11/29/2012 08:24 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Making It a Team Effort: Students Learn to Collaborate

Watching high school freshmen navigate a collaborative project for the first time is a delight, or should I say watching them cross the "finish line" is a source of pride for all involved. Think of it like teaching your child to ride a bike, only this is a tandem bike built for six. As the teacher you function as the "push" coach and know that there are often spills and a few bruised hands in the early attempts. I've seen it dozens of times -- the first student tentatively changes a word in a Google doc (not wanting to offend anyone or overstep boundaries); the next student takes that same word and highlights it (taking an editing leap of faith); and the third student adds a comma (because certainly punctuation can always use a little editing).

That's how they begin, perhaps a little cautiously at first. But then things change! Energy builds as group members get more comfortable with the collaborative effort. Chaos often ensues, and there are many teachable moments.

But check back with these same students a few months later, and they've settled into the whole collaborative process -- enabled by use of the technology, which is second nature to most high school students. They understand they work individually and together as a team -- their grades reflect individual mastery and work ethic. They learn how to give and receive constructive comments when they participate in peer-to-peer feedback. They realize the final project is so much stronger as a result of getting the input of their teammates -- they have delved more deeply into the subject matter because they are also learning from one another. And they're more confident of their own work due to their expanded knowledge and the confidence they have in their group members.

Lauren Deisch and Terrance Hooten, freshmen at the Weidner School of Inquiry at Plymouth High School in Plymouth, Ind., recently talked about their experience collaborating on class projects. As is the case with all New Tech Network schools, project-based learning -- which includes collaboration -- is a major focus at Plymouth High. "We collaborate with each other in groups to work on our projects," said Terrance. "We share ideas and take the best ones and go forward with our work."

The collaboration process also empowers students to make sure that everyone is pulling his or her weight. "We use 'strikes' to call out someone who is not staying on task or not working well with the group," explained Terrance. "Three strikes and you're out of the group, which helps make sure that everyone is doing their work."

In the normal course of their lives, students stay connected to their social group all hours of the day and every day in the week. Whether by cell phone, tablet or laptops they can find each other, ask questions and get updates on everything important to them. Embracing this "digital reality" and encouraging group interaction to take place anytime/anywhere feels natural to students.

One of the best outcomes of collaboration is the ability to keep in touch with other group members. "We need to constantly check on each other and working online with Google docs helps us get things done efficiently. We can talk to each other, make suggestions and ask questions. Since we can't always meet in person, using tools such as the 'Comment Bar' helps us move the project forward," said Lauren.

Learning to collaborate is an important high school skill. For students to succeed in today's workforce, they need to learn to work together seamlessly -- across town and across time zones. Sharing ideas, offering comments, building upon each other's work -- these are hallmarks of today's successful businesses.

Collaboration is one of the principles of Deeper Learning -- others are to think critically, communicate effectively and 'learn to learn' through a mastery of rigorous academic content. We feel this emphasis on Deeper Learning enables our students to utilize their high school years so that they are ready for college and graduate with job-worthy skills. Deeper Learning also provides the skills necessary to engage in online education and courses as well as working successfully face-to-face in traditional classrooms. This emphasis on 'learning to learn' in deep ways may be new to students and their parents. However, by focusing on both academics and skills, we are truly preparing young men and women for the choices they face after high school.