Many activities involve children learning together in pairs or small groups. Research shows that peer collaboration during group activities can support math learning and the development of social skills. Here are 10 suggestions for teachers to promote peer collaboration.
1: Know what’s involved in collaboration.
Peer collaboration is more than just sitting together or taking turns. Collaboration involves children learning from one another by exchanging ideas, information, and materials, and making coordinated decisions toward a shared goal.
Put this tip into practice: Observe what’s happening in your classroom. During centers or choice time, are children playing in parallel near one another? Are they competing instead of collaboratively sharing ideas, materials, and information? Take note of the activities and settings that promote collaborative student interactions.
2: Teach the skills of collaboration.
Young children need to learn what collaboration is and why it is important. Their language, perspective-taking, and self-regulation skills are still developing. They need to be taught how to share ideas, plan together, and negotiate disagreements. Frequent reminders and modeling help children develop collaboration skills.
Put this tip into practice: Consider which collaboration skills are most relevant for your students, such as listening, planning, sharing materials, turn-taking, and sharing ideas. Use visuals and gestures to help cue your students toward collaboration and provide verbal reminders to practice these skills (for example, “huddle up, it’s planning time” and “talk together about what you want to build”).
3: Create a classroom culture that values collaboration.
Help your students develop a mindset that values collaboration. Make collaboration an explicit goal and classroom value that you introduce and discuss frequently.
Put this tip into practice: Focus class meetings on collaboration and develop classroom catchphrases that emphasize collaboration (for example, “teamwork makes the dream work!”). Read books with messages of teamwork and collaboration or share a story of teamwork involving some of the students in your class.
4: Adjust activities to make them more collaborative.
Not all activities need to be collaborative. But if collaboration is your goal, features of an activity can facilitate collaboration. Activities with a shared goal require more collaboration than activities in which children compete or work toward different goals. For example, in the Math Center activity Mirror Blocks, a shared goal could be for students to work together to make one mirror image of the blocks.
Put this tip into practice: Think about an upcoming student activity that could promote collaboration. Consider creating a shared goal and/or:
- Create roles that encourage children to communicate and interact. For example, when using blocks to build a tower, one child can be in charge of rectangular blocks while another child can be in charge of triangular blocks.
- Propose an activity that requires collaboration. When it’s not possible for one child to accomplish a task independently, encourage collaboration (for example, two people can glue together objects that one person can’t hold alone).
5: Arrange access to materials in a way that facilitates collaboration.
Be intentional about setting up learning materials in your classroom. First, be sure you have the right amount of materials. With too many materials, students will not need to interact or exchange ideas, and having too few materials could lead to squabbling. Second, make the materials accessible to all students or provide access to materials in a way that supports unique roles for each student.
Put this tip into practice: Plan how you will set up the space for an activity and how you can distribute the materials.
6: Make collaboration meaningful by connecting the activity to the real world or make-believe.
Children are more likely to collaborate when they see collaboration as meaningful and connected to the world around them. Encouraging imaginary play is a way to make an activity meaningful, but remember that the goal is collaboration and learning, so make sure that learning is embedded in the pretend play.
Put this tip into practice: Think about an upcoming activity that could promote collaboration and create a connection to frame the activity. For example, before students get started on a building activity, tell them they need to plan the design of a house.
7: Group children with different skill levels.
Pairing children with peers whose math and language skills differ from their own can support peer teaching and learning. Research shows that students with fewer skills make learning gains when collaborating with peers with more skills as long as the differences are not extreme; in addition, students with more skills develop helping behaviors and consolidate their learning.
Put this tip into practice: At times, plan your center-based student groupings to include children with different levels of math and language skills.
8: Be engaged (through proximity and scaffolding) at key points of decision-making and negotiation.
Some moments during learning activities hold exceptional promise for establishing and promoting collaboration. Be on the lookout for these moments and be ready to offer more guidance at these times. For example, watch for: the planning stages of an activity (such as discussing what to build); times when students are negotiating different goals, ideas, and opinions; and opportunities for students to reflect on each child’s contribution to and experiences within the activity.
Put this tip into practice: Think about an upcoming activity that could promote collaboration and plan to be with the groups at key moments. Ask a few questions or make comments that can support students’ collaboration and learning.
9: Reflect on (and reinforce) collaboration successes.
Reinforce growth in students’ collaboration skills by naming what students did well and encouraging students to reflect on how their actions contributed to the activity.
Put this tip into practice: Give students specific praise for their cooperation and collaboration, and tell them which skills you saw them using (for example, “You and Catalina worked well together with the different blocks to solve that problem!”). Before an activity, have students set goals for their collaboration behaviors. Afterward, prompt students to reflect on whether they met their goals.
10: Remember that collaboration is not always easy.
Young children are still learning how to work together, and it is normal for them to get frustrated while trying to do so. Guide students through conflict, break collaboration skills into small steps, and remind students of their roles and goals. But avoid overdoing it. If you intervene too much, children won’t develop the skills they need to be good collaborators.
Put this tip into practice: Create activities that lend themselves to collaboration. If students argue or resist collaboration, know that collaboration skills develop over time—don’t be discouraged. Continue to teach and give children opportunities to develop their collaboration skills.