The driving force behind the layout of the 21st Century classroom is collaborative learning, a student-centered learning model where the teacher is manager and facilitator – not distant lecturer. Studies show
it’s a superior way for students to learn non-foundational knowledge (a higher level of knowledge), by applying critical thinking and logic, rather than simply recalling facts.
Lightweight classroom furniture allows students to quickly reconfigure spaces to the projects and desired group size (pairs, trios, quads). Desk and chair heights adjust, tables nest together, wheels allow mobility, and active seating is the norm.
Multiple learning resources enrich the collaborative environment, but clever storage systems keep those resources organized – and easily accessible. Mobile storage units also double as space dividers and whiteboards.
Technology integrates seamlessly with classroom-wide connectivity options. Students have easy access to devices, online resources, and the work of peers within their collaboration groups.
The environment empowers students to choose how they learn best. Kids have access to varied seating options – chairs, stools, lounge-style seating and active seating. Classrooms are meaningful and comfortable.
Every inch of the classroom is used productively by establishing learning zones. One space can turn into many defined spaces: collaborative zone, independent zone, play zone, maker zone and more. There are no limits.
Classroom design remains flexible, so that teachers can move freely about the room. There are no physical barriers for educators to facilitate discussions, promote social learning and maximize engagement.
Schools are recognizing the need and benefits of collaborative learning. Research shows that educational experiences (such as collaborative learning) that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning. Additional benefits of collaborative learning include:
• Development of higher-level thinking (not just recalling facts), oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills
• Promotion of student-educator interaction
• Increase in self-esteem and responsibility
• Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives
Other research strongly supports the advantages of group learning over individualized learning. Compared to competitive or individual work, cooperation leads to higher group and individual achievement, higher-quality reasoning strategies, more meta-cognition, and more new ideas and solutions to problems. In addition, students working in cooperative groups tend to be more intrinsically motivated, intellectually curious, caring of others, and psychologically healthy.
The benefits of collaborative learning aren’t limited by age. Available research suggests that children as young as five are as susceptible to influence through collaborative learning as older students.
Unfortunately this valuable skill doesn’t come naturally for most students. To truly prepare their students for college and careers, teachers must equip them with 21st Century learning tools. That includes the ability to comfortably collaborate with others. If taught well, students can enjoy the benefits of collaboration, believe in it, practice it and carry it into their futures.
But what kind of skills and physical environment do kids need to reap the benefits of putting their heads together?
Simply putting students in groups and letting them dive in is not enough to attain good outcomes, and a dysfunctional collaboration can create serious problems in the classroom. That’s why educators need to realize the mindset that students bring with them to class. Most, as it turns out, are still used to working on their own in competition for grades. Another hurdle is that collaboration can get harder as kids hit puberty and become more self conscious around their peers. Teachers must also factor in differences in learning styles, personalities and personality traits (for example, introverts and extroverts). Many researchers recommend providing explicit instruction in collaboration skills, adjusted to grade levels. Here’s a short list of skills to teach for preparing and supporting students in deep, meaningful collaborations:
• Personal responsibility. Help students see themselves as positively interdependent so that they take a personal responsibility for working to achieve group goals. Have discussions around fairness and work distribution.
• Effective interpersonal skills. Explain how to listen, paraphrase and ask questions, take turns, give constructive feedback to each other, keep an open mind, act in a trust worthy manner, and promote a feeling of safety to reduce anxiety of all members. Better yet, teachers should model how to give feedback and encourage students to actively, respectfully participate during group work.
• Teamwork skills. Review how to negotiate and compromise; how to participate; how to ask for help and when; how to help others, and how to make decisions. For larger tasks, teach them how to assign roles to save time.
The Teacher’s Role
Teachers are perhaps the biggest factor in facilitating successful student collaboration. They should provide ample opportunities for students to practice collaboration skills, using tasks that are similar to those used during group-based assessments. How should a collaborative learning activity be structured? This example explains the process that can be used for many lessons:
• The instructor poses a question that requires analysis and synthesis.
• Students take a few minutes to think through a response.
• Students turn to a partner or small group and share responses.
• Student responses are shared within larger teams or with the entire class during a follow-up discussion.
When doing group work on larger projects, it’s important to monitor group dynamics by taking mental notes on which groups are communicating well, which are being dominated by one or two students, and who is sitting separately away from others.
Group Size Considerations
There’s no shortage of information on what is considered the most effective group size for collaboration. Research shows that small groups of three or less lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Groups that are too large can create competing factions or silent “freeloaders.” The consensus seems to be that a moderate size of four to five students is best. But with growing class sizes, groups of five or six are happening more often.
Creating the Collaborative Classroom
Collaborative learning is not about immobile students facing forward and passively absorbing information from a lecturer. Rather, the teacher is a manager and facilitator of fluid learning pods. For that to work, the classroom must have collaborative-friendly furnishings, which include lightweight, movable and re-configurable furniture that can accommodate both a traditional classroom setting and work groups of various sizes. Some very simple modifications can help make the collaborative learning classroom be more functional:
• Chairs on wheels to enable easy navigation
• Carpet to enable easy navigation of furniture
• Accessible power and data outlets
• A room size that allows for easy reconfiguration during activities
Collaborative-friendly furnishings like these are essential to make the learning concept work well. For more ideas, take a look at the Smith System portfolio, which offers a robust range of portable, re-configurable
desks, chairs, storage and power devices. These items all contribute to creating an “active classroom,” where the furnishings can move and transition with different subjects throughout the day.
Finally, consider what furnishings teachers need in the collaborative classroom. Ideally, the instructor station should be smaller, mobile and easily accessible, so the teacher can wander the classroom, listening to discussions and answering questions. In the 21st Century, no one wants to be tethered to a tank of a desk.