Fostering Collaboration in 21st Century Classrooms

Katherine Korte

Problem Description

What do we want our learners to become?  The answer to this question can involve students acquiring  21st century skills.  We want our learners to become collaborative workers, effective communicators, critical thinkers and creative agents of discovery.  Does the traditional learning environment in a teacher orientated classroom with students sitting in individual desks, lined up in rows, make that becoming happen?  According to, “Designing Learning Spaces for the 21st CenturyLearners” student learning styles have changed.  Students prefer multitasking and quick non linear access to information.  Today’s students tend to be visually oriented, increasingly mobile and have a low tolerance to lecture style teaching. Finally, the article states students prefer active learning rather than passive learning and rely heavily on communication technology to access information and achieve educational goals.  Therefore, we need learning spaces that recognize and adapt to modern student learning preferences.  This action research project asks, if students work in a mobile/collaborative class environment designed to meet the needs of today’s learners, how does that impact development of collaboration skills and teacher classroom management?

Description of the Setting

This action research took place in a high school social studies classroom in Maryland Heights, Missouri.  I teach four section of government to 97 seniors. I have worked in this school for nine years.  The school is has a racially mix population with 56% white, 33% African American, and 6% Hispanic with smaller numbers of Asian, Indian, and multirace students.  The school has 44% of the students on free or reduced lunch. About five years ago, we had a 1:1 technology initiative making it possible for every student in my class to have a computer.  Students were issued an Macbook Air making us the first classroom in the building using a mobil/collaborative design. The district paid for the installation of the new collaboration furniture.  Up to this point I have collaborated with several outside organizations to design, order and install the mobile/collaborative classroom.  This is a new effort that supports on going work of creating a PBL learning environment.  

Taking Action - Transforming the Classroom 

During the 2015-2016 school I had the opportunity to install new classroom furniture that would transform the physical space into a mobile and collaborative learning environment.  The 26 standard individual desk units were replace with three types of seating. One type of seating are 10 chairs and 6 tables with wheels. This cluster can be arranged into various options ranging from a single table with two chairs for pair work to a six table  10 chairs conference option for large meetings. In addition there are elevated countertop seating. The large work space has room for 8 students sitting on stools and another 6 students standing. These two spaces are classified as active learning zones. In the reflective learning zone, students have lounge seating options.  Here there are 4 lounge sectional chairs that can be grouped or individually set up and four ottomans for additional seating or work space.


Evidence of the Change:

After spending 9 weeks in a traditional classroom, where students sit in individual desks aligned in rows and columns, and 6 weeks in a newly installed mobile and collaborative classroom, 87 students completed 23 question Google survey.  The 87 students are all seniors in high school enrolled in my 4 sections of government. The first section of the survey asked students to mark their degree of perception on 10 statements. The degree of perception was measured by a five point rating scale: low, moderate, average, above average, exceptional.  Students had to answer these 10 questions based first on their experiences in a traditional classroom and then the same 10 questions based on their experiences in the mobile/collaborative classroom. The design of the survey was an adaptation of the survey used by Scott-Webber, Strickland & Ring Kapitula (2013).  The survey was measuring factors such as collaboration, focus, active involvement, in-class feedback, physical movement, feeling comfortable to participate, teacher interactions, grade achievement and social distraction. The second section of the survey two open ended questions. The first question was, “What were/are your favorite features of the new classroom?”  The second question was, “What features of the classroom do you dislike?”  I am interested in understanding the environmental impact on students’ academic, behavioral and physical well being.

The data collected for this cycle of action research can be categorized into three themes, the physical space, learning in the new space and teaching in the new space.  

The Physical Space                                  Learning in the New Space         Teaching in the new Space

1. The physical learning environment
One of the survey questions asked to to assess the degree to which students could physically move about the room (Table 1).  This question had the highest shift from the traditional classroom to the collaborative class. For example, while only 7% of the students rated the traditional classroom as encouraging movement in the classroom, 76% of the students rated the collaborative classroom as allowing for movement.   My class observations and experiences also align with student perceptions. When the classroom was organized in rows, it was difficult for me to access all the students. In the new classroom I can easily move about the space and reach all students.

Another survey question asked the degree to which students felt comfortable to participate (Table 2).  This question is of particular importance to me because I wanted to create a classroom environment where students felt safe to participate, struggle and grow.  60% of students rated above average to exceptional sense of comfort to participate in class activities. These are promising results in which to grow a Project Based Learning environment.
In addition to the survey, students were also asked an open ended question about their favorite features of the new classroom (Table 3).  37% of students made reference to comfort as their favorite feature of the classroom. One students wrote, “I enjoy the comfort it provides, it allows me to stay focused as a work in groups ad discuss class work with peers.”  Another students wrote, “The comfy chairs and the power to stand or sit at the tall table and the power to move chairs if you want to.” The two references to “power” really struck me in this particular student’s comment. The mobil class gave agency to the student and having that control to make changes in their learning environment resonated with this particular student.  

