In the last week, how many times have you worked with others to achieve a common goal? Did you have to change your ‘role’, adapt your communication style, or negotiate with others to achieve the shared objective? Reflecting on the recent, challenging experience of constructing a flat-pack bed with my parents got me thinking about collaborative learning activities that children take part in at school and their importance in developing communication skills essential for teamwork beyond the classroom.

I bought my daughter a new bed for her birthday. The company who supplied it were charging £100 to put it together, which seemed ridiculous. Surely, with reinforcements, I could handle it myself. Thankfully my lovely parents were up for the challenge.

We opened the boxes, counted out all the pieces and congratulated ourselves for being so incredibly organised. Without any discussion, we settled into our roles. My mum took control of the instructions, my dad took the role of builder and I was the supplier and builder’s assistant. This is a well-practiced routine established over many a flat pack furniture building session.

Things went downhill quickly. The instructions for putting the bed together were illegible. The pictures were tiny, the wording limited and none of the pieces of the bed were labelled, numbered or colour-coded. As the tension in the room grew, the communication deteriorated and, within an hour, we had abandoned our roles completely and were no longer working as a team. I was staring at the instructions, desperately hoping they would start to make sense. My mum had resorted to just trying to slot bits together, hoping that a bed-shape would appear. My dad had left the room.

We did eventually end up with a finished bed. We took a break, had a much-needed cup of tea and went back into the room re-energised. We agreed that the instructions were terrible and that we’d need to attack this challenge in a different way. We therefore worked together, taking turns to look at the instructions, share our opinions and then came to an agreement about what to slot in where. We went wrong a few times, but managed to laugh about it, blaming the instructions instead of each other.

So how can school staff support young people children to develop the skills to work collaboratively in groups?

  • ‘Talking partners’ and ‘think-pair-share’ are used widely in primary schools for paired or small group discussion, but there are lots of other options for building collaborative learning activities into secondary lesson plans. These include activities or games with a competitive element, drama/role play and information exchange activities such as barrier games (where one person instructs another to build something without the support of pictures, gestures or props) and ‘jigsaw’ activities. Could you add something different into your planning this term?

  • It goes without saying that simply grouping young people and asking them to work together is not enough. They will need support to understand how to work together as a group. Agreeing group rules, assigning roles and agreeing the objective can be a way to establish teamwork.

  • The makeup of groups needs to be carefully considered to balance personalities and language abilities. It might be tempting to put all the children with language needs in the same group, but I’d avoid this if possible. Collaborative activities are a great opportunity for young people with speech, language and communication needs to work with others who have typically developing language skills, providing them with a positive language and communication model.

  • Make sure groups are small enough that everyone can actively participate.

  • Adults will need to model high-quality discussions as well as carefully monitoring activities to support young people who need some help to contribute.

  • Talking frames provide young people with a scaffold of a sentence starter or structure appropriate to the particular language purpose. Providing them for an activity will help support those with SLCN to join in.

  • Build in opportunities for reflection. What went well? If there were communication challenges, why did they happen and how did the group resolve them? What could be improved next time?

Remember, talk is not just preparation for writing. Make sure communication and collaboration have their own space to develop and flourish in your classroom. Future bed builders will thank you!

Learn more about speech, language and communication needs and teamwork here:

Skills for teamworking – Issue 19, The Link magazine

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