What’s the Buzz: Collaboration
Buzzwords abound when we talk about teaching and learning in this era of new literacies. Collaboration is one of the big ones. “They” say that the ability to collaborate is one of the essential skills the children in our information-rich, social software-enabled world will need in order to fully participate. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture is one report that offers compelling arguments in support of this claim. I read the report, I use the term, I talk about it with colleagues and students.
But what is collaborating?
Is it possible to genuinely collaborate in a society where employment, politics, even education has been structured hierarchically? Where people are expected to succeed by competing and winning?
In a school culture that assess students individually, and punishes students who share work?
Where the teacher is the one who makes all the decisions, about everything from how the desks will be arranged, to who can speak, to what is important enough to talk or read about?
I’m going to argue that just because we put students in small groups and tell them to “work together” doesn’t mean they are learning to collaborate. They’re learning, sure enough: how to get one kid to do the lion’s share of the work, how to put down other people’s ideas, how to grandstand, how to blend into the woodwork rather than assert oneself. One of my students recently said that she hated wikis. When I asked her to explain, she said that someone could spend a lot of time writing, sign off, and sign on again later only to find that someone else had deleted all her carefully crafted work. “It makes for really bad feelings,” she said. Even assigning students to pre-defined roles– common roles include scribe & facilitator– carries no guarantee that students truly understand what’s involved and what exactly they are supposed to do.
As we move into this era of new literacies, how do we teach students to collaborate? Who does it, in which academic class or venue? What are the building blocks of collaboration? I think there are several levels, from basic skills to larger concepts. Here are some:
- Communication skills [1. See Dr. Stephen Brookfield’s ideas in his materials Discussion as a Way of Teaching]
- How to listen to others and hear their ideas.
- How to add to ideas on the table.
- How to disagree constructively– respond to the idea not react to the individual who posed it.
- How to identify and solve problems, within the group and 1:1.
- Creating a shared vision, buying in, setting goals
- Even an assignment as simple as creating a poster demands that there be a tangible outcome. How often do we see kids sit down to talk about elements such as purpose before breaking out the poster board and glue sticks? How often do they agree on how the final product will look before they dive in, or check in with each other on an ongoing basis to see how things are developing? Do they know how to break down a large task into smaller pieces? Decide who will do what? Determine a timetable?
- How do students buy in to a project they haven’t agreed to? Should they? If not, what recourse do they have? Is a group obligated to incorporate everyone’s ideas?
- Assessing the functioning of the group and one’s role within it
- What’s working? What’s not? Why?
- What’s an individual adding to the movement of the group toward that final goal? In what ways is an individual hampering the movement?
- I love the saying, “when you point the finger at somebody else, be sure to look at where the other three are pointing.”
- (This kind of metacognitive process is valuable for individual students, too, in order to gain a perspective on the own progress and actions and devise strategies for what to do next.)
- What other factors might be at work in the dynamics of the group? I continue to be intrigued by Hephzibah Roskelly’s book, Breaking (into) the Circle: Group Work for Change in the English Classroom. [2. See the overview from back cover]
Yes, there are impediments to weaving these ideas into our teaching, not the least of which are of our own making. These include
- the 42/48/52/etc. minute period
- the silo concept of academics (each academic subject is a unique entity with no relation to another academic area)
- our belief or suspicion that the students can’t do it
- our fear that we can’t figure out how teach these things– or embed them into the usual activities of the classroom
- our own lack of experience in engaging in these processes ourselves
- the difficulty we have in letting go of absolute control of every aspect of the class.
I don’t think we have to turn our English classes into centers for collaboration. But if we incorporated some instruction or practice in any of the areas above, I predict we’d be started down some new and exciting paths.