Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Collaborative Teaching/Learning

I did read through all of the suggested stimulus material on the benefits of collaborative learning and the tools for such learning.  My personal experience with collaborative learning contains a mix of successes and failures.  When I was a student myself, I enjoyed some of the groups I engaged in collaborative learning with.  Those times were made enjoyable by the fact that all of the group members were motivated learners and each fully participated.  There were other times when the experience left me feeling cheated by the fact that some members contributed little to nothing and yet received a group mark for the work done by the others.  The collaborative effort was flawed by the fact that most of my teachers graded the group as a whole rather than figuring out a way to credit individual effort.  Most of the teachers felt that pressure from the more motivated members of the group would encourage the slackers to do something.  That was a false hope in most cases.  While I was in graduate school, group collaboration was still being practiced, but more by the choice of the students, rather than being mandated by the professors.  That worked much better because we freely chose and sought out those we wanted to work with.  The self-directed nature of these groups resulted in many valuable experiences.

Once I became a teacher, I remembered the experiences I had with collaborative learning and attempted to use it with my students.  This did work very well during my first 8 years of teaching because those years were spent in multi-grade settings.  Admittedly, the use of collaborative learning in my first school, which was a single teacher with grades 1 through 8 setting, was a means to survival.  To my surprise it worked well because previously unmotivated students became eager to teach and learn as they worked with one another across the grade levels.  I did remember my own experiences as a student and was very careful to give individual credit for group projects.

When I taught high school for the next 13 years, I continued to use collaborative learning.  The level of success over those years was rather mixed.  Some students would try to get through on the work of others and I would get complaints from parents when other members of the group received higher marks for their work.  It was very time consuming to develop rubrics and a rationale for the marks given to group members, but it had to be done to answer the concerns of parents.  I do say 'parents' here, because the students always knew how much work they had actually put into the group effort, but had to offer up some excuse for their low marks to their parents.  Of course there were some at the other end of the spectrum who objected to the use of collaborative learning, because they felt that the less academically gifted in the group would hinder the progress of their 'brilliant' offspring.

I have recognized the value of collaborative learning for many years and was particularly interested to read about and explore some of the tools that technology has made available to enhance the collaborative learning process.  The use of Google Docs, Google+ and Wikis makes it easier to work as a group while enabling the teacher to recognize individual effort through the use of Blogs.  Technology has advanced to where we now have tablets that are more portable than many textbooks and yet just as powerful as a desktop computer through the use of 'the Cloud.'  With this technology, students are able to continue collaborating outside the confines of the classroom.  Many students use the classroom as a social gathering place and generate more ideas outside of that setting.  Those ideas now no longer have to be lost before returning to the classroom.  The 21st century teacher could act as a guide to the use of the numerous tools available and then provide the stimulus to get the students started on a journey of learning that they will enjoy.

The Collaborative Learning Overview pointed out that a very low percentage of learning for the workplace takes place in the classroom.  The highest percentage of learning is through on-the-job experience, followed by interaction with co-workers.  If our education system is truly preparing students for the workplace, these facts need to be carefully considered and our methods of delivery of instruction follow suit.  Human beings do not exist in isolation.  Large enterprises are not carried out by the individual.  For society to function successfully, collaboration is essential.  Should not our education system reflect that?

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