Communication and collaboration skills

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Communication and team-work skills are highly sought-after in today’s world. Steve Burnage looks at how schools can develop skills in communication and collaboration, including across the curriculum

Increasingly, learning and innovation skills are being recognised as the skills that separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century, and those who are not.

A learning and teaching focus on the skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for their futures. In SecEd, I have already tackled critical thinking (February 2018: and creativity (April 2018: Here, I want to explore the role that communication and collaboration has in developing future learners.

Communication and collaboration

All of us communicate and collaborate every day, both professionally and personally, yet defining these key components of effective learning and teaching can be quite challenging.

Communication and collaboration are intrinsic parts of what we do every day in schools – and yet the breadth of their meaning is hard to pin down.

Communication covers a range of forms which can be broadly categorised into three groups:

  • Verbal communication, in which you listen to a person to understand their meaning.
  • Written communication, in which you read their meaning.
  • Non-verbal communication, in which you observe a person and infer meaning.

Collaboration, likewise, is a broad term; the components of which lie in several topologies:

The key issue is not so much our understanding of bands of classification, rather how we employ these to have a positive impact on the quality of learning and teaching in our schools.

Ten collaborative learning tips

  • Establish group goals: Effective collaborative learning needs group goals, as well as individual accountability. This keeps the group on task and establishes a clear learning outcome.
  • Keep groups mid-sized: Small groups of three or less lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Groups that are too large create “freeloading” where not all members participate. A moderate size group of four or five is ideal.
  • Build trust and promote open communication: Successful interpersonal communication must exist in teams. Building trust is essential. Deal with emotional issues that arise immediately and any interpersonal problems before moving on. Open communication is key.
  • For larger tasks, create group roles: The more challenging a task, the clearer individual roles, responsibilities and accountabilities need to be.
  • Consider using a range of group interaction strategies:
    • The jigsaw technique – each group only has part of “the jigsaw” and must work with other groups in the class to solve the problem collaboratively.
    • Snowballing – start off like a think, pair, share activity but, after pairing move on to groups of four, eight and then 16 before opening up discussion to the whole class.
    • Six thinking hats – Edward DeBono’s well-known strategy to encourage learners to think from one (or more than one) perspective.
    • Elephant on the bus – a development of six thinking hats where learners are encouraged to think from a variety of creative perspectives to solve a problem and then share their ideas with the whole group.
      There are plenty of other strategies to be found online. One good place to start is this “Ideas for group work” Pinterest group:
  • Use some real-world problems: Experts suggest that project-based learning using open-ended questions can be very engaging. Rather than spending a lot of time designing an artificial scenario, use inspiration from everyday problems. Real-world problems can be used to facilitate project-based learning and often have the right scope for collaborative learning.
  • Focus on enhancing problem-solving and critical thinking skills: Try to design assignments that allow room for varied interpretations. Different types of problems might focus on categorising, planning, taking multiple perspectives, or forming solutions.
  • Think about the gender balance of your groups: Some research suggests that boys are more likely to receive and give elaborate explanations and their stances are more easily accepted by the group. In majority male groups girls are ignored. In majority girl groups, girls tend to direct questions to the boy who often ignores them. Try to keep a gender balance in each group.
  • Use scaffolding: Structure and scaffold group learning tasks at the beginning of a project. Teachers might serve as facilitator to groups needing more support, or provide a list of scaffolding questions.
  • Technology makes collaborative learning easier: Collaboration can be very effective through digital platforms and social media.,, or even a shared folder on MS One Drive. For a useful database of collaborative software and evaluations, see

Effective communication

Collaborative learning, by its very nature, requires effective communication for it to take place. Can communication exist without collaboration? Can collaboration exist with communication? We might respond to these two questions by saying that for either to be an effective learning tool each must work hand-in-hand with the other.

Improve communication in the classroom

  • Use video resources that model conversation skills: Students can learn the foundational elements of conversation by watching videos of these interactions taking place. Pausing the video to ask questions – such as “What message is the listener sending by crossing his arms? What else can you tell by observing the expressions and body language of both people in the conversation?” – can help us teach and model effective communication.
  • Use technology: From audiobooks to apps, there is a multitude of technological resources you can use to develop effective communication skills. Students can listen to or read along with audiobooks to hear how the speaker pronounces and enunciates different words or phrases.
  • Reinforce active listening: Communication is not just about speaking, it is also about listening. Teachers can help their students develop listening skills by reading a selection of text aloud and then having the class discuss and reflect on the content.
  • Plan collaborative learning activities: Group learning activities can also help students to sharpen both oral and written communication skills. Not only does it offer students the chance to work in small groups, thereby reducing some of the pressure, but it also gives them the opportunity to debate their opinions, take turns, and work together towards a common goal.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Because they require more than a one or two-word response, open-ended questions are vital for inspiring discussion and demonstrating that there are multiple ways to perceive and answer a question. You might set a timer for short informal conversations and challenge students to use open-ended questions.
  • Give learners time to think: Once you have asked a question, give learners time to think about their answer. This encourages deeper thinking, creative and imaginative thinking, time to verbalise an answer – and doesn’t reward the first learner with their hand up.
  • Provide a variety of ways for learners to reflect on their learning: Recording students reading selected text or videotaping group presentations is an excellent method for assessing communication strengths and weaknesses. Students can reflect on their oral performance in small groups. Then, ask each student to critique the others so that they can get used to receiving constructive criticism.
  • Use tasks and activities that foster critical thinking: As I explored in my previous article, critical thinking and problem-solving are great vehicles to encourage extended communication in our learners. These can be done verbally or through written assignments that give students the chance to answer questions creatively using their own words and expressions.
  • Find teachable moments: Whatever the age group you are working with, maximise on the everyday happenings in the classroom environment. For example, if a student answers a question in a complicated way, you might ask that they rephrase what they said, or challenge the class to ask clarifying questions. If an unfamiliar word pops up in a text or on a film, pause in order for the class to search for the word in the dictionary.

Bringing things together

This final article concludes my exploration of the “4Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Critical thinking and problem-solving provide opportunities for students to ignite higher order thinking, like analysis, evaluation, or synthesis through judgements or decisions based upon evidence, arguments, claims or beliefs. While problem-based learning grounded in finding both conventional and creative solutions to unfamiliar problems can be a powerful way to incorporate team-work and collaboration into any lesson.

Communication and collaboration taught effectively across the curriculum (rather than just expecting them to happen) could transform learning opportunities for students to participate in lively conversations, express their opinions, build upon other ideas, present information, and evaluate another speaker’s point of view.

Creativity and innovation includes both thinking creatively and working creatively with others to tie in adaptability, leadership, and team-work.
Building in opportunities for students to practise idea-generation techniques, such as brainstorming or brainwriting, mind-mapping, storyboarding, or visualisation, will bolster their abilities to create and innovate, while at the same time promote communication, collaboration, and critical thinking and problem-solving.

Let’s consider them not individually but as part of a toolkit to transform learning and teaching in our classrooms.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit and read his previous articles for SecEd, including the previous pieces in this series, at


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