Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Collaboration Matters: A Call to Action (Reflections on the 6 Cs - Part Two)

Last September, OESIS launched its XP Pathways initiative to help educators apply ideas from OESIS network resources to their classrooms. OESIS Network Leaders are continuing to work on curating content by selecting videos & resources that can aid the OESIS user in learning more about specific competencies, such as Critical Thinking, or in this case, Collaboration. With this in mind, I wanted to share a blog post I published on the OESIS website about the value of collaboration. What follows is a Call to Collaborate (if you don't have time to read, at least skip to the bottom for the call to action).

Why Collaboration in Schools is so Important​

1. Knowledge is a collaborative enterprise
Descartes once offered the analogy of the architect to make the case that an individualist enterprise yields better results than working on a project collectively (Discourse on Method, Part Two). It was a radical notion that made perfect sense in a world where few were educated, but I wonder if today’s scientists would agree, considering that most advancements are the result of a community of engaged thinkers and learners working together (which is probably true of contemporary architecture as well). Although we could characterize the last century of education as a Cartesian one (Individualism over Collectivism; Reason over Emotion; Mind over Body), perhaps we’ve come full circle on how we value collaborative enterprises. We know we need to prepare learners for a world that is connected, where experts are abundant and have much to share with each other, and students need the skills and experiences necessary to thrive in such collaborative environments, and this is true for teachers as well.

2. Collaboration inspires lifelong learning
I entered my first classroom as an independent school instructor 14 years ago. Fresh out of graduate school, my eagerness was obvious: I couldn’t wait to spread my love for literature, and surely my passion would be contagious, right? With a sense of Cartesian heroism, I selected my reading lists, prepared lectures & frameworks for class discussions (based on years of training in my content area), and proceeded to teach in the likeness of my graduate professors who helped shape in me a sense of individual competency and expertise. What was I thinking? As if secondary education is about the transmission of knowledge from expert to amateur (hint: it’s about so much more!). You might be able to guess what happened next: to put it mildly, my spirits were crestfallen. Why weren’t my students as fascinated as I was by this undeniably valuable content? Why were they so disinterested and passive? The content was fantastic, by the way, but my pedagogy was limited, to say the least.

Frankenstein Student Conference, 2017
Fast forward a few years, I started to understand more about student centered learning, realizing the importance of designing curriculum where skills were at the forefront. I attended a conference and heard Pat Bassett, NAIS President at the time, speak about the importance of the 6 Cs, and by this time, I had made a resolution: I was going to focus on the idea of making learning more collaborative in my classes. That was the ‘C’ I was going to focus on. My idea, however, was still a traditional one: I was going to host a paper conference for high school students from various campuses, which was less of an ongoing collaborative practice and more of an event that would serve as a wonderful memory for all involved. The real turning point for me was an email I received while preparing for this upcoming project. Joel Garza, Upper School English Chair at Greenhill School, suggested we have our students start collaborating right then (the conference was months away). The email startled me: How would we collaborate? I’m not very savvy with all this digital technology. But I realized something. My demands for students to collaborate meant they had to get out of their comfort zones, and that’s what Joel was demanding of me, meaning I had no choice. I had to say yes. Our classes blogged together and visited each other’s campuses. Students traded podcasts and answered each other’s inquiries, and they began to do so for reasons well beyond a single grade. It was transformative, but it only worked as well as it did because we as teachers were transparent about our collaborative efforts as well. Since then I have grown exponentially as a teacher, in ways beyond the single competency of collaboration. However, it was “the first C” that started it all. The call to collaborate got me out of my comfort zone, which was frightening, but because of this, I discovered the joys of being stretched by others to accomplish something that could never have been done by a single person. 

The inter-institutional paper conference was a huge success, by the way. In fact, it's become a tradition of sorts in the DFW area. This year marks our 7th iteration as The Hockaday School prepares to host students from around the area for the 2019 Sandra Cisneros Colloquium, this Wednesday, February 13th.

3. Modeling: Collaborative teaching leads to collaborative learning
When I first encouraged students to embrace the idea of collaborative group work, I usually concluded such endeavors feeling frustrated. Students always found a way to “divide the labor” and simply complete the minimum tasks required for his or her portion of the project. It wasn’t authentic, but more importantly, I wasn’t appreciating what they had to go through. When reflecting on our collaborative experiences, Joel Garza offered an insight that sometimes we gloss over too quickly when encouraging people to put themselves out there: “Standing in the way of successful collaboration, in my experience, is a tremendous amount of ungrounded fear and anxiety that we don’t even want to name” (“A Tale of Three Classrooms” K12 Online Conference 2014). It’s so true, and it’s what makes things so challenging. Teachers, like everyone else, fear the idea of failing publicly as well as the idea of not being in control. Collaboration, however, requires us to embrace these possible outcomes. When I began to model for students successful collaborative practices, not only did they begin to collaborate more authentically, I too became a more empathetic teacher. I knew what was being demanded of them, but more importantly I felt it as well.

Teaching methods model for students the kinds of behaviors and habits we want to see them practice. What does Cartesian individualism, for instance, model for students as a method for teaching, lesson preparation, etc.? One might suggest that it inspires students to be confident individuals as well. I would caution, however, that it could serve the opposite end, namely communicating to them that there is an individual expert in the room, thereby encouraging the learner to be a passive recipient of the expert’s construction of the content. This is the same passivity I confronted in my early years of teaching. To me such modeling runs contrary to the kind of skills we want to cultivate in students to prepare them as leaders in the collaborative communities of their future careers. Students need to see us collaborate with peers so that they understand we don’t have all the answers, so they realize that to be successful one must network with others and participate in a community of lifelong learners. This is how we make space for them to become individuals in our classrooms. I would argue that it is only by way of collaboration that we discover our confidence as individuals. The binaries are not exclusive.


