Collaboration, co-operation, co-construction, choice….

At EducampTheTron today, one of the discussions we had centred around collaboration. In our schools we are all grappling with it; teachers collaborating together to create learning programmes, students collaborating with each other on solving problems and teachers collaborating with students to co-construct learning.

A few questions cropped up which I thought were worthwhile jotting down. Not that I have any answers but maybe this will spark some thoughts.

two girls working together. They are in a school playground, with a large paper map they have designed. They have a robotic car which they have programmed.

How far do the tasks, projects, problems – call them what you will – that teachers set, lead to real collaboration? Are we providing tasks that allow for collaboration or cooperation? Do we allow for students to make real choices about what they learn? Do we co-construct learning with our students?

Often we create tasks with elements that students can divide up so each person has a different section to complete. This is cooperative. When does cooperation move to collaboration? Does it need to – are both essential skills that students need to develop? Is one necessary for the other to happen? What place does peer feedback play? How can reflection lead to more effective collaboration and learning? If each person has their own space to work in and they know that what they complete has to fit into what the others are doing, then they need to communicate and negotiate to ensure that the connections are effective and the outcome is successful.

If I ask a group of students to explore a topic and come up with a presentation to show their learning, do I provide them with enough scope to choose their area of inquiry, to work together not just in terms of sharing out the work (co-operation) but also to collaborate on the research, the findings and the outcome? Do they develop the skills to question each others findings, critique them, wordsmith text, wrangle with meaning and hone arguments, trial tools to show learning and make decisions together, bringing each person’s particular strengths to the table to help them all learn?

A year 13 class is working on a collaborative social justice issue. This is a ‘collaborative’ project. A group of up to 6 students work together to design a social action campaign to argue their case. Alongside this they also have to produce some individual evidence of their learning. My first wondering is what the optimum number for effective collaboration is? My second is how the task is scaffolded so that students develop the competencies and skills to collaborate effectively. What does that look like? If the task is poorly structured it will lead to confusion, and a lack of understanding about how to approach it. There is also a perception amongst kids based on previous experience that ‘group work’ is unfair – some kids do all the work whilst others slouch, but they all get the same mark. This leads to a reluctance to engage or some members of the group protecting what they have done and not sharing.

One of the people in our discussion today is a computer science student and she explained that in peer programming, a more advanced student works with a less accomplished student on a project. They learn together as they develop the programme and inevitably go more slowly. Who gets most benefit? The mentor or the mentee? As a business model, she suggested that it was not necessarily cost effective with two people doing the same job. But it builds sustainability in the long term and it has been well documented that we learn more through teaching. The Tuakana Teina model has already been adopted in many schools where students work together – a mentor and a mentee – to support each others’ learning in a zone of proximal development.

Let’s examine an example of co-construction and choice. In a Year 13 language class students study a set topic and produce an individual piece of work. There is some choice given to the students in as much as there is a list of possible issues to discuss and sometimes, if there is a particularly interesting topical issue e.g. election, natural disaster, social issue, there may be scope to deviate from the usual list. Students then have some explicit teaching to model language, sentence structure and content before they go off to put their learning into a finished product. There is also some opportunity for feedback during the planning process from the teacher. But what if that topic – chosen by the whole class – doesn’t suit some students? How does that affect their engagement in it and subsequent outcomes? The difficulty here for the teacher is having potentially 30 students all studying a different topic – how do they structure a task so that students will meet all the language criteria to achieve a wide scope of topics? How do they provide the content? How do they provide a context for the language that is needed?

How can digital technology support both of these scenarios? Collaborative tools in Office 365 or the Google Suite as well as a range of teamwork platforms such as Trello or Evernote allow students and teachers to work asynchronously, to share documents, to assign activities, to choose appropriate media to find content, analyse it and critique it and to give feedback.

But how much input does the teacher need to provide? A degree of re-thinking of what ‘we have always done’ is needed. Collaborative projects need scaffolding, they need a solid rubric that provides clarity about the task and the required end product. Teachers need to work alongside the students, checking in regularly with them, questioning what they are doing, observing the interaction and mentoring where necessary to help develop critiquing skills, provide effective ways to give each other feedback and to be demanding of what students are doing. Jeffery Heil talked at the recent Google Summit about having regular, staged check ins to keep kids honest. He says that it is important to have a concrete achievable goal, so students don’t get lost in the process with frustration. Left to their own devices they will leave everything to the last minute – don’t we all? It’s human nature! But when a teacher, who is used to providing content and leading the activity in the classroom, finds themselves in a mentoring role, where they are facilitating groups of students or individual students, they may feel a sense of redundancy and assume that students don’t need them. My fear is that teachers assume that students, by the time they are in year 13, know how to work collaboratively. Because the digital tools enable students to work together at home there may be a temptation to let students get on with it on their own and use class time to get on with other work which is more teacher centred.

I would welcome your thoughts. There are more questions than answers in this post. How do you enable true collaboration and provide choice for your students?

Two girls in a school yard collaborating on a project using an ipad

Photos by Anne Robertson taken at Broadlands School. Permission to publish obtained.

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