Creating a Collaborative Learning Community

Good communication, collaboration and community-building skills are all closely related, so the good news is that when you reinforce one, you’re helping youth master the others.

The most important thing is good modeling on your part. We often think of modeling simply in terms of demonstrating a technique to youth (e.g., how to use a piece of software or how to look a word up in the dictionary). Yet every minute you’re with youth and in everything you do, you’re a role model for effective behavior. If they see you involving them in decisions, working well with your colleagues, and sharing your thoughts and ideas, your behavior will go further than anything you can say. Children look to you for how you interact. If they see you disrespecting others, they will think, “Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to be.”

Modeling is just part of it, of course. The entire learning environment is a web of relationships that can reinforce—or undermine—learning messages, values and goals. Gaining control of that environment and its patterns of behavior—throughout your program and in each individual class—is essential if you are to maximize learning.

Here are some ways that each educator, coach or instructor can create a truly collaborative learning environment:

  • Keep the idea of collaboration in the forefront of your mind at all times. Look for ways to work it into every project and into your daily activities. Also look behind the scenes at the things you do, but don’t often think about.
  • For most of us, it takes a lot of planning to make a child’s day hang together. Part of it is basic preparation, but the other part is creating a positive learning environment that reinforces your program’s core values.
  • Build elements into every activity so that youth learn that sharing ideas and knowledge is part of the normal routine. Applications include everything from bringing in samples for a project you are about to start to doing group share when you are finished.
  • Have youth work in teams (especially in pairs) whenever possible, but mix it up so they aren’t pairing with the same friends all the time. Try to limit teams to four people—larger groups usually lead to one person disengaging, unless everyone has specific responsibilities. Always use a pair-share model as your standard operating procedure whenever introducing new concepts or demonstrating new skills.
  • Engage youth interactively at all times. For example, don’t just tell them things—ask questions, especially leading questions, during demonstrations. Call people to the front to help you, even when you don’t really need it (e.g., ask them to help you tape papers to the wall or write on a map).
  • Don’t ever think that this job is about you alone. You have a community around you that is rich with people who can help. Many people are sometimes overlooked, such as program personnel, family members, and others in the neighborhood around the center. They all have an effect on children and can become your allies. Encourage them to become active and supportive forces in the youth lives by reaching out to parents and your community.

One way to begin thinking about how your learning environment can reinforce learning goals is through a mapping exercise. Do this on your own, or better yet, do it as a group activity with your colleagues.

First, in the center of a circle, write down the concept you’re trying to cover—it could be a global value such as “community” or “personal responsibility,” or it could be a thematic topic for an ongoing project like the history of music or personal money management.

Now generate ideas for environmental factors that reinforce the central concept and add them to the map. These factors can include materials to put on the walls, guest speakers to invite or places you might visit on field trips. Determine how to draw from curriculum areas to support your learning goals, such as language arts, math, physical education or government.