Announcing the first OESIS-XP Pathway on Collaborative Learning
This September, OESIS is launching its XP Pathways initiative to help educators apply ideas from OESIS network resources to their classrooms. We understand that when presented with so many options for learning one might appreciate suggestions for where to begin to get one’s feet wet. The purpose of pathways is to be that catalyst for getting started. OESIS Network Leaders are working on curating content more intentionally by selecting videos & resources that can aid the XP user in learning more about a specific competency, such as Critical Thinking. Pathways are a place to find connections to other resources outside the network as well as connections to other users within the OESIS-XP community. With this in mind, we thought the appropriate place to start would be collaboration, emphasizing its importance both for educators and for students.
1. Knowledge is a collaborative enterprise
Descartes once offered the analogy of the architect to make the case that an individualist enterprise yields better results than working on a project collectively (Discourse on Method, Part Two). It was a radical notion that made perfect sense in a world where few were educated, but I wonder if today’s scientists would agree, considering that most advancements are the result of a community of engaged thinkers and learners working together (which is probably true of contemporary architecture as well). Although we could characterize the last century of education as a Cartesian one (Individualism over Collectivism; Reason over Emotion; Mind over Body), perhaps we’ve come full circle on how we value collaborative enterprises. We know we need to prepare learners for a world that is connected, where experts are abundant and have much to share with each other, and students need the skills and experiences necessary to thrive in such collaborative environments, and this is true for teachers as well.
2. Collaboration inspires lifelong learning
I entered my first classroom as an independent school instructor 14 years ago. Fresh out of graduate school, my eagerness was obvious: I couldn’t wait to spread my love for literature, and surely my passion would be contagious, right? With a sense of Cartesian heroism, I selected my reading lists, prepared lectures & frameworks for class discussions (based on years of training in my content area), and proceeded to teach in the likeness of my graduate professors who helped shape in me a sense of individual competency and expertise. What was I thinking? As if secondary education is about the transmission of knowledge from expert to amateur (hint: it’s about so much more!). You might be able to guess what happened next: to put it mildly, my spirits were crestfallen. Why weren’t my students as fascinated as I was by this undeniably valuable content? Why were they so disinterested and passive? The content was fantastic, by the way, but my pedagogy was limited, to say the least.
Fast forward a few years, I started to understand more about student centered learning, realizing the importance of designing curriculum where skills were at the forefront. I attended a conference and heard Pat Bassett, NAIS President at the time, speak about the importance of the 6 Cs, and by this time, I had made a resolution: I was going to focus on the idea of making learning more collaborative in my classes. That was the ‘C’ I was going to focus on. My idea, however, was still a traditional one: I was going to host a paper conference for high school students from various campuses, which was less of an ongoing collaborative practice and more of an event that would serve as a wonderful memory for all involved. The real turning point for me was an email I received while preparing for this upcoming project. Joel Garza, Upper School English Chair at Greenhill School, suggested we have our students start collaborating right then (the conference was months away). The email startled me: How would we collaborate? I’m not very savvy with all this digital technology. But I realized something. My demands for students to collaborate meant they had to get out of their comfort zones, and that’s what Joel was demanding of me, meaning I had no choice. I had to say yes. Our classes blogged together and visited each other’s campuses. Students traded podcasts and answered each other’s inquiries, and they began to do so for reasons well beyond a single grade. It was transformative, but it only worked as well as it did because we as teachers were transparent about our collaborative efforts as well. Since then I have grown exponentially as a teacher, in ways beyond the single competency of collaboration. However, it was “the first C” that started it all. The call to collaborate got me out of my comfort zone, which was frightening, but because of this, I discovered the joys of being stretched by others to accomplish something that could never have been done by a single person.
3. Modeling: Collaborative teaching leads to collaborative learning
When I first encouraged students to embrace the idea of collaborative group work, I usually concluded such endeavors feeling frustrated. Students always found a way to “divide the labor” and simply complete the minimum tasks required for his or her portion of the project. It wasn’t authentic, but more importantly, I wasn’t appreciating what they had to go through. When reflecting on our collaborative experiences, Joel Garza offered an insight that sometimes we gloss over too quickly when encouraging people to put themselves out there: “Standing in the way of successful collaboration, in my experience, is a tremendous amount of ungrounded fear and anxiety that we don’t even want to name” (“A Tale of Three Classrooms” K12 Online Conference 2014). It’s so true, and it’s what makes things so challenging. Teachers, like everyone else, fear the idea of failing publicly as well as the idea of not being in control. Collaboration, however, requires us to embrace these possible outcomes. When I began to model for students successful collaborative practices, not only did they begin to collaborate more authentically, I too became a more empathetic teacher. I knew what was being demanded of them, but more importantly I felt it as well.
Teaching methods model for students the kinds of behaviours and habits we want to see them practice. What does Cartesian individualism, for instance, model for students as a method for teaching, lesson preparation, etc.? One might suggest that it inspires students to be confident individuals as well. I would caution, however, that it could serve the opposite end, namely communicating to them that there is an individual expert in the room, thereby encouraging the learner to be a passive recipient of the expert’s construction of the content. This is the same passivity I confronted in my early years of teaching. To me such modeling runs contrary to the kind of skills we want to cultivate in students to prepare them as leaders in the collaborative communities of their future careers. Students need to see us collaborate with peers so that they understand we don’t have all the answers, so they realize that to be successful one must network with others and participate in a community of lifelong learners. This is how we make space for them to become individuals in our classrooms. I would argue that it is only by way of collaboration that we discover our confidence as individuals. The binaries are not exclusive.
This is the central reason for September’s pathway: We want to encourage XP users, first of all, to collaborate with each other by engaging the OESIS resources as a community, but what’s most important is to do so for purposes of providing practical takeaways and ideas so we can create collaborative projects for our students that are more authentic.