Report cards were handed out at our school yesterday. If you’ve read my blog before, follow me on Twitter, or have ever had a glass of wine with me, you can probably infer how I feel about these days.
It seems to me that no matter how we frame them, report cards have a perplexing, if not devastating effect on the way our learners approach collaboration. Never mind the other ways it impacts self-efficacy and motivation (see Joe Bower’s For the Love of Learning blog). I stood aghast watching a school full of little people play the wadjyaget game. I threw up in my mouth a little.
In Ontario, we are supposed to assess and evaluate something we call Learning Skills. These are broken down into the following: Responsibility, Organization, Independent Work, Self-Regulation, Initiative, and Collaboration (see @benhazzard and others’ great resource which clarifies what these concepts mean).
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the latter skill, collaboration. Or, rather, collaborative environments. Here’s where I see the distinction.
Collaboration occurs when two or more parties join powers in an effort to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. For true collaboration to be taking place, all members of the team need to be equally invested in the result. In classrooms and schools around the world, situations that demand collaboration are normal if not pervasive. Of course, the extent to which the advanced skills required to be successful collaborators are being fostered is another question altogether.
Collaboration is the most wonderful thing in the world. When you’re in that team zone where members are clear about their roles, communicate with ease, and have an intrinsic impulse to succeed, there really is no pharmaceutical to match it.
The thing about collaboration though is that it can still be just an event. As in, Man, that project we did together was so awesome! I wish we could do it again. What is more, we often associate these times as ones shared with relatively like minded people. For instance, I love working with friends like @techieang and @slouca11 (just to name a couple) because we share certain foundational world views.
I see the creation and fostering of collaborative environments or spaces as a little bit of a different animal. Collaborative spaces don’t necessarily have a clear end in mind. Or, rather, it is an end in itself. A collaborative environment means that every single person says this:
I cannot be who I want to be without these other people.
My number one goal as a teacher is to do everything in my power to remove barriers to this process. I am in no way implying that I have actually managed to achieve this ideal, nor am I suggesting that it does not ebb and flow (there’s no finish line). What I am saying is that I am trying as hard as I can.
Forget words and rhetoric. No need to tell people, let alone kids, to be nice to one another, share ideas, and to put group interests above selfish concerns. It’s not about what you preach, it’s about what you do. It’s about the structure. So what are the barriers?
I don’t have all the answers. Still, I think there are two big areas we selectively ignore on a regular basis.
Literally Practicing What We Preach
If you want to create a collaborative learning space with kids, try your best to learn in one yourself. For instance, until I personally experienced collaborative teacher moderation of student work samples, I had no conscious idea of how to transfer that model to the classroom. It completely dumbfounds me, for instance, that I am frequently meeting educators asking me for assistance on leveraging social media in their classrooms while not participating in a professional learning network themselves. If you want to explore how social media fosters collaborative attitudes and practices in your group of learners, I would engage in one yourself.
Assessment and Evaluation
The way we assess progress and evaluate quality has to match what we say is important. So, if you are telling your kids that goal setting means to strive for ten more percentage points, then by all means, use those functions in Excel or Markbook and put a percentage mark on everything that happens in the room (I am fully aware that some of us are mandated to use these tools). But I might also suggest that you should perhaps avoid simultaneously clumping kids together in group work and projects as well, for there exists a paradox of sorts here. On the other hand, if you are telling kids that everyone is an expert at something, and that leveraging of individual differences in a group results in larger, wider reaching, and sustainable success, then you should probably put that gradebook with the millions of tiny boxes in the recycling bin.
Sometimes it’s not what you ‘teach’, say, or even do. Sometimes collaborative spaces are created and maintained by simply stopping certain processes that are directly in conflict with them.
And now for a somewhat apt but mostly gratuitous Voltron analogy: