Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Collaboration Done Well...

Our district watched a movie last year that focused on bringing the institution of education into the 21st century. It was enlightening and provoked a number of collegial questions and personal reflections. Here is the latest version of the movie, which is only 5 minutes instead of 9.

I remember watching it the first time; I liked it. It drew me in. I even remember watching it a few times because it was so interesting. But there was also something that struck me as "propagandish" or "indoctrinating" about it. (Yes, I'm making up words, now.) I agree wholeheartedly with some of the foundation of the movie. I believe that educators need to stay in touch with their students' lives—learn how they learn, prepare them to teach themselves, use what they know to help them construct new knowledge or correct misconceptions, and prepare them to think critically and compassionately through life's journey outside the school walls. So why would a movie designed to inspire teachers to do that make me hesitate?

I think I may have figured out a part of it over the past couple months. I have given a few presentations on Collaboration/Community-Building to pre-service and new teachers lately. It seems that some essential steps are missing when teachers try to do collaborative activities. They are using technology as a replacement for student-student interactions, and it is obvious that the skills needed to work with others have not yet been appropriately modeled; the scaffolding is missing. I observed and listened to teachers talk about how they were using Powerpoints, wikis, blogs, Google docs, and even e-mail as tools for communication. And although this might sound progressive, there were some tragic missteps along the way.

There were a myriad of problems, from tech issues to an uneven distribution of labor to poor product quality to limited inspiration. Most of these are typical problems encountered any time you put students together to work on a project, whether technology is involved or not. There was an essential "mechanical" piece missing; students had no idea how to problem-solve, troubleshoot their way through the hurdles. I had serious concerns when students in one class couldn't put a face to an e-mail; most students didn't even know one anothers' names in the same classroom!

These types of mistakes happen in both beginning and veteran teachers' classrooms. I was shocked at how many of these issues seemed to stem from teachers saying they were "strongly encouraged to implement technology" into their classrooms. Educators need to hold true to best practice education. Teacher leaders should focus on mentoring faculty through collaboration and how to effectively implement this methodology in the classroom. For instance, model it as a department, committee or school. Have teachers observe you in the classroom implementing a workshop, jigsaw, round robin or any other common collaborative activity. They'll see how important it is to teach the basics, such as how to ask a question. ("You should ask, 'Can you teach me how to do number 1? Can you show me where to find an example for number 1?' But you shouldn't be asking, 'What's the answer to number 1?'") Or teach them how to talk appropriately to one another. ("How you say something is as important as what you say. So use the proper tone and language.") Or illustrate how to debate ideas and not attack individuals. ("You should be asking, 'What evidence can you use to support that argument?' You should not be saying, 'That's stupid. My idea makes more sense!'") Once participants have gone through the activity, illustrate how important feedback is to the growth of the community. ("Here's what you did well. Here's what we need to improve on.") All the while, whether done in a professional or classroom setting, the observant teacher will get to see the important pieces of collaboration in action. They'll watch people interacting and learn from their behaviors. They will begin to instinctually understand the benefits of collaboration. The addition of the technology tools to potentially improve collaboration will also be better understood. What's more, the reason for using the new tool will be much more apparent because the foundation is in place. Practicing in a manner that allows you and the students to interact with one another is a critical learning piece for everyone in the community.

Teaching students and/or other teachers how to interact constructively together towards achieving a common goal is an objective that is imperative for all areas of life. And it is these interpersonal skills that are needed to develop a sense of self, to reflect and grow. And they can never be replaced by technology. But technology can be used to enhance them, if implemented correctly.