Collaboration vs. Group Work

August 2, 2016
Riley Johnson

Riley Johnson, Principal New Technology High

It’s happened to us all.  We have all been in groups that have been challenged to do something without a defined process.  The trick is, I bet you or a group member had developed a toolkit to turn your group work into a collaborative relationship.  Flipping the script, many times students do not have the tools or developed the ability to activate prior supports to truly live in a collaborative ecosystem.  Just putting students at the same table is not enough.  I know I’m being a bit dramatic here, but further more, we must continue to examine how as educators we can swing the pendulum away from group work and more towards a collaborative nirvana.  Here are a couple thoughts around building a collaborative ecosystem in a project-based learning environment.


I recently read an amazing blog post from New Tech Network literacy coach Alix Horton titled, “How to Get From a Rubric to Scaffolding“.  She outlines a very simple process to take a rubric indicator and transform it into an actionable activity.  I believe this is a great starting point for growing your philosophy on building collaboration.  Many times we forget the true value and role that skills play in promoting deeper learning.  By developing a “spectrum of scaffolding” you will be able to help facilitate students in moving from just working in groups to a collaborative team.

Spectrum of Scaffolding Cycle

Let’s take a deeper look at how a spectrum of scaffolding can work to promote collaboration.  We will focus on the collaborative skill and rubric indicator (Step 1 in cycle):

  • Acknowledges and helps clarify the ideas of others by asking probing questions.

There are a plethora of scaffolding activities that could promote building this skill in teams.  For example, at the beginning of a project, I could introduce teams to accountable talk stems.  Throughout the project, I could do informal data collection on how many groups are utilizing the stems to promote civil discourse (Step 2 in cycle).  As an extention of developing this skill, I might hold a Socratic Seminar or have 1-on-1 confrencing with each group to assess how the stems are leading to deeper questions (Step 3 in cycle).  Lastly, in planning the next project, I will want to reflect on the effectiveness of using accountable talk to promote probing questions in group collaboration.  I will examine how to extend this skill by potentially scaffolding the stems by having teams use the question formulation technique (QFTs) with accountable talk to develop questions (Step 4 in cycle).

Now of course, I know the above scenario isn’t perfect, but I hope you get the point.  When examining how to move from group work to collaboration, it is vital that you explore what specific collaborative skill you are looking to develop.  Then, in relation to the spectrum of scaffolding, how might you help students create a collaborative environment to move from indicator to action to reflection to refinement to integration.


I have witnessed first hand in my own projects how easy it is for group contracts to slide into the dark abyss of meaninglessness. Heck, when was the last time you looked at your own contract? The creation of group contracts in PBL has long stood as a value collaboration tool.  It can set the team’s tone, layout productive processes, and create unity.  However, there are many elements that can and have stifled the value of this. Seriousness, time allotted, revisiting, and staleness are just of the few barriers.  It can be a very daunting task for educators and students alike to be inventive and impassioned with the same contract process over and over.

Standard Group Contract Template

What is the true purpose behind developing a group contract anyways? Is it to build a set of group norms? Is it to develop a culture of collaboration? Can it be both?

I recently saw a strategy from Belleville New Tech about utilizing agency logs for students to track progress in growth mindset and ownership throughout the course of a project.  This sparked my curiosity.  Why don’t we flip the script with what we call “contracts” with this same mindset.  Student teams can still set goals and norms in this process, but it is extended past the fill out this contract, maybe revisit it, maybe fire someone or get fired process you see so often contracts fall into.  The agency log concept makes me wonder, does the contract need to look like a contract at all?  Integrating the goals of a group contact into a process that is continuous and embedded might shift the value it can play in being a true living document for collaboration efforts.


Google Apps for Education might be one of the most profound tools to support collaboration, so please don’t take this as an indictment.  My question is though, what percentage of the collaboration we wants students to do lives on Google Docs? It is by far one of the most powerful tools available, but in the connected world we live in, there exists a plethora of tools to support teams moving from merely existing together to taking their projects to a whole new level. To name a few:

  • Trello/Asana/Favro: these 3 are all project management tools that help teams navigate simple of complex projects.  Trello and Asana have strong reputations, while Favro is a relatively new player.
  • Slack: this is the online collaboration tool looking to bring all of your communication to one place.  We rolled it out in our admin team last year and are using it as a school staff this year.  I am already excited about what has come of it and potential for student use in collaboration.
  • Wunderlist: this is a simple task manager that integrates amazingly with multiple platforms.  It features both personal and shared to-do lists.

As well, strategies and resources such as scrum meetings, the Project Management Institute, human-centered design, and the innovator’s compass to can also be used in non-digital ways to shift from group work to true collaboration.  The point is, choose the right tools that will allow students to experience collaboration at industry standard levels.  You don’t have to memic “real-world” collaboration, you can create it.

The struggle is that some educators don’t ever move past basic Google tools implementation with teams because we are basic users ourselves.  Just as challenging is should you have students use one collaboration tool or multiple? I don’t know if there is a right answer, but finding the optimal balance and combination that meets students need is key to actually building a collaborative environment.


It is really easy to say “you do this” and “you do that” and “see you in 2 weeks” when working together. But many times, this strategy becomes group work and not collaboration.  Low and behold, someone will probably show up without there part done.

Now I am not saying divide and conquer cannot be effective when building collaborative skills.  But it is really important that there is a framework in place to support fostering that collaboration so it doesn’t become a destructive force.  Utilizing resources such as the following can be a starting point:

These resources are great starting points with students to help shift collaboration from something you do to something you live.  By developing a framework for what it means to be a team and how to interact with various personalities and roles, students can better understand how to develop internal strategies to avoid separation and promote inclusion in their work.


Collaboration can be a fickle peach.  It is evident though that taking the time to truly create a system that develops collaboration and doesn’t just hope it happens is vital to promoting the other skills we hope to grow in students.  Conflict will always exist when humans are working together, but by having a clear strategic approach, you can move from assigning group work to building a room full of collaborators with a toolkit for the future.

This blog originally appeared on Project-Based Life.

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