Collaborative Learning (Done Effectively)

So, in my last post, I talked about cooperative learning and its ineffective implementation in the typical high school classroom (at least, in most of the ones I’ve observed as part of my graduate program in Northern Virginia). I also discussed how cooperative learning, even when it’s done correctly, isn’t always the most effective way to learn when it comes to more introverted students.

My hope in this blog post is to discuss effective ways to learn collaboratively that cater both to the needs of introverted and extroverted students. However, let me qualify this by saying that I have never studied nor taught in the traditional classroom before, and therefore, my experience with and knowledge of collaborative learning in such an environment is somewhat limited.

Thanks to an educational program that my dad ran for seven years when I was growing up, my experience with collaborative learning outside the traditional classroom is not so limited. The program was called Live and Learn, and it was based on John Dewey’s idea that experience and education are one and the same (read John Dewey’s Experience and Education to learn more). As a result, the goals and objectives of Live and Learn were focused on creating meaningful learning experiences and were thus more project-based and less academic in nature. It was the students, and not the teachers/mentors, who decided what to do every semester, albeit, there were two requirements for the projects chosen: they had to be worthwhile and they had to be done as a team. We did everything from building go-carts, to planting gardens, to doing service projects, to producing newsletters, to performing plays, to forming hand-bell choirs, to discussing stories, and (even!) to playing team sports. The wonderful thing about all these projects and activities was that there was enough variety and flexibility within each one that all participants were able to find something they felt comfortable with and were interested in. We did a lot of math, reading, and writing, as every project required, but what I found most valuable (and certainly most enjoyable) was our involvement in the community.

I realize that this sort of program can’t necessarily happen in the regular classroom, nor, I guess, should it. At some point, you really do need to sit down and study various subjects on your own. I’m thoroughly convinced, though, that high school juniors and seniors could use their time way more effectively if they were required to do more community service and were allowed to get all their unpaid internships out of the way before college (i.e. stay out of the traditional classroom as much as possible). Furthermore, I think that all students would benefit from a more integrated, relevant, and applied curriculum (see Raja T. Nasr’s Whole Education for more information). I actually designed my own curriculum during my high school years after my dad’s program closed down, and it was great because I was able to tailor it to my own interests and needs. However, what I liked about my dad’s program (and couldn’t replicate on my own) was the collaborative learning that happened naturally. It wasn’t something that was contrived by the teacher, which was how it was in college.

There are very few Standards of Learning that I like, but one from Virginia’s Communication, Speaking, Listening, and Media Literacy for 10th graders is fantastic: “Collaborate with others to exchange ideas, develop new understandings, make decisions, and solve problems.” I wonder, though, how this can actually happen in the classroom the way it naturally did in my dad’s program.

Bridging English (the best English textbook of all time!) offers a variety of ways to use technology and literature to improve communication and increase collaboration. Ideas range from having students record themselves reciting a poem or literary passage, to having them perform a play or produce a film, to having them go out to a local rest home and collect stories from the residents living there. I love all of these ideas for three reasons. Fist, all of the suggestions are easily adaptable and can be done individually or as a group. Second, they combine or integrate a variety of skills and subject areas, which allows all students to find something of interest or meaning to them. Third and finally, they’re all project-based, which allows the students to create or produce something in the end that is worthwhile to them and the community as a whole. The idea to interview residents of a rest home, for example, helps students naturally develop skills in listening, talking, interviewing, recording, transcribing, summarizing, writing, and editing; it increases content knowledge in language arts and social studies (and, depending on the interviewee, math, science, politics, construction, architecture, technology, art, music, etc.); and it requires students to step outside of themselves (and their classrooms, schools, and cyber-worlds) and use technology to bring people together.

I find it interesting that the only times I’ve observed collaborative learning being done effectively was at the elementary and middle school levels. Of all the teachers I observed, there were two teachers (one in elementary and the other in middle) that actually incorporated collaborative learning activities in their classrooms in effective ways. All of the high school teachers I observed stuck with very traditional tactics. (Or what I’d call lame tactics, if we’re talking about Sustained Silent Reading. This “research-based” method basically involves the teacher forcing students to read silently in class for twenty to forty minutes while he/she checks his/her email or finishes grading homework. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that teachers are overworked and underpaid and that students have way too much homework to do, but the idea behind Sustained Silent Reading—that students don’t/won’t read at home and should be forced to do so at school—bugs me. Of course the research supports it! Students are reading more than ever before and improving as a result! My only question is what’s the point of going to school now? Why don’t’ we just all stay home and read? Oh wait, that’s what I did as a homeschooler—voluntarily.)

All this now brings me to Shelley Wright, who is doing collaborative learning effectively at the high school level, and whose work needs to be applauded. After teaching a unit on the Holocaust five times Shelley finally decided to do something different the sixth time around. She realized that “because [she] was responsible for distilling the information, [she] learned much more than [her students] did” and decided to have her students create and curate a Holocaust museum instead. The end result was a successful collaborative project that the students prepared for and presented all on their own! For an entire unit of learning on a subject that is as difficult as it is meaningful, Shelley was definitely a “guide on the side” letting her students take control and be responsible for their own learning. Bravo, Shelley. Everyone needs to read her blog and then like/post it on their Facebook or something.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the perks and non-perks of the Flipped Classroom, a tactic that I think is much more effective than Sustained Silent Reading, especially when it comes to collaborative learning. I guess I will also discuss the perks of Sustained Silent Reading as well, for Susan Cain’s sake and for my own, since I was so biased about it in this post. Stay tuned! Or blogged (this is a blog, not a radio)?