Monday, May 25, 2015

Working in Isolation vs Collaboration

from Dangerously Irrelevant:
Joe Bower said:
I would never ask students to complete anything that is worth doing in complete isolation from their peers, parents, books, or the Internet. I’ve worked hard to encourage my students to see collaboration as a critical characteristic of learning.
I would never lock my students in a closet, forcing them to do meaningless work for years and letting them eat only a small bowl of thin porridge each day. That's the way that reductive capitalism works: a sweatshop producing clothing for Walmart, not the education that we desire in this country. 

Joe is, unfortunately, making the same mistake that almost all "Collaboration Uber Alles" proponents make. There are three stages to learning in my view; true collaboration is appropriate and achievable in only one of them.

First, a definition: Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. Good enough to begin with.

The First Stage
First Stage Learning.
  • The first stage of education is learning the basics, learning the foundation work upon which the understanding can be built. If we are examining A-SSE.2, multiplication of polynomials is required before we can possibly recognize and utilize structure in expressions. You need to have done this first part before being able to recognize that x² - y² is equivalent to (x+y)(x-y). 
  • This is strictly solo work in that the student must be doing the learning. The teacher and classmates can explain, describe, tutor, re-explain ... but acquiring this preliminary knowledge is the job of the individual. No one else can master it for him, they can only master it for themselves. 
  • Collaboration does not exist at this stage, only parallel learning. Peer coaching is not collaboration, but a "multiple-teacher" scenario. This is where formative assessment is appropriate because we absolutely do NOT want any misunderstandings to be introduced or practiced or internalized — errors must be fixed here before they are ingrained.
  • The Internet, their peers, parents, books, are useful in that they are teachers with varying degrees of understanding ranging from competent to utterly and absolutely wrong. The "wrong" can be misguided, such as the videos put up by well-meaning folks who say that the order of operations is "multiply first, then divide", thinking 30 ÷ 2 * 3 equals 5 instead of 45. The "wrong" can also be peers playing a joke, such as the "friend" who says that 26 ÷ 65 equals 2/5 because you can cancel the sixes. Of course, the "wrong" can be malicious or deluded, such as the folks who claim that the Earth is 6000 years old.

Andrew Old:
"If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something."
The Second Stage 
  • The second stage is the time when we take that basic knowledge and develop it, building the deeper understandings that are our goal. Some collaboration happens at this stage, but mostly the individual is exploring, researching, expanding the understandings that are the point of this whole thing.
  • Again, the peer-to-peer work that is happening here is less "learning" and more taking turns questioning, extending the idea (does x4 - y4 behave in a similar fashion?) Where else can we go with this? 
  • The Internet, peers, parents, etc., are still not collaboration, but they do contribute to the student's learning. In fact, this is the ideal time for students to see other points of view, watch different explanations and determine the correlations and reconcile the differences. I encourage watching Khan at this point with the question, "What do you think of his explanation?"
At the end of Stage Two is the usual spot for summative assessment, the dreaded chapter test. Why "dreaded"? Because the students have JUST internalized it but rarely are comfortable with it yet. Done properly, though, the chapter test is often the fusion of all of the disparate details, the time when the students have to put everything together. I often hear students say that "Now I understand."

It's also why I allow retakes, because I feel that understanding on a deadline is less important than being able to say at the end of the course "You know Algebra 2".  I suppose this is the essence of Proficiency-Based Learning, but I have never liked re-labeling what we do in order to pretend that we are reforming.
The Third Stage
Re-purposed wrecking ball.
  • The third stage of learning is the time when students get comfortable with their understandings, where they extend an idea, test it, and revise it themselves, where they produce a product, something new — to themselves at least, if not to the teacher or the world, but there are certainly cases in which the work was completely new, an invention or discovery.
  • This is the only place where collaboration is actually realistic. Since I define "collaboration" as "multiple students working on the same project, contributing to each phase of the work and trusting each other to complete their respective parts", I cannot see collaboration as the time when you are learning the material, but as the time when you take that learning and produce something.
We must discuss Alfie Kohn:
“I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do” is really just code for “I want to see what you can do artificially deprived of the skills and help of the people around you. Rather than seeing how much more you can accomplish in a well-functioning team that’s more authentic like real life.”
If we are discussing education, then I absolutely DO want to know what you can do, what you have learned and internalized. How else am I to re-teach, help, differentiate?

Joe Bower, again:
"In the real world, there simply aren’t that many times you are expected to solve a problem or perform a task in complete isolation – and even if you were, it would be awfully archaic to refuse you the opportunity to reach out for the help you needed to get the task done.
In the RealWorld that I've been a part of, there is not a single company that didn't expect a baseline level of knowledge and understanding. They have no interest in an employee who can't work alone, or who can't do his part of a collaborative task. They don't want someone who needs to consult other resources constantly, in order to do the simplest of tasks. They want to know how good a resource you will be when someone has to ask you for help.

Bottom line:
  • Collaboration is students each working from knowledge and understanding to produce something together, sharing the work or parceling out pieces for each to work on simultaneously.
  • Collaboration is not a pathway to learning and often is detrimental to the learning process since many students leave the thinking and learning to the quickest in the group ... "He answered so I don't have to think about the question." or "I'll just repeat what she said."
  • Collaboration before all of the partners are proficient is counter-productive. If all participants aren't at the proficient point, there will be one who winds up doing most of the work in frustration, worried that her grades will slip because the quality of the product is below her standards.
  • Collaboration is not a substitute for teaching.
Thanks for reading. I've got to get back to work.

1 comment:

  1. Such common sense in your post, but it seems to elude so many. For the life of me, I can't figure out why.