How my students showed me the Difference Between Delegation and Collaboration

Collaboration is a 21st Century Skill, a 4C… a skill we know students need.  How do we help students engage in learning opportunities that encourage true collaboration rather than just delegation?

Background and Research:

Collaboration includes sharing ideas, questions, and solutions (Johanning & Ellis, 2013). According to Hesse and colleagues (2015), collaboration also requires three types of social skills: participation, perceptive taking, and social regulation. Participation refers to the willingness and readiness of members in the group to share information and thoughts in order to be involved in problem solving. Perceptive taking includes a student’s capacity to understand the situation and task at hand. Social regulation deals with the strategic aspect of collaboration in which group members assess the strengths and weaknesses of each group member and coordinate efforts accordingly, as well as to resolve differences in opinions.

Collaboration is an essential 21st century skill, particularly now when technologies increase the opportunities available to students for social and cultural experiences in their personal and professional lives (Kivunja, 2015). Research suggests that students benefit when collaboration skills improve. Hattie (2009) explained that cooperative learning can enhance interest, problem solving skills, and deeper comprehension.   In a meta-analysis of cooperative learning, Hattie noted, “there seems to be a universal agreement that cooperative learning is effective, especially when contrasted with competitive and individualistic learning” (p. 212).

While the terms collaboration and cooperation are still often used interchangeably today, the 1990s marked a shift in terminology from “cooperative learning” to “collaborative learning” (Greenstein, 2012; Heese, Care, Buder, Sassenberg & Griffin, 2015). Dillenbourg and colleagues (1996) distinguished cooperation as a division of labor whereas collaboration learners are jointly working on activities in such a way that contributions by learners build upon each other.  To truly be collaboration, students must engage in a full set of social skills to develop a shared plan to complete a task (Hesse et al., 2015) and the whole equals more than just the individual parts (Greenstein, 2012).

This is what makes group sports so exciting – when all individual roles and strengths work together, there is a different dynamic and additional potential!  The players are able to accomplish more as a group than as individuals!  This is collaboration!

The Problem:

Students have plenty of exposure to group projects.  But how often are those group projects accomplished by the group dividing and delegating the work load and then each student presents the section he/she completed?  This type of project, despite our best efforts, usually means that the final product is simply an addition of individual parts.

Most of us can know exactly how this works.  Think back:  How many times in your high school or college classes were you assigned a group project?  I’m sure the teacher or professor had great intentions and envisioned you all wonderfully working and learning together.  But how many times did the group sit down together and decide, “let’s just divide up the work and meet back next week”?  Now, as teachers, we get frustrated when we see students delegating out work and then working in individual corners of the room.  That wasn’t our intention and it’s oftentimes disappointing when this happens.  But delegation is easier (and oftentimes more efficient) and it’s the comfortable approach that we all tend to resort to.

What I Learned from my Students:

It wasn’t until I did a Shark Tank project last year that I had my eureka moment of what it really means for students to engage in actual true collaboration.  The groups developed objects or services (clothing lines, a subscription magazine, an online exclusive blog, a new gaming app) and a final product (website, advertisement, magazine…).  Then they did a pitch to a group of teachers, administrators, and students in hopes of getting an “investment deal”.  I originally created and passed out rubrics outlining skills and specifics, but the students naturally added collaborative dimensions that made the project more authentic, exciting, and really special.

During this project, the first light bulb moment occured when I noticed that one group (without asking or being required) had an advertisement from another group in their own magazine.  This peaked my curiosity.  They somehow thought to collaborate – across groups – to benefit each others’ missions.

The next moment happened when a group came to me and asked if they could try actually selling their product somehow to get sales numbers for their presentation, instead of just making them up.  We had a class mini-meeting, threw out the idea, and this led to the students making advertisements for their products and having elementary and high school classes “purchase” the products they liked to represent my students’ “sales”.  (Students indicated which products they would buy to give my students a sense of how successful their products would be in the real world.)  Again, brilliant.

As the groups were working to finalize their Shark Tank pitches, I noticed that several groups compared their products to their classmates products or companies – they compared their sales or showed how their products were better.  This wasn’t something I suggested to them – it’s something they naturally thought of doing.  They observed, sought out information about other groups, and talked with other groups to make their own item, product, and presentation better.

By the time the groups did their final presentation, they had managed to (naturally) get information from two other classes and each other to put forth a final presentation that represented so much more than just the sum of each of delegated section on the rubric.  The students from the classes who indicated purchasing preferences also attended the Shark Tank Pitch presentations and they were so excited to see how their input had an impact on the final product.

I have to say, my students completely impressed me and it was an incredible learning experience for me as a teacher.  These kids naturally used skills that would be essential, required, or beneficial in the real world – and they did it on their own.  They showed me how a project can be substantially enhanced and more meaningful when students have opportunities to engage in authentic collaboration.

Classroom Application:

Here are some ideas to help encourage collabroation on a regular basis in the classroom:

  • Include “collaborate with one other classmate or group” on your next project.  You could leave it open ended and give them some ideas to start thinking about.  The idea is that the students should identify how their project or their understandings could benefit from someone else’s perspective.
  • Include a self-reflection to group work.  Remember, cooperation can mean that each student took a section of the project, and they came together on presentation day to merge their work  (I’m sure we’ve all been there!).  How is this project different?  Where did students really have to collaborate – share information together, build understanding together, compromise, work through misunderstanding of content, to produce something better – together?
  • After mini class activities (like think-pair-share or partner work) ask for one or two students to share how through collaboration, they were able to achieve something different than they would have if they worked individually.  Getting students in the habit of reflection and awareness of how others can add benefit, will help students engage in their process naturally on their own.
  • During small group or class converstaions about concepts, readings, events, etc – as a teacher, you can model this for students.  Saying things like, “I liked how you build on John’s comment” or “This conversation together helped us move from thinking about this topic one way, to now thinking about it this way”.  Call attention and praise when students advance each others’ knowledge and understanding through collaborative conversations, questinoing, and thinking.

Please share how your students demonstrate collaboration and/or how you encourage students to collaborate in the comments below – or connect with me on twitter (@smithdianemarie).  Thanks for reading!





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