“Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made. Or, to be more precise, built, a day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment—and most of all, through habit.”
—Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative Habit
Humans are social creatures and being a member of a group is a good description of the human experience. And because working with others is an essential skill to learn, collaboration has been identified as a 21st century workplace ability as well as a component of the Common Core State Standards. Given that the performing arts are primarily group experiences, the arts become a prime tool for building skills in collaboration.
What is Collaboration?
In collaborative learning, students work together to accomplish a shared goal. In this regard, it is similar to cooperative learning. Educator Olga Kozar highlights an important difference between collaboration and cooperation, which is the process. In cooperative learning, students work independently on their own tasks that contribute to the final product. But in collaborative learning, students’ work is intertwined throughout the process, resulting in a product that many hands have made.
Drawing on the work of Roger Johnson and David Johnson, two educators (and brothers) from the University of Minnesota, here are six tips to start creating successful collaborations.
Getting started. First, successful collaboration involves learning several key skills; so be prepared for students to neet time and instruction to learn how to collaborate. Plan for time to teach these skills in addition to the arts content. Next, create structure within which students will work. Establish procedures and expectations for collaborative work. In the arts, the rehearsal setting creates the framework for students to work collaboratively. Its structure, rules, roles, and etiquette can help create clarity about outcomes and expectations. And if your students are new to collaboration, start simply and have them begin working with a partner. When they accomplish that, move them on to small groups.
We are all in this together. When collaborating, students are interdependent; they depend on each other to succeed. Every student in a collaborative group needs an understanding of their group’s goal and how they contribute to it. When learning collaboratively, students will benefit from time spent planning and identifying roles or jobs, such as set designer, performer, conductor, or composer. Seeing the connections between jobs helps build reliance on each other.
Lend a helping hand. It’s no wonder that music, dance, and theater all use the word “ensemble” to refer to a group working together. Students must learn that they need to help each other to meet the ensemble's goals and that competition within a collaborative group doesn't work. Students working collaboratively often end up teaching others something they have mastered. Helping someone else learn a choreographed sequence or the blocking for a scene reinforces one’s own knowledge and skills.
Do your part. When collaborating, students take responsibility for, and are personally accountable to, the ensemble. And no doubt, members of an ensemble all have responsibility for the group’s success. Every member has something unique to accomplish. In addition, each member is obliged to get the work done. This is seen most clearly in performance—which is the ultimate accountability for an ensemble.
Play well with others. Effective collaborators are respectful and listen to each other. They may not always agree, but they recognize that listening is the first step to working out a difference. Working with students on their listening skills helps engage them artistically with other students. For example, student actors come to realize that acting is as much (and maybe more) about listening as it is about speaking. Musicians are also actively listening to each other as they play together. Becoming active listeners also sharpens students in their role as audience members and viewers of art. When students reflect on and assess their collaborative work, respect for and listening to others are important criteria.
Think it over. With their collaborators, students can reflect on the successes and challenges their ensemble encountered, as well as changes they wish to make in the future. Collaboration inherently involves feedback and reflection, so prep students with the skills to give, receive, and use peer feedback. Working collaboratively means that part of the learning process is to create a safe space for mistakes and even failure.
Collaboration is a foundational element of the performing arts. “People in a good collaboration accomplish more than the group’s most talented members can achieve on their own,” wrote choreographer Twyla Tharp. Collaboration is a powerful instructional tool to help students think beyond themselves and learn in deep and meaningful ways.