Teaching Collaboration Skills to Maximize Group Work Time

The teacher community is truly something special. Teachers are master collaborators. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean, like those times you’re planning with your team and someone throws out an idea for a new activity. Together you excitedly talk through the idea, how to make it happen in the classroom, what could go wrong, find solutions and then… teacher magic! An amazing classroom activity or lesson is born. That is collaboration. It’s a magical thing where thinking out loud, or sharing an idea that is “stuck in your mind” works its way out (usually better than the original idea!) with the help of others. Collaboration is the part of teaching that I love, and a big part of why I started Teaching With a Mountain View many years ago, as well as our Free Inspired in Upper Elementary Facebook group.

What if we could teach our students to collaborate this way too?? Some classes are naturally more inclined to collaborate than others, but we can help all groups of students develop the interpersonal skills necessary to collaborate without getting their feelings hurt by teaching collaboration skills. We can teach them to listen, learn, and grow from one another. When this happens, collaboration in the classroom is a powerful tool and an integral part of the learning process. It also helps our students spend more time using higher level thinking skills. When this happens, collaboration isn’t just teacher magic… it’s classroom magic

Teaching collaboration skills is an integral part of the learning process. Use this free collaboration skills lesson for upper elementary.

Teaching Collaboration Skills

Before we can expect our students to participate in collaboration, we have to teach them what collaboration is and how to do it effectively. When left on their own to just jump in, it can result in arguing, hurt feelings, lack of equal contribution, and loss of learning. No, thanks! So just like anything else you teach in the classroom, collaboration and interpersonal skills must be taught. 

So how do I teach collaboration? Just like anything else! Before we jump into a multi-step math word problem, I first teach the individual skills that will be needed. I do the same with collaboration, a multi-skill activity.  Here are some important skills I teach students to make collaboration a success:

  • Everyone participates through sharing ideas, offering suggestions, and helping with the work
  • Everyone agrees to listen to others and keep an open mind to ideas and suggestions, with the goal of coming to a group consensus
  • Everyone helps to build on an idea and make it better by asking questions, solving problems, and working together
  • Everyone recognizes that all ideas can be improved upon and that constructive criticism is about the idea and not the person who suggested it

If we can help our students learn these skills, they will be well on their way to becoming great collaborators inside and outside the classroom.

Activities for Teaching Collaboration Skills

Group projects. Oof. Even as adults, I’m sure we all have memories of the not-so-great experiences we’ve had with big group projects. That’s why I like to start smaller when we’re growing our collaboration skills. Instead of tackling a major project together right out of the gate, I start with team building activities or project-based learning for individual skills. Here are a few examples:

  • Teach that everyone participates through a game like Scattergories, Relay Tic-Tac-Toe, or a group mosaic picture.
  • Teach listening skills with a good old-fashioned game of Telephone where there’s a reward if the class or group can end with the same message that they started with.
  • Teach the process of asking questions with a game of 20 questions or Guess Who?.
  • Teach the brainstorming process to show how an idea can become better through the suggestions of others by creating a class picture where each student adds one line or squiggle. You can also tell a story this way, with each student adding one sentence at a time.
  • Finally, do some role playing to model what asking questions, offering suggestions, and accepting constructive criticism should (and should not!) look like.

Collaboration Skills Lesson Plan

This Paper Towel Challenge ties collaboration skills together with a fun and engaging STEM activity. 

Note: Students are going to repeat the Paper Tower Challenge multiple times, each time focusing on adding a new skill to the collaboration process. Each time they complete the challenge, they will start with new supplies as if starting activity from the beginning. Be sure to grab a stack of newspaper from the recycle bin and a couple rolls of masking tape so you have plenty of supplies!

You can do this activity in one day or over the course of a few different days. Either way, by the end of the activity students will have learned about collaboration, the ground rules for collaboration in the classroom, and important skills needed for effective collaboration.  


Randomly break students into groups of 4-6 and provide each group with the same amount of newspaper and masking tape. I recommend 3-5 pieces of newspaper and 12 inches of tape per group. Tell students they are to build the tallest paper tower possible as a group using only the provided supplies. The tower must stand on its own (no leaning on anything and no tape used to tape it to the floor or table). Give the students 3 minutes and tell them that they cannot talk during this process. Start the timer and let them work.

After 3 minutes ask students to give you some words to describe the experience. If you have enough space, save the towers from this first activity for comparison at the end. This first attempt may result only in a stack of paper, but that’s okay! 

Mini-Lesson: What is Collaboration?

Now introduce students to the concept of collaboration. They probably most closely identify this with the concept of teamwork and working together for a common goal. Teamwork is a great place to start when teaching out students about collaboration. A key point here is that collaboration means everyone takes an active role. This means that everyone’s ideas should be considered and that group discussion and consensus is more important than one shining star on the team. Ask students for their input and examples of previous times when they’ve needed to collaborate and how it turned out.

Set Collaboration Ground Rules

For collaboration to be successful, there must be some ground rules. These ground rules will help to make group work more effective. Each ground rule focuses on one key collaboration skill and then gives students the opportunity to practice it.

