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.
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|
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.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.