According to 23% of respondents, another favorite feature of the classroom and physical space are the various seating options.  One student wrote, “I like the high table because I can see the board easier. Also I feel like the room is more open. . .” Another student wrote, “I like how there is different types of seating arrangements.  It’s different and makes me excited to come to class.”

In this process the physical space was not the only transformation, the learning and teaching in a flexible class environment evolved as well.  This project began by recognizing the need for an upgraded space. The traditional classroom was limiting in its cramped seating, rows of desks, teacher focused orientation and difficulty in creating group settings.  The new space brought new life to the classroom. Students were drawn to the ascetic appeal of learning space.

One student commented, “It's a more inviting environment since it feels less like an actual classroom. I feel less like I'm in a class, which decreases a lot of stress that I had at the beginning of the semester.”

 Another student wrote, “The bright colors keep boredom out of the classroom.” The new design got the attention of students, decreased stress and made them feel welcome. These three characteristics are essential primers to learning and students felt empowered to learn in the new space.

2.  Learning in the new space

The goal of the classroom change was not only to change the physical space, but also to shape and change learning in the space.  The students reported the new classroom has a positive impact on student engagement factors such as involvement in class activity, focus, willingness to attend class and receiving feedback from peers and the teacher.

Increasing engagement in classroom activities was one of my primary goals in advocating and implement a collaborative classroom design.  Students often balked at group work, changing the desks around was cumbersome. There was a disconnect between engaging in collaborative work in a non-collaborative environment.  Students were asked to assess the degree to which they were actively involved in classroom activities. 66% of students reported the new classroom increased their active involvement in class activities (Table 4).  One student commented, “In the new classroom I found it a lot easier to stay engaged and involved in what we were learning.” Another student wrote, “I love the classroom design. It does make me want to be more active in class.”

The mobile/collaborative classroom design could of had two possible outcomes.  One, the new environment with its colorful design, new grouped furniture setting would engage the senses and help students remain focused. Two, the new environment could act as a distraction.  Table 5 shows 85% of students reporting an average to exceptional increase in attention. One student reflected, “I like that the atmosphere in the classroom is different from traditional setting.  When you are in a traditional setting it is easy to lose focus because you are used to seeing the same things everyday.” Another student wrote, “ I enjoy the comfort it provides, it allows me to stay focused as well as work in groups and discuss class work with peers.”

A key factor of student engagement is for students to want to attend class (Table 6).  The change in factor was remarkable. In the traditional classroom only 10% of students reported having an above average desire to attend class.  In the new classroom 49% of students reported an above average desire to attend class. One student wrote, “ . . . I enjoyed coming to class everyday and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect.”  Another student wrote, “ If every classroom was set up this way, it would be so much better and enjoyable and I’d like coming to class more often.” A third student wrote, “I like how there are different types of seating arrangements.  It’s different and makes me excited to come to this class.” In a time when attendance is important to student achievement and meeting MSIP goals, creating a new classroom design can impact students’ interest in attending class.

A major draw to a collaborative classroom is increased accessibility to feedback from teachers and peers (Table 7).  While in the traditional classroom, only 11% of students felt like there was above or exceptional amount of feedback from peers and or teacher, in the collaborative classroom 74% of the students found there was this degree of feedback. This was a dramatic change.  In building capacity for PBL it is important to establish a norm and culture of peer/teacher feedback and the new learning environment is conducive to developing this expectation. Essential to student learning is feedback.

The new classroom creates a comfortable and relaxing learning environment.  The students evaluate it in this way:

“The comfort and relaxed environment made the classroom a lot more enjoyable because it felt like a place just to learn and have fun in a relaxed environment without the stress that a traditional classroom brings.”

I like the feeling, when I walk in it doesn’t feel like a classroom.  It feels like we are a club talking about government things, not in a classroom learning.  It makes it a lot more fun. It’s a more inviting environment. Since it feels less like an actual classroom, I feel less like I’m in a class, which decreases a lot of stress that I had at the beginning of the semester.”

Students self reported higher levels of engagement, focus and involvement in class.  The data is collected from 4 sections of senior level government. This is an End of Course (EOC) assessed class (Table8) .  Meaning, this is the only social studies course that is used as measure of student progress for our AYP score and our school state  accreditation. It is important to note that although students self reported the collaborative class design had a positive impact on their ability to learn, their EOC score the semester dropped slightly.  The new class room was implemented during the Fall 2015 semester. The previous semester has a 73% proficiency rate, Fall 2015 had a 72% proficiency rate. Scores rebound quickly and exceeded those of the traditional classroom, peeking in the Spring of 2018 with a 90% proficiency rate,

The data demonstrates that students have noticed the increased interactions between myself and them.  Table 9 shows 73% of students reporting an above average or exceptional perception of student interaction with small groups and/or individuals.  The physical design of the space allowed me to reach every student easily and the new teaching approaches promoted more targeted discussions and interactions.