For those who might be interested, I'm looking for teachers and students who want to collaborate with my classes. Currently, I teach 4 sections of 10th grade literature. From Feb. 20th to Mar. 8th, we'll be reading 4 dystopian short stories that confront the question of technology (either directly or more subtly):

1. E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (Feb. 20th-26th)
2. Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" (Feb. 25th-28th)
3. Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" (Feb. 27th-Mar. 4th)
4. Ken Liu's "The Perfect Match." (Mar. 4th-8th)

Go here to read more details about the unit, but the basic idea is to get students from different campuses to read the 4 stories collaboratively using Hypothes.is - a platform that lets readers annotate collectively any text that can be found online.

If interested, leave a comment or reach out to me via Twitter (@jcolley8) or email (jcolley@theoakridgeschool.org), and I'll send you a link to our hypothes.is reading group. I'd love to evolve this idea more, so I'm also open to suggestions. After all, for students to collaborate effectively and successfully, they need to see teachers do it as well, so email me and help me make this project even better.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Beautiful Risk of Making Creativity Visible in Every Classroom (Reflections on the 6 Cs - Part One)

“Education itself is a creative act… Education as an act of creation, that is, as an act of bringing something new into the world, something that did not exist before” (Gert J. J. Biesta The Beautiful Risk of Education 11).


In Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, authors Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman write, “Other animals show signs of creativity, but humans are the standout performers. What makes us so? As we’ve seen, our brains interpose more neurons in areas between sensory input and motor output allowing for more abstract concepts and more pathways through circuitry. What’s more, our exceptional sociability compels humans to constantly interact and share ideas” (51). What a counter-intuitive starting point for us as educators – namely, the idea that creativity is something which all students are already capable of. Sure, we may agree with this in feeling, but examine our daily practices at schools. Creativity, more often than not, is a skill whose practice remains at the periphery of most students’ core curricular experience. It’s something we do when practicing the arts, but it’s not clear how it fits into other “core academic” classes, at least on a daily basis.

However, the quote above reminds us that, because of our neuronal networks, we naturally excel at creativity when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. But what’s more interesting is how our sociability gives us an edge over other forms of intelligence, such as computers. “To achieve a creative artificial intelligence,” writes Brandt and Eagleman, “we would need to build a society of exploratory computers, all striving to surprise and impress each other. That social aspect of computers is totally missing and this is part of what makes computer intelligence so mechanical” (31). Computers are not creative, period. And that’s because they’re not social, but do you know what computers are really good at? Accurately storing and recalling information. Humans, however, "are terrible at retaining precise, detailed information, but we have just the right design to create alternative worlds” (50). Think about that. We’re facing a future where much of the work force could be eliminated by the onslaught of more machines, yet we have something that computers don’t have, which is why creativity matters. It’s a human skill - a natural extension of who we uniquely are. It’s part of our past, present, and future legacy as a species, but school often relegates it to the periphery of a kid’s core experience. Why?


Let’s apply all this to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Shouldn’t creativity be at the foundation of Bloom’s pyramid since it’s something all students are naturally able to do well? Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison in Making Thinking Visible stress the following point: “Although Bloom’s categories capture types of mental activity and thus are useful as a starting point for thinking about thinking, the idea that thinking is sequential or hierarchical is problematic” (6). More thoughtful applications of Bloom’s framework operate under this wisdom, for sure, but think about our cultures of assessment on our campuses. We seem to assume in school that recall/remembering (namely, what computers are much better at) is the basic starting point for human learning. All core classes engage students in the mental activity of remembering and recalling, but few academic experiences put creativity at the center. Without a doubt, this is true of standardized testing as well.


How might we make creativity a foundational element of every students’ learning experience? Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman offer a conceptual framework for teaching and assessing more transparently the practice of creativity in the classroom. They suggest the threefold framework of bending, breaking, and blending as the “primary means by which all ideas evolve” (47). The three concepts are “a way of capturing the brain operations that underlie innovative thinking” (49). They go on to say, “We bend, break, and blend everything we observe, and these tools allow us to extrapolate far from reality around us” (50). In other words, this is how we as humans create new things – not by some omnipotent act of creating something out of nothing but by taking the materials around us and “calling things to life.”  As Gert J. J. Biesta puts it, “creation is ‘not a movement from non-being to being, but from being to the good’” (The Beautiful Risk of Education 14). Humans do it all the time, but schools assume we need to double down on recall and computational intelligence instead. Why might this be the case? Misreading Bloom’s pyramid has something to do with it, for sure, but it’s also because “creating is a risky business, and one has to be prepared for a lot of noise, dissent, resistance, and a general disturbance of the peace if one is of a mind to engage in [it]” (Biesta 15). Since remembering is Bloom’s baseline, we tend to assume that basic recall is the most equitable thing to test people on. What makes dispelling this notion all the more challenging is the fact that it’s a lot less risky for educators to test student recall (it’s also easier to grade). But as Biesta might say, cultivating creativity in the classroom is a beautiful risk that we simply can’t afford not to take, or else we risk something much greater: making ourselves obsolete in a world run by robots.

One place to start is by introducing students to Brandt’s and Eagleman’s framework of bending, breaking , and blending. Instead of asking students to study, memorize, and store certain content for a given course, invite students to manipulate or play with the content by turning it into something new. Warning: results will be unpredictable.

Works Cited

Biesta, Gert J. J. The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers, 2013.

Brandt, Anthony and David Eagleman. Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Catapult Publishing, 2017.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass, 2011.