Friday, April 1, 2011

The irony of collaboration

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With 'collaborative learning' being one of the new buzzword in education, it won't take long for this habit of including it, in one form or another, into our daily teaching routine be the norm. But is it really an effective strategy, let alone a useful tool for teaching and learning.

For me, I do find that collaborative learning does have its intended flaws, but as a concept and an idea,  it is still basically sound. But how then should one be managing collaborative learning, to ensure that the intended outcomes are met, while taking care and managing some of its deficiencies.

I, for one, have this idea that for it to work effectively, the classroom facilitator, or teacher, would need to understand the work or lessons being covered, and the main intent of having collaboration. I would think that collaboration would and could only happen if, and only if, there is truly an exchange of enriching and almost mutually exclusive content amongst the students. Or in another way, it would also work when there is an explicit intent to level up the expertise of the non-experts with the experts. I guess to draw a similarity here, one wouldn't buy an exact copy of the pair of shoes that one is having, unless of course there are some non-rational explanations for it. Maybe the same designs with a different colour, or shades of colour or with some minor enhancements...perhaps...but definitely not of the same exact design, colour, size, etc....well you know what I mean.

And to add to that argument, collaborative learning would also work, if and only if, there is this process, or perhaps criteria, that ensures that each and every one of them has almost the same level of importance towards this collaborative effort. I mean there would perhaps be no point, and in fact would be the natural human behaviour, if you suddenly find one of your students suddenly losing interest when he or she realises that his/her expertise is no longer valued, or put up to an equal footing, compared with the rest. This is perhaps why sometimes, collaborative endeavours fail. When the degree of importance is not clearly demarcated and deemed to be almost equally important, what we would have is a failure in our efforts, no matter how successful the final product is.

Which begs the question, if collaborative learning is so difficult to manage, why do we want to have it in the first place? Well, it is like asking a shoe-lover, why does he or she needs 10 pairs of shoes when he/she only has one pair of feet/legs to go with them. It is not so much of that pair of legs that is of the concern here, but the 10 pairs of shoes that are in the wardrobe (that we should worry). The leg would most probably remain quite a constant, with some variations in sizes and perhaps, colour and other minor features. More importantly is the colour of the shoes. As time goes by, and style and preferences changes, the 10 pairs might no longer suffice. One would need a lot more to cater to different situations, events and contexts. Which begs the question on the need for the development of niche areas of expertise and content knowledge!

So can we afford not to try collaborative learning? I don't think so. But more importantly, how then can we ensure that this practice is indeed successful. I for one, have no easy answer. I do have my fair share of lessons where things could, and did go either way. But that is the whole point isn't it. Knowing what doesn't work, and what works, is education for the teacher too, right? So to put the analogy of the shoes above to the question, can we then only survive, in tomorrow's day and age, with only a single pair of shoes?

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