Things You MUST Think About: Collaborative Learning and (related issue) Project Design

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This is the third in a promised gloss on each of the 11 THINGS INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS MUST BE THINKING ABOUT featured in my previous post. (I recap the entire list below the body of this post.)

#3. Collaborative learning and (related issue) project design

Kids work in groups in schools all the time—on fields, stages, courts, and in clubs like Mock Trial, Math Team, and Model U.N. At most schools they collaborate far less often in their classrooms, and a few schools actually go out of their way to discourage the kind of collaborative learning that might harness the power of stronger students to help less strong ones or might reveal multiple paths to understanding—the enormous power of peer learning. Group tasks like debates, presentations, and simulations can be extremely effective as learning tools. Social beings, we humans tend to learn well in contexts that engage the emotional facultieslike collaboration of all sorts.

One reason that educators shy away from collaborative work is the challenge of managing it. You can see it on the lacrosse field, but it’s much harder to gauge the level of contribution from each member of a project group, especially if work is done outside the classroom. But it’s not impossible, and some easily adaptable tools from the business world can help (for example, make a chart that breaks down each task, in detail, and have group members distribute these and set interim deadlines—and then make it easy for the teacher to monitor the segments); and look around, because there’s even been some work done on this topic by educators.

Of course the key to excellent project-based learning and excellent collaboration is to present students with worthy, engaging problems—rich in content and context. Two kids collaborating on a sugar-cube pyramid to complete their Egypt unit doesn’t cut it—unless the problem has real meaning: exploring and replicating ancient Egyptian mathematics and cosmology, perhaps, or creating an accompanying story that connects the pyramid concept to its deep cultural significance. Don’t expect much learning from just a sticky glue-and-paint job.

The key here, of course, is both a coherent institutional strategy and some excellent training for teachers—along with a real desire to incorporate collaboration in the service of raising student capacities to a true “21st-century” level.

So, who is thinking about collaborative learning and project design at your school?

The 11 Things:

  1. Design Thinking. What-ing? DONE
  2. Data-informed decision-making DONE
  3. Collaborative learning and (related issue) project design DONE
  4. Smart assessment of student learning
  5. Social media—for advancement
  6. Social media—in the classroom
  7. New directions for your library
  8. Online learning
  9. Strategic professional development learning
  10. Shorter horizons for strategic thinking
  11. Being Green
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