4 ways to foster a more collaborative learning environment

|6 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on 28 September 2020

Fostering a collaborative learning environment is a key part of teaching maths for mastery in primary school. Here’s how you can achieve it in your classroom.

In a maths lesson, classroom collaboration often translates to group work. But why stop there?

Creating a collaborative maths lesson is more than just encouraging group work. Starting with Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory, you can find many ways to instill collaboration within your learners.

What is the zone of proximal development?

Vygotsky’s learning theory, known as sociocultural theory of cognitive development, has become a fundamental pillar of the modern classroom. By identifying that children learn through their interactions with other people, he developed the notion that children learn new skills within a zone of proximal development.

Being in the zone of proximal development for any given task means you are close to being able to complete a task independently but need some help from peers to achieve it successfully.

How to foster a collaborative learning environment in your classroom

Now that you know the theory, here are a few practical teaching ideas to help you create a collaborative environment.

1. Learn to be a facilitator

To truly create a collaborative learning environment, teachers need to be comfortable with changing their teaching style from director to facilitator.

Traditionally, teaching maths meant imparting knowledge by walking your learners through each step of solving an equation. But you have to remember you’re not the only teacher in the classroom. A collaborative approach suggests that the learning should also come from children’s ideas, and in this scenario, your role as a teacher is to facilitate this peer to peer learning process.
You can encourage this collaborative culture and routine by using phrases like:

My friend said…
One of my friends thinks that…

Framing a problem or statement this way allows you to introduce mathematical ideas that you want learners to consider if they have not come up with them on their own.

This is especially important because often learners develop the habit of thinking that the teacher is always correct. They don’t question the information put forward or they assume that it’s the most valuable suggestion because it came directly from you.

You need to create a level playing field and encourage learners to think critically about the ideas presented without any preconceived ideas associated with who suggested them.

2. Embrace technology in the classroom

Whether you’re working on a document at the same time as a colleague in a different location, or sharing information in an instant — meaningful collaboration and connection is easier than ever.

But did you know that technology in maths lessons goes beyond games apps? Why not try a digital maths journal or ask learners to collaborate on a task by writing each other questions?

Using an app that allows children to write and draw, ask your learners to journal on their devices. If the app has a sharing functionality, then students can upload their journal to a personal blog site or to a class folder where other students can view their work. From here, the possibilities are endless.

There’s no denying that feeling of reluctance you get when sending books home, knowing you can never guarantee they’ll come back. But everything you would usually do with a physical book can be done on a device, for example, peer assessment and reading the way others communicate their ideas. Embracing technology with ideas like digital journaling also helps children meaningfully connect school learning with home life.

3. Use children’s work as models and tools for learning

Often we use textbooks or modelling books as supplementary ‘experts’ that children can learn from, forgetting that there are opportunities to empower them by using their work as valued texts.

Displaying classroom work as models is a really useful way to foster a culture of collaboration and amplify learners’ voices. Often the most popular book in the reading corner is the one where the children have written stories that the teacher has turned into a class book. Children really enjoy reading the work of their friends, they feel connected with it. You can use this insight in your maths lessons to further their learning.

There are a number of ways you can do this:

Try displaying maths journals or other work on your working wall. There’s power in positive affirmations and learners feel a great sense of pride when their work is displayed or used as a model for their peers. It’s important to display work for various reasons, not just those who have the answers correct. We want to create a classroom culture that values perseverance, creativity and risk taking.

Or, create an online classroom bulletin board. You want children to recognise that their work is valued as a source of knowledge for other learners. If you have to limit movement in the classroom, then why not continue embracing the power of technology and create a class blog page or digital bulletin board where you can upload work for others to use as a model, daily or weekly.

a working wall example where learners explore different methods of arriving at answers for the How tall am I? maths question

Left: How tall am I? In this working wall example learners collaborate on a tricky maths problem. How many ways can they solve it?

Right: Learners are displaying different methods they used to solve: 12 × 12

4. Create opportunities for your learners to teach the class

The collaboration model means that everyone has the opportunity to be the teacher by sharing their ideas and knowledge with the class. In maths, this might look like allowing a learner to come to the front and talk the class through how they solved a problem rather than explaining from their desk as you go through the steps with the class.

This may seem like a trivial thing (and you may be thinking you don’t have all day to teach maths!) but physically allowing them to take a teaching position offers many of the same benefits as collaborative group work. It develops their ability to communicate their mathematical ideas, practicing both their written and verbal skills. It also sends the message that you trust their ability to lead and teach.

In short, group work is always going to be an effective way of creating opportunities for students to enter what Vygotsky would label as their zone of proximal development, however it’s not the only way. We can utilise and reframe many of the common practices we use in our classrooms regularly to create an environment conducive to collaborative learning.

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Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development in Children’ (Accessed: 15 September, 2020)

McCarthy, J. ‘Student-Centered Learning: It Starts With the Teacher’ (Accessed: 15 September, 2020)