about work as well as play.
  • People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, however, in many kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems.

This set me thinking about what I have seen in the 400 classrooms I visit a year that really prepares young people – progressively from 5 to 18 – to develop these attributes whilst they are at school.

Although they may not end up working for one of these companies it’s inevitable that – whatever they do on leaving school – all young people will need to work effectively with others in both 
their professional and private lives. In the majority of classrooms that I have visited, students work well together and the atmosphere is supportive of cooperative, interdependent learning.

However, in the words of a recent inspection visit to an outstanding school with which I have worked:

‘Though students have many opportunities to work collaboratively they do not always do so effectively or understand the different roles they might play within a group. The school should ensure that students understand how to work effectively in a group and that they all have the opportunity to take on different roles.’

Here and elsewhere, there is a need to deepen their social learning habits and ensure that students have a robust understanding of what it means to truly collaborate by regularly putting these habits into practice. Becky is on the case with her five year olds already.

In many classrooms, young people are required to work together but they are rarely set challenges that require high levels of collaboration nor are they helped to understand the constituent qualities and habits of effective collaborators.

Let’s try the following to describe what genuine collaboration requires:

  1. Appraisal of the task in hand
  2. Open-mindedness and creativity
  3. Agreement as to the imagined outcome or goals
  4. Appropriate and distributed leadership
  5. Evaluation of the time and resources needed to accomplish the task
  6. Understanding of the roles and responsibilities that need to be discharged
  7. Systematic thinking: setting deadlines and check-points

The teacher’s job is to ensure that – if you like – these Seven habits of effective collaboration are understood and adopted by all students. This should not be done by telling them what they are but by drawing them out in agreement with the learners themselves.

In addition, the teacher needs to ensure that task design lends itself to collaborative group-work so that students exercise these seven habits – and others you might like to add – that are mentioned above. We have found activities like the Summer Shenanigan’s Mystery exemplify these approaches well. Our At a Glance card on Collaboration provides more ideas as does – in primary schools – the module within the Stepping Stones programme.

In the school criticized by Ofsted, there is now a whole school commitment to deepen these social learning habits in a coherent and coordinated way across the curriculum and, moreover, to ensure that these habits are progressed over time so that post-16 students have honed their skills and gone beyond those habits that they were able to demonstrate – when coached by teachers as good as Becky – in earlier years.


By the way: you might like to look at these approaches as they apply to the teams in which you work in school and elsewhere. The more we understand ourselves as collaborative learners, the more we stand a chance of developing these habits in our students.


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