Monday, March 3, 2014

Effective Strategies to Teach Collaborative Learning Skills

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
The Learning in Afterschool & Summer learning principles have been widely embraced by educators, youth workers, and researchers alike. Learning that is collaborative is not only an essential 21st Century learning skill, it is an employability skill. But how do you actually teach this skill? We ask Allison Kenny, long-time youth worker and Co-Founder of Glitter & Razz Productions and Director of Go Girls! Camp. Her responses are below.

Q: Why do you think young people learning to work and learn collaboratively is important? 
Allison Kenny
A: For one thing, it's simply more fun. Even for kids who initially struggle with collaboration skills, the process of building them decreases loneliness and isolation. Kids who are having more fun and feeling a sense of belonging learn better and more importantly, are happier people. I think this is the most important antidote to violence in schools- addressing loneliness. 

Young people also deserve a chance to learn the job readiness skills that prepare them for life in our fast-paced, flexibly thinking world. Every job in every field requires you to be part of an effective team. Humans were built to work together. We just often forget how.

Q: We know that to do this requires that young people learn certain collaborative skills. What skills do you think are foundational to good collaborative learning?
A: Saying yes- it's a crucial skill in theater improvisation and in life. It means going along with, changing and adapting someone else's idea without shutting it down. "Saying yes" also gives permission to put your own idea out into the world without judgement.

Give & Take- another life skill the theater offers. It means tracking who is center stage and when to step up vs. step back.

Boundaries- Often when young people struggle with collaboration, they are feeling annoyed, invisible or overwhelmed in their work with others. Remembering their power to say what they do and do not want helps. Teaching young people to set and respect one another's boundaries is crucial for successful collaboration.  

Q: How are these skills taught to a group of young people who will be expected to work collaboratively? Can you cite some specific strategies?
A: At Go Girls! Camp, we use theater and expressive art to teach collaboration. Our girls experience how good it feels to say yes to one another's ideas in theater games. "Yes, Let's" is a perfect example. One girl takes center stage with an idea and says, "Hey Go Girls! let's...." and fills in the blank with something all the other girls can DO with her. Imagine she says, "Let's swim with sharks!" All the girls in the group respond with, "Yes, let's!" and pretend to swim with sharks. We play round after round and debrief at the end. "What does this game teach us about working together? How will that help us in real life?"

We teach give & take through our play-making process. Each young person creates a part for the play overall. They get to see how their character matters to the story overall and how to share the spotlight. 

The best way we've found to teach boundary setting is through the Kidpower curriculum by Irene van der Zande. She has amazing books and free articles on the Kidpower website. It's all based in role play and features real life scenarios for kids, teens and adults. 

Q: In designing activities that require effective collaboration, what are essential elements or expectations that the leader must introduce?
A: The leader must be sure each participant in the group has a role. Young people want to be clear on which part they get to be in charge of. There must be an expectation that everyone in the group participate in some way, using roles to address a variety of learning styles. They should be clear how and when to ask for help. They should be given an opportunity to reflect on their experience- both in how it was to work together and how successful they were at the given task.

Q: If young people were working together and learning together through collaboration, what would it look like?
A: The room would feel safe and charged. Young people would be finding and using their own materials, working in close proximity to those in their group, celebrating and cheering one another on, solving problems and addressing conflicts, asking for help only when they truly need it. Everyone would be included. No one left behind.

Q: Do you have any additional comments?
A: Celebrating and appreciating one another is essential for collaboration. Young people can learn how to give and receive compliments, how to bolster themselves up and build self esteem, how to look for the good in one another. This creates a sense of belonging and a way to work with the inner or outer critics that tell kids they have nothing to contribute. 

At Go Girls! Camp, we end every day with a celebration circle, where girls write or draw on the things they loved and learned that day. Other times they celebrate themselves, each other or their teachers. We also teach how to give and receive feedback, so kids can deepen their skills, grow and achieve even more.
Allison Kenny is an actor, writer, teaching artist, co-founder of Glitter & Razz Productions and Director of Go Girls! Camp. Since 2002, Allison has worked in the Bay Area as a theater teaching artist with kids ages 2-18. For 5 years, she studied Floortime Play Therapy with Dr. Ilene Lee and worked as an inclusion facilitator with kids on the Autism Spectrum. Allison served as a Youth Development Trainer and specialist with the YMCA of San Francisco and The Children, Youth and Families Minister at First Congregational Church of Oakland and an ECE Trainer to Preschool Teachers across Alameda County. In 2012, she became a Certified Instructor with Kidpower, Teenpower, Fullpower International and leads safety workshops for kids and families all over the Bay Area.

As a girl advocate, Allison believes women and girls are the world’s greatest natural resource. “We bring creativity, compassion, nurture, resilience, reliability and love to any challenge and situation. When we forget that, the whole world suffers.” Allison’s work is to create art, experiences, and books for girls and women to remember who we are and why we have value. In 2013, Allison published “Starring Celia,” a chapter book about a 4th grade girl who goes from being bullied to being a “Go Girl!”

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