Collaborating, Working Together and Sitting Side by Side

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Yesterday I read some of my students the riot act. During a lab, they were goofing around and letting all the others in their group do the work for them. Sound familiar? I excused them outside for a few minutes and after a quick chat, asked them if they'd like to come back in and participate. At the end of the activity when were comparing density of sediments, I addressed the students and apologized if I hadn't given enough guidance to individuals although each 5 person team had to measure density, sediment size and also log their data on a collaborative chart. Working together, they're able to divide up the work, focus on a job task that is interesting for them, and accomplish a task that would be difficult for any one person to do.

Did I miss something in the planning process? Inquiry: check. Technology integration: check. Real world problem solving, hands on activities, cooperative learning: check, check, check. Do how do the best laid plans of mice and men go awry? Oh yeah. Learning is messy. Students have different levels of engagement. A teacher could put together the most engaging lesson with visuals, manipulatives and when they start introducing the activity, there is at least one yawning face in the crowd.

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I find myself asking the question: how can my student's benefit from collaboration? Although my students were working together, I think sometimes the act of sitting next to each other while they're working is mistaken for collaboration. I think that the video: "To this Day" that was crowdsourced made a beautiful product: the like of which no one individual could ever do. Projects like this are popping up all around us. Will Richardson is making a "Why School" movie and is asking for interested teachers to send URL's of videos that showcase authentic student learning and I've jumped at the chance. Coincidentally, my science students have started their end of the year project on tackling the problem of beach erosion here in Vietnam through a number of activities, labs and tech tools to share their research with a larger audience. A lot more meaningful than just filming my students taking tests.

Such challenges require creativity and problem solving skills. Should students work together or individually for this? Susan Cain writes that working together can impede individual creativity when we think that working together always fosters intrapersonal skills. Psychologist Adrian Furnham says:

“If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

How does a teacher with all their demands manage such work environments? It's no longer good enough to have a sound understanding of one's curriculum and good assessment practices, but become a networked educator, experiment with technology integration and see what other innovators are doing in the world of education. Through this we as a collective body teach one another, invite review and get ideas that spark a pedagogical shift in our teaching philosophy that makes students feel like we appreciate them for their own interests and talents and genuinely want to harness them. If we don't innovate, we stagnate.

Blueprints for this style of learning are sketchy because we don't even know what meaningful collaboration should or could look like. Ideological models pop up but are waved to in passing as teachers drive by on the way to slogging through a curriculum with no interest in using this new knowledge or skills for anything meaningful. I like to think that every teacher has a choice to participate in these, but also be a sharer of such victories when students are engaged in activities where they feel that they have "made a difference". Networking with my PLN has given me such ideas and I'm hoping our beach erosion study this month will be a nice stepping stone for "Genius Hour" projects next year in grade 7 science.

All of this makes me feel like I can do better. Teach better. Inspire better. Funny how things that we so firmly believed in doing five years ago have given way to more innovative learning styles and I wonder if my thoughts today will go by the wayside as students start using Google glass in the near future. I can't imagine any other profession that is so multidisciplinary, so rapidly evolving, so frightening, so exciting and so rewarding.

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