3. Teaching in the new space

The need to restructure instructional practices was one major impact of the new classroom.  Putting students in a collaborative environment immediately altered student behavior by increasing energy and student interaction.  In response, I began incorporating both collaborative elements and more individualized instructional material. Both large collaborative projects and smaller collaborative discussion were utilized.  

For larger projects I used both mixed academic ability and like academic ability groups.  I also found it helpful to introduce roles into class projects. For example, the government students solve the problem of creating a colonial government system on Mars. The final product is a commercial promoting their Mars colony.  Each group has four assigned roles, content specialist, script writer, artistic director and video producer. By students selecting roles they taking ownership and responsibility for a specific part of the project. This also helps them understand skills required for successful project work, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.  

Smaller collaborations took the form of discussion critical thinking prompts such as, “Evaluate how Article I of the Constitution could be revised for a 2016 Constitutional Convention.”  In order to make relevant connection to content materials students were required to read current events and summarize their finding to the group.  Whether it is the whole class period or just a part, the need to have students collaborate and share academically became very important. If there was no instructional outlet for discussion then there would be too much social discussion.  

The new classroom design is not conducive for lecture style of teaching.  Over the past three years (Kote, 2015) I have been lessening the emphasis on lecture and creating a “flipped classroom” learning environment.  This semester I added another layer of individualization of learning material. For the largest unit of the semester, I incorporated “checklists.”  Each checklist contained the requirements for each unit section. Each list has the video lectures and note pages for the unit, a primary source assignment, current event assignment, critical thinking assignment and applicable web based learning games.  The checklists contained all the necessary skills I wanted students to develop such as, content knowledge, evaluating the relationship between current events and content, and analyzing primary sources. It also address several different modalities of learning; auditory, kinetic, visual, verbal, global, sequential etc. Normally, the whole class would work on one skill learning modality a day, with the check list I could present all the assignments and allow the students to select the order of skill development.  I would recommend a sequence, but students would have the agency to go at their own pace. I might recommend starting with primary source analysis, but perhaps today the students would rather read and evaluate current events and that would be fine. I did set deadlines for work to be completed so students would be prepared for the collaborative pieces of the checklist.

Using these new teaching methods adapted to the collaborative learning environment, I first noticed how focused students were.  They reviewed their options and went to work. If they got bored with one modality of learning they switched to another. The completion rate for assignments increased.  Also, since the majority of work is being done in class there are less excuses for not having completed assignments. I work predominantly with seniors in high school and their schedules are very busy.  There are out of state band trips, overnight debate trips, sporting tournaments, play rehearsals etc. The more opportunity they have to work in class, the more time they devote to academic skill acquisition.  Secondly, I noticed the quality of the assignments increased. A contributing factor to the increase work quality is the fact that the new classroom allows me more mobility to interact with students both individually and in groups.  Instead of lecturing for 50 minutes, I am giving 5 minutes of directions and then moving about the room helping students. I can finally give students the individual attention they need. For example, for my more advanced students I can sit and challenge them to connect the content to multiple current events.  For my struggling students I can group them and we can explore connection to an important single current event. Also, with the new classroom students are daily assigned to one of four different groups allowing them to also receive peer support.


It has been an interesting journey adapting my teaching style to the new classroom.  What excites me the most are the possibilities. As I let go of a teacher focused, lecture predominate pedagogy, I have become more focused developing both collaborative elements and personalize learning elements.

Since the new design was implemented in the fall of 2015, three other classrooms got similar upgrades in fall the of 2016.  During the fall 2016, an bond measure was passed in the school district allowing for new revenue towards updating classrooms at the high school.  During the fall of 2017 approximately 20% of high school classroom received updated furniture with varying degrees of collaborative elements. This trend towards creating more collaborative environments indicates that new spaces are needed to supported the development of 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.  While the students were excited by the freshness, and newness of the classroom, their references to feeling empowered, stress reduction and community are more telling of a deeper perception shift. Since the room is not as teacher focused, there is a sense of community; a flow between teacher and students and the students themselves. Students have the capability to rearrange the furniture to meet a pedagogical need.  They have control designing a space that fits their learning which encourages agency in learning. Additionally, students can face small humiliations in a traditional classroom. For example, some high school students do not fit in the “one size fits all” desks. Rows of desks can be difficult for students crutches, canes or wheelchairs. If you sit in the back of the classroom, leaving the room or any reason and lead to knocking over books, tripping over bags etc.  These daily “hassles” make the learning environment less enjoyable. However, in the new design, those micro frustrations go away. The room is easy to navigate and all students can find a comfortable space with the flexible seating.