November 17, 2015

What does student-teacher collaboration look like?

by Michael Niehoff

In 21st century education and work, we hear a lot about collaboration. Indeed, global economic experts have cited teamwork as the most important skill for the future. In addition to encouraging students to partner with one another, we also need to examine what student-teacher collaboration looks like in 21st-century classrooms.

I’m the founding principal of a 1:1, the project-based high school that opened in 2008 (, and our staff and students worked together to help define collaboration in our daily instructional environment. Here is what that looked like:

In order to have true collaboration, teachers and students have to have ongoing reciprocal communication. We established a cultural precedent whereby our teachers engaged our students in their learning. We did this by making educators’ cell phones numbers public so students could text or call in questions or comments. We surveyed all students about all of their classes on a quarterly basis to help determine what was working and what wasn’t. We embraced the digital environment and available tools to enhance collaboration. Many students will not share or speak out in class verbally but will have lots to say and offer digitally.

Classroom Collaboration

Embrace student voice and choice

Teachers need to embrace student voice and choice. Once lines of communication are open, teachers need to engage students in their education by offering them means to voice their choices. Students should have choices and options on what they read, what they write about, what their project looks like, what project topics they choose to pursue, and more. Our teachers developed “Project Menus” where students could choose various project types, questions, and products.

In an effort to increase student buy-in, maximize learning, and model true collaboration, we established a position called the Student Project Coordinator. High schools have had teachers’ aides forever. But we wanted to go further and create a role for students where they could co-teach, co-facilitate, and co-lead in our classrooms. Once students established some expertise, mastery, and confidence in various subjects, they could apply to be Student Project Coordinators. These students collaborated with their teachers by leading small groups, doing demonstrations, giving students feedback, preparing resources and materials, modeling, tutoring, and a whole lot more.

Abandon authority and embrace partnering

Collaboration implies equal voice and contribution. In other words, collaboration in 21st-century learning requires teachers to avoid and/or abandon the authoritative role and develop partnerships with their students. Students will own their learning at a much higher level and rise to greater levels of mastery. We say “collaboration” a lot, but we have to learn to live it.

You might also be interested in:
BLOG: Top Talent at Santa Ana shares ideas about Collaborative Learning

VIDEO: The Collaborative Classroom 

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is currently a systems and leadership coach in the Curriculum & Instruction Division of the Fresno County Office of Education. He has been a secondary educator for 25 years as a teacher, advisor, director of activities, learning director, and principal. After starting his career in media, he became an educator to empower students to create, innovate, and advocate. His students, programs, and school sites have been recognized by Apple, Google, CUE, NASSP, NOD, AMAE, CLHS, CSBA, CVCUE, CADA, JEA, and many others.

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