The Meaning of Education Collaboration
What does collaboration in education really mean? Recently, while attending a large education conference, I was struck by this comment from a marketplace expert, “The word collaboration is all over this event. We need another word!” I was quiet for a moment, while I nodded in agreement that the word collaboration was certainly in and on everything at the event. I don’t know if another word is needed, but we certainly need to know what collaboration really means, because I don’t think most educators, or marketplace experts really do. And I think that may be where the problem lies.
Collaboration is in its simplest, and most understandable form, is getting individuals, who may or may not have similar interests, to work together in an organized endeavor to a satisfying and most appropriate group end. Now, while we hope that all the individuals feel the group end is satisfying, it can’t always be guaranteed, so therefore another “C” word needs to be learned as well, and that is compromise. That can be a bit more difficult for individual group members, but certainly is the part of collaboration that makes groups go far beyond just going through the working-together motions.
If that is still a bit difficult to understand, try this: Place a big piece of oak tag in front of a group of individuals, toss an assortment of crayons or markers onto it. Give the group the task of working together on something that has a group outcome. They decide what that outcome is as a group. What you’re really asking is for individuals to collaborate, join together as a group, to solve a problem—together. What you may discover quickly is that deciding on the project becomes the problem. You may also discover that the oak tag becomes divided into individual sections where individuals work on individual solutions. That is not collaboration.
That sort of group work is common, and it happens even with the best interactive technologies in classrooms every day. