Thursday, March 7, 2013

Finding the Power of Two

"It is easier to teach reading and writing, which are solitary undertakings, than to teach listening and speaking, which always involve human interactions."
From this article on authentic assessment in the workplace: Replacing the Performance Appraisal

Growing up and into my college years, I heard people dump on the ideas of collaborative learning. My education was pretty traditional, and we didn't do many group projects. You sank or swam by yourself. Sure, you were surrounded by a whole lake full of drowning students, but learning was an individual affair.

As I gain experience and maturity in life, I gain a deeper appreciation for the difficulties of individualism.  While there's something to be said for peace and quiet to think, most of us perform better in a free exchange of ideas, goals, problems, and feedback. 

A mechanized, industrialized educational system that rewards outcomes rather than true development never has time to build the skills that really matter. 

So how can a teacher build listening, speaking, and collaboration skills in the classroom?  
My experience lies in middle and high school classroom teaching, but I think these principles can be applied up and down the scale of ages.

  • Be willing to give up the control that an individual approach offers -- and for many of us, "control" = "safety."   It just seems easier to control a classroom, to guide a lesson, to assess learning when everyone is neat and tidy and quiet. But that quiet can mask boredom, struggle, or smug overconfidence. Instead, find your comfort line and decide to push past it a little at a time until you're able to manage the more busy pace of a collaborative room.
  • Model collaboration strategies. Don't just expect students to know how to work together. It's a learned skill.  Talk through your thinking processes; join their groups (drop in and out); ask them to explain their group dynamic and analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Recognize that not all collaboration carries the same effectiveness or value.  Just because students are working near one another in groups doesn't mean they're actually collaborating. You may need to be proactive in sorting students into groups to get the balance right.  A healthy collaboration will include discussion and disagreement but also developing leadership, creativity, brainstorming, and failure (on the path to success).  
  • In fact, failure is a necessity. So relax, and give your students the mental space to fail without feeling like a failure. They need to try ideas and be ok with many of them not working. In fact, quickly landing on an idea before considering other options is a mark of immature thinking.
  • Build feedback, discussion, and questioning into your classroom flow for everything.  Any project, test, or unit should become a springboard for a post-mortem evaluation: "How did that go? What did you try that worked? How was your group dynamic? Looking back, can you see ways that you helped/hindered the project as a whole? What skills/knowledge do you need to gain before we try this again?"
  • Do projects more than once. I think the biggest waste in our classrooms is the one-shot project/activity.  All the cognitive work poured into learning how to do a task, and that's it. The project ends, and students move on.  You'd be amazed by what people will learn if your circle back to a particular kind of project/assignment after a few weeks, and remind students to apply past lessons to the current task. 

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