Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thinking about Collaboration

By Shelly Blake-Plock

Earlier today in #edchat someone mentioned PLNs for elementary schoolers. My thoughts: You can not create a PLN for someone. Therefore, there is a practical matter involved with setting up that kind of complex network for a second grader. Furthermore, few elementary schoolers have the experience let alone the conceptual understanding of what a network really is and how best to navigate through one; fact is relatively few teachers do. But, the question gets to a bigger issue that I think is extremely relevant.

And that is the issue of collaboration.

I teach high schoolers. And one of the most difficult and frustrating things of all is to see how poorly most 9th graders are prepared to actually do collaborative work. Particularly among our most academically inclined students, we have set up a context of education that is so focused on the grade and personal excellence, that it makes the idea of collaborating somewhat alien.

Sure, we do group work and we have teams. But rarely in the traditional curriculum do we actually assess the value of collaboration to the degree we assess individuated patterns of recognition and response in summative assessments. Why aren't all of our final exams collaborative? Why don't we give an award at graduation to the best student collaboration or the strongest and most vital learning network?

My AP Euro kids spent much of their time this semester studying, sharing, and letting steam off via a class Facebook group they made. And yet so many of them were slaves-to-the-grade when it came down to the nitty-gritty of classroom life. Students in my West Civ class displayed an uncanny ability to collaborate on ideas when in a class setting and yet by-and-large reverted to the self when completing the final exam (even, strangely, on the parts of the exam that called for collaboration). In a way, we have told students: the things that really matter will be discovered in this one way. But that one way tends to be the precise way of thinking that rewards memorized facts and canned essays and penalizes (even disciplinarily) any hint of sharing, collaboration, and out-of-compartment innovation. We bring them up with this attitude from the very beginning, so it is no wonder that they are confused by the time we get them into a high school classroom and ask them to work together in a new way.

And I am just as much at fault, often second guessing my instincts and trying to figure out how to fit in yet one more page of the AP curriculum. It is a constant battle, in many respects: no one should think that this 21st century teaching thing is easy. But, time and again I am surprised by how much my network has to offer my students -- from validating research to collaborating on crowdsourced projects; and I feel that if only the kids came up in a connected culture, they would so easily latch on to it. Because the fact of the matter is that all year, the best work and best learning produced in my classroom happened when we opened the floodgates to shared learning and collaborative connected investigation.

So do we need our second graders joining PLNs? Well, maybe not at least in the way we understand huge networks like #edchat. But we do need them to learn in an environment that promotes and encourages collaboration. Those kids who grow within communities supportive and nurturing of collaboration will be the students who design the networks of tomorrow. And those schools which nurture networked learning will be the successful schools of tomorrow.

How do we get there?

I propose a relatively simple five-part plan.

1. End summative assessment. All assessment should be formative, developmental, and 'graded' by self-analysis and conversation. Project based learning works best given the actualization of the idea and learning in the world. In our school, I have had the privilege of sitting on a scholarship board for the senior project and I have seen this kind of learning and self-reflection literally change kids' attitudes and self-perceptions about learning and living. It is a powerful thing.

2. Involve the community. Starting in elementary school, student learning should be intertwined with community involvement. We are losing so many good kids just because those kids can't stand sitting in a classroom. Let the community itself be the classroom. Inside your building. Outside your building. Let students earn credit for participation, learning, creativity, and problem solving in the arts, sports, student government, service. Stop trying to teach students what they should know and start letting them discover what is out there.

3. Hire connected educators and help current staff connect.
PLN connection can't be 'taught', but it can be modeled. If we expect students to thrive in a connected world, first we have to thrive in a connected world. It is not an option. It is a professional responsibility.

4. Allow student groups to run the show. Do not pay the branding firm to design the logo and slogan for your new campaign. Let students do it. Do not let your tech committee decide what kind of devices your students are going to use. Let students tell you what they are going to use. Involve students in the day-to-day operations of the school. Don't just 'allow' a token student or two to sit on your board; require your board to sit in with the students. How soon we forget that students are the reason the community exists in the first place. Empower them. And then let them empower you.

5. Reward collaboration. Innovative collaborations at your school should get at least as much public recognition as successful sports programs. Connected teachers should activate the power of their own PLNs to open up opportunities for student collaborations and the development of meaning interdisciplinary community and professional engagement. Bring architects, theater designers, computer scientists and video game builders, political campaign managers, and filmmakers into your classrooms: demonstrate to your students just how collaborative all of this work is and let them connect via all the tools at their disposal. Don't let your district's filtering software limit your students' potential. Advocate for openness, collaboration, and active learning.

Okay, that's a lot to think about. I admit that part of the impetus for writing this post is because I do not feel like I have always done a great job promoting collaboration. I have let things slip through the cracks and I have let opportunities pass by in the name of expediency. My goal going forward is to work on behalf of helping students and teachers craft their own collaborative networks. In their own way. Not dictated by a particular theory, but rather created -- made -- by the needs at hand, the motivations under the surface, and the idea that things can be different.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Thinking about Collaboration


  1. This is a great post! Thanks for your take on personal learning networks.

  2. I love suggestion #4! Great points throughout. Thx for posting such an honest response to the question of PLNs for young students.

  3. You've fanned my fires of inspiration. I'm always looking to move more toward student-driven learning within the confines of NYS Regents/NCLB/CCLS. This will help. Thank you!

  4. A thought provoking post. I am currently enrolled in a Data Analysis class and one of the key components is collaborative inquiry. This inspires me to think how can I get my 3rd graders next year to be more collaborative. Thank you!

  5. I appreciate this thoughtful post - and referenced it in my own at http://hippocampusenvironsci.blogspot.com today. Thanks for sharing your experience and ideas.

  6. Although I believe that students do need to learn how to collaborate, I have some serious reservations about your proposal.

    "End summative assessment." But there must be some summative assessment, unless you are proposing purely social promotion. Or do you not care if students who have not yet learned to read or do arithmetic get high school diplomas?

    "Stop trying to teach students what they should know." But will students looking for the easy way through school pick projects that challenge them and that teach them what they need? Or will they pick stuff they already know how to do?

    My main objection to schools teaching collaboration is that they usually do such a bad job of it that the result is worse than doing nothing. Group projects only work when the project really requires multiple-person effort. Forcing people to work together on projects that are more efficiently done by one person teaches people not to collaborate if they want to get things done.

    See http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/group-work/


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