Ground Rule #1: Everyone Must Participate

For collaboration to be effective, everyone must be willing to participate. It’s important that students know participation is not optional. The idea behind collaboration is that the group is stronger than the individual. If one person is the voice and everyone else just nods agreement, that is not collaboration.

Activity Time

Remaining in the same groups, students complete the paper tower challenge again. This time ask students to think of a building plan silently. After about 30-60 seconds of thinking time, tell them that they have 30 seconds to share their ideas before the 3 minute silent building time begins. After 30 seconds, ask students to stop talking and then give them 3 minutes to build.

Discussion & Mini-Lesson

After the activity ask students follow-up questions like these:

  1. Did everyone participate?
  2. Did everyone’s participation look the same? If not, did that make their participation less important? 
  3. What did it feel like to only have 30 seconds for everyone to share their ideas? Hopefully a little chaotic and frustrating because this will segway into Ground Rule #2!

Ground Rule #2: Listen to Others

Collaboration is more than just presenting ideas. Collaboration also requires listening with an open mind. If everyone shares, but no one listens then we don’t really have group work at all. Instead we have lots of individuals working separately in the same location. Talk about the importance of sharing ideas and listening to others as the group comes to a consensus. 

Activity Time

It’s time for the Paper Tower Challenge again! Same student groups, same goal. This time give students 3 minutes to share their ideas and come to a group consensus before building. If you think that coming to a consensus will be an issue, you can always add in some motivation like ‘any group that does not reach a consensus will not build but instead write in their journal about why collaboration is important.’

After students have 3 minutes to share and come to a consensus, it’s time for 3 minutes of silent building.  Hopefully this time there is a noticeable change in the ability of the students to work towards a common goal since it was one that was decided on by the group.

Discussion & Mini-Lesson

Start this discussion time with some questions. Have the students compare their towers to their earlier attempts. Are the towers getting taller or sturdier? Did the build feel more organized since everyone had agreed on the same idea? Did sharing ideas and listening to others help you better reach the goal?

Ground Rule #3: Ask Questions and Offer Suggestions

The collaborative process is not about choosing the best idea from a group of ideas right away. Instead the collaborative process is about choosing a great idea, and then with the input of the group, making it an even better idea. Teaching our students to ask questions and dig past the surface level of an idea is really important.  It’s also important that students recognize the importance of building on an idea with the ideas and suggestions of others. 

Activity Time

It’s time to take collaboration to the next level with the Paper Tower Challenge again. This time students are going to start with the same group idea from the last round. The build time will increase to 6 minutes, but there is one new rule. Each student must ask one question about the design or building process and each student must offer one or more suggestions about the design or building process. When a student talks, the building must stop. This is important to encourage and reinforce the importance of listening to others. After explaining the new rules, give students 6 minutes to build.

Discussion & Mini-Lesson

When the 6 minutes are finished, have a discussion related to asking questions and offering suggestions. Here’s some questions you might ask:

  1. How did your design change after people asked questions and made suggestions?
  2. Did asking questions and offering suggestions make your design plan stronger?
  3. Did incorporating the ideas of others help you meet your goal better than your previous attempts?
  4. How did it feel if your idea was not accepted or if it was changed by others?

This last question is a great place to move into the importance of accepting criticism. This can be really hard for students, but it is such an important lesson to learn. We must start by teaching our students that they are not their idea.

Part of the collaboration process is discussing the pros and cons of an idea. For some students this is going to feel like criticism and there is a tendency to take that personally. We want our classrooms to be a safe learning environment, and that includes a safe place to fail. Not every idea will be the best and that’s okay. Even the best ideas have room for improvement and that comes through collaboration.

Tying it All Together

Wrap up by completing the Paper Tower Challenge one last time. Before starting, do a quick recap of the collaboration ground rules. An anchor chart is a great way to review these ground rules and also gives students a tool to reference all year. Some highlights:

  1. This is a group effort, not an individual activity
  2. Everyone must participate
  3. Listen to others with an open mind
  4. Ask questions and offer suggestions
  5. Let your ideas grow 

You may also want to check out this GROUPS acronym anchor chart for other teaching collaboration skills tips.

Activity Time

For this final attempt, students will have a total of 15 minutes to work through all of the steps they have learned. They cannot use the same building plan that was previously used, it needs to be a new plan or idea.  They can talk to each other throughout, but must stop building to listen when someone starts speaking. Start the timer and let them work for 15 minutes without interruption.

When the activity is completed let students share their towers. Since this tower had to be a new idea, have them compare it to the very first tower they built, which was also a new idea. Hopefully there are dramatic differences between the first silent build and this one that used all the steps and skills of collaboration. 

Here are some questions to facilitate a wrap-up discussion: 

  1. What are the similarities between the towers? 
  2. What are the differences? 
  3. Why are these things the same and different? 
  4. What did you learn about collaboration? 
  5. What did you do well in the collaboration process? What can you do better next time?

Whether you use the Paper Tower Challenge or other games and activities for teaching collaboration skills, remember to keep practicing and intentionally discussing collaboration throughout the year. Just like any other skill, the more the students practice the better they will get!  

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