Posted by: darcymullin | February 24, 2011

Moving Toward a Collaborative Process

One of the best parts about being a principal of a small school is that I still do a fair bit of teaching.  I have the luxury of teaching Social Studies and Science that lend themselves to Project Based Learning.  I have been thinking and reading about Personalized Learning for a while now and have been “tweaking” my practice, but I figured it was time to go “all in” and truly begin practicing what I preach. 

For my latest unit I made two fundamental shifts.  First, I began with the end in mind.  Second, I turned the learning over to the students. I began by explaining that we were starting a new unit on weather and that they were going to be responsible to create an atmosphere (end/summative product).   They were pretty engaged right from the start.  I heard lots of “cool” and “sweet” and then the questions began.  “How do we….What are we….When are we…?” 

I then laid out the criteria.  I told them that before they began planning their atmosphere, they had some learning to do.  I gave them a list of key vocabulary.  The needed give definitions in their own words, then they had to put the vocabulary in logical groups and finally they had to explain the connections between all the words in each group. 

Then the learning was turned back onto them.  We brainstormed different sources that kids could get information. They could only come to me (the teacher) if they have already looked in a book, asked other groups and looked it up on a computer.  I also said that as a group it was up to them to ensure that each member in their group learned the material.  At the end of each class, each group needed to fill out a reflection on how well they shared ideas, listened to each other and shared their learning.

The first class went outstanding.  Kids were so engaged and on task.  Each subsequent class we started with a debriefing of the previous day and share some exemplary examples of collaboration and then set them off to work.  I am 2/3 of the way through the unit and the results have been outstanding – I cannot get over the engagement and more importantly the learning.  Some of the great things that have happened:

  1. Students have been solving their own problems.  If someone is off task or not engaged, they are working together to get back on track.  They know I won’t let them move forward until everyone has learned.
  2. Everyone is learning…and I mean everyone.  It is so cool to watch the kids working together and truly collaborate.
  3. I am no longer the centre of focus in the classroom.  I am free to wander and clarify or ask questions to prompt further learning.

I am so excited with the results.  The students are just beginning the first part of their summative assessments (a mind map) and I can truly say that I know every student will be successful.  There may be one or two that need more coaching, but now that I am not the central figure in the classroom I can spend some extra time with them clarifying a few things.

One of the things I am most proud of is that the kids are not only learning the content, but are also really focusing on the 21st century skills of collaboration and problem solving.  The stuff they are learning about weather may stick, but learning how to get along, work with others and the realization that true success happens when everyone succeeds are the lessons that will last a lifetime.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Great post, Darcy! I agree that at some point you just have to go all-in. I love the idea of beginning with the end because it’s sets the stage and purpose for why everything else has to be learned. “Why do we need to learn this?” is a question we often hear, however, with the end result clear, I’m sure you’re not hearing that. I also really like the idea of collaborative teamwork; we work together to ensure that everyone learns.

    While your role within the classroom has changed I might suggest your guidance is even more critical. Your students are now making choices that may, at times, need some gentle nudging from their teacher. I think it’s easier to just feed information to students; more challenging is the role you’ve taken on which is is being that facilitator we all strive to be. How much guidance? What represents too much guidance? When do I pull back? It’s more challenging, but far more rewarding as you see your students develop their skills and taking ownership over everyone’s learning! Great job!

  2. Thanks for the comments Tom. It is hard to give up control of the classroom. Initially I was worried about how much the kids were learning, but the results speak for themsleves. Kids are engaged and excited about their learning.

    As I reflect on this unit, there are definitely tweaks I will make, but I know that I am moving in the right direction.

  3. I like your post 🙂 As soon as we focus on learning more than on teaching, we are heading in the right direction. You might tweak it be shifting the focus from a topic ‘weather’ to a bigger conceptual idea. Something that will stay with them after the rest has been forgotten. An enduring understanding about why we need to know about weather, perhaps.

    • Agreed, I think the next step in my evolution in personalized learning is moving to an inquiry style problem with the kids on something more meaningful and enduring. That said, the big focus for me was on the process of collaboration and communication. Thanks for the comments – I appreciate the feedback.

  4. Going “All-in” means letting go of our fear of failure and a willingness to make and learn from mistakes. Good for you for doing so, I only hope when the opportunity presents itself in my teaching that I can do the same.


  5. […] Moving Toward a Collaborative Process ( […]

  6. […] a recent post  I wrote about the engagement and successes in the classroom as the students moved toward a […]

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