Tag Archives: 21st century skills

Teaching Students How to Collaborate

I wrote extensively about my thoughts on the difference between cooperation and collaboration in the  post Distinctions Between Cooperation and Collaboration. I even briefly discussed how it can be taught.

With the increasing educational emphasis on collaboration, the big question involves how to teach it, which requires a closer look. While it may be obvious it definitely bears highlighting that collaboration is a much higher order thinking skill. It relies heavily on the ability to engage in critical and creative thinking, as well as a certain degree of self-efficacy. Of course all of this gets to the heart of the ideas in Vygotsky and Bandura, some pretty heady stuff.

Perhaps one of the gravest mistakes in attempts to teach collaboration is the absence of teaching. teachers don’t so much teach collaboration as much as they  expect that it will happen. Often it is falsely assumed that working together is natural. Humans are social creatures ergo social learning is a natural consequence. Anyone who has made this mistake almost immediately recognizes the fallacy of this assumption, but have little idea as to what to do about it.

The problem is that teaching collaboration is not easy and requires quite a bit of preparation and scaffolding. Student success in collaboration is the fruit of a lot of earlier labor. In essence, collaboration requires teachers to “work together” with students in the early going to help facilitate successful experiences. They need a lot of practice, however. many opportunities to make mistakes, and reflect That ultimately leads to more successful experiences. Students will become more capable, gaining self-efficacy with each successful experience. Only then are they ready to meet those initial expectations on their own.

Thus, scaffolding is key, and may involve using smaller more cooperative activities that build towards collaboration over time. Moreover, it remains crucial for students  to continue developing individually, gaining more self-efficacy in a range of activities. So partnership activities with equal status and responsibilities build initial mastery and pave the way for additional members and the prospects of a group. Yet, once a group includes three or more members, the degree of complexity increases significantly.

This means that we educators have to celebrate some of the failed attempts at collaboration in the beginning, particularly when they are instructive failures. As students reflect and understand what went wrong and develop preventative measures for the next opportunity, they are one step closer to proficiency.

Accordingly, successful methods and experiences need to be celebrated as well. Additionally, these must be used as models for others. This is important, because it is difficult to use modeling techniques for collaboration without having students observe collaboration happening, first-hand. It can be done, however. In essence, we must catch them when they are good, regularly

In the early going, we also need to establish equally demanding designated roles necessary for successfully accomplishing a task. This may require a greater degree of planning, but is crucial until the roles are assimilated and the students have a level of mastery that will allow them to share responsibilities or deviate from them when necessary. Another layer of sophistication is providing an array of protocols that can be used to both manage the work but also to address problems as they inevitably arise.

With plenty of opportunities and patience, on the part of teacher and students, they can be taught more effective collaborative practices.

Reviewing the Flat Classroom Pedagogy & Structure

In reviewing the Flat Classroom Project wikis, I was struck by how much has changed even since I first participated with a class. The projects keep evolving and improving, but they also seem to be getting increasingly complicated. I raise this point because there is an inherent complexity to the nature of the Flat Classroom Project, no question about that. However, complexity should never be confused with complicated. Complexity is desirable, challenging and invigorating for students. Complicated is undesirable, labyrinthine and confusing for students. As the scale of these projects continue to grow, there needs to be safeguards to limit how complicated the project gets while preserving its complexity. Of course this is easily said than done, but seems well worth pursuing. Nevertheless, the benefits continue to far outweigh any drawbacks.

Since first participating, I have thought that the central pedagogy of the Flat Classroom Project, a collaborative group wiki and a primarily individually student produced video, was a genius pairing of tasks. Still do. In fact, I have convinced my own team of ninth grade teachers of its merits, and we are developing a stripped down localized riff on the same premise, collaborative video and individual video.

As an English teacher these projects offer a lot of different kinds of composition opportunities, text, multimedia, individual, and collaborative. Very few, if any, projects provide the volume of opportunities in the a single project. Add to that the exposure to the number of tools, students are asked to think deeply about a range of issues related to producing multiple demonstrations of their understanding about a topic. The must engage in a substantial amount of reading, writing, and viewing as they conduct research. There is a fundamental inquiry disposition. In turn, there are significant demands to synthesizing the information gathered. Ultimately, creating two separate but related products.

The wiki component, which is primarily text based, requires understanding the rhetorics of hyperlinking, citation and referencing sources, as well as rich media content integration. These requirements, while rooted in traditional text-based composition practice, call for more than traditional research paper assignments and even eclipse many multi-genre research assignments. Combine this with the collaborative nature of the product development and there are multiple opportunities for deep and varied skill development as well as differentiation.

One of the other less obvious strengths of the collaborative wiki is that involves writing, but it is writing that is situated in such a way that it demands conversation among participants and involves a significant degree of explicit and implicit negotiation. It also provides a challenge to certain traditional notions of authorship, which present a variety of choices to each individual writer participant. All are supremely authentic writing experiences. Moreover, without a single individual being responsible for all creation, each individual can contribute their strengths and continue to develop areas of weakness. This outcome can be strengthened through direct observation and interventions as well as the design of the assessments.

The video component, which is primarily visually based, requires understanding of basic design principles, grammar of motion pictures, as well as a host of audio and visual production techniques. These requirements, rooted in media composition practice that is both old and new, call for far more than levels of communication than a typical written assignments and inherently furnish interdisciplinary connections. Creating a multimedia artifact is primarily an individual task, with the exception of an outsourced clip, extends opportunities for varied and differentiated levels of production experience.

The less obvious strength of the video is also related to writing. However, this is the digital writing, for lack of a better phrase. Many, if not all, elements of authorial skill and craft are at play in the development of a multimedia artifact. It provides technical challenges that also present a number of choices to the creator. Plus, the task begs for the employment of documentary techniques, which mirror development of traditional text-based essay but renders a richer, more expressive product. It is the more independent task of the two and allows for greater individuality of expression and assessment.

Together these core aspects of the project are a rare combination of products to accompany the completion of a project. For one, most projects render a single product. Additionally, most projects lead to a product that is either an individual achievement or the result of a group effort.  The Flat Classroom Project affords a lot of economy of instruction, where multiple wide-ranging demands, result in deep engagement with higher order thinking skills and involve two separate demonstrations of understanding.

One area that does warrant systematic and frequent review is the number of tools that are necessary for full participation in the project. This is where the projects can grow more complicated than complex. Of course part of what drives the various versions of The Flat Classroom Project is a commitment to Web 2.0 tools. Additionally, the projects encourage participants to develop their own personal learning environments. As a result, an ecology of Web 2.0 tools can play apart in both the administration and participation of the project.

Within this ecology there are both critical features and unnecessary redundancies. Add to this the individual preferences of each teacher and class full of participants and suddenly the list of potential tools used grows pretty long. This can at times hinder more than enhance productivity and can lead to a certain degree of fatigue, especially regarding inter-project communication. It also tends to be at the main intersection of confusion for students.

Considering there is only so much that can be accomplished within the given time frame of the projects, it is critical that each potential new tool must be examined closely and pass a high critical threshold before being folded into the project. It is particularly important for organizers to demonstrate a circumspect restraint. Choices about additional tools that individual classes or students self-select is and should remain free and open. It is primarily in the list of tools needed for teachers to administrate and students to fully participate that needs to stay as lean as possible.

I do think that the forthcoming Flat Classroom book may well provide enough prerequisite understandings for any teachers contemplating participation. Yet the pace of change in Web 2.0 tools will always necessitate some vigilance in this aspect of the projects.

Still, one of the greatest virtue of The Flat Classroom Project is the pedagogical framework. it is flexible and can easily be modified to suit many purposes and has a certain degree of overall content neutrality, while promoting progressive methods of technology integration and skill development.

Freshmen Technology Seminar Designed as an Introductory Foundation

This year, my school has opted to conduct what is being calling the Freshmen Technology Seminar, which is comprised of six hour and a half periods that are meant to introduce incoming student to a host of digital tools and practices. It is ambitious and plans involved way more material than can possibly addressed in that allotted time. Unfortunately, I was not really involved in the planning of the program or its forthcoming execution. I must admit that left me a little salty, since I definitely could have offered a lot to the initiative, but like most issues in schools, it came down to things like money and teaching hours. Hopefully, I will be engaged on the periphery, which is looking likely.

Looking over the material, my first concern was that it was going to be primarily spent getting all of the students set up with all of the proper accounts with various tools, most notably Google. All students are getting a Google account with our own domain, which is a boon. There is a fair portion of time that is devoted to that. However, the group of educators that participated were certainly more ambitious than that, which is a testament to them and the kind of staff at our school. Of course, they have grown ultimately too ambitious and are likely to be spending a lot of time working out the kinks as they reflect on how it goes in retrospect. It only just began this week. So I will be monitoring it closely. Plus, despite my somewhat wary tone, I actually think that it is a pretty laudable effort regardless.

My main contention is that the kind of material that has been packaged in this seminar cannot be effectively distributed in the time frame or isolated from practical applications. The technology tools are in some ways the sole content of the course, which always seems flawed to me. Moreover, there is no mechanism, as of yet, to systematically embed any follow-up with any core classes. This leaves me wondering about the overall effectiveness and how it can even be measured. In talking with a few colleagues involved, it does look like there will at least be a definite chance for me to build on some of the introductions quite quickly. In fact, I have been waiting to do a few related initiatives in my classes until this got rolling. Thus, I saved some precious class time and avoided potential student confusion by having the students get multiple redundant accounts.

It is safe to say that the Google accounts will be used readily and Docs will once again become a core tool used in my class. Two years ago I had all of students submitting their work via Google Docs but had to subsequently shelf the practice due to all kinds of network related issues last year and knowing that this seminar was going to happen this year. Moreover, the associated Blogspot accounts will get almost immediate use in my class as I migrate one assignment in particular to a regular blog post. Additionally, the research and copyright sections of the seminar will dovetail nicely with the end of the semester, and all freshmen classes will engage in research projects first thing in the new semester.

The one thing I have always been able to say about the school where I work is that it is a rare instance where initiatives like this completely fail. Even when things are put together on the hoof, our staff is resourceful, committed, and talented enough to find ways to make things work.

Unit one is entitled “Your Digital Footprint,” which is primarily associated with online behavior and at least in part concerned with digital citizenship. The lesson is pretty spare. So, we’ll se how it goes. I am definitely planning some reverse mentoring as I fold the material into my classes and will share some of my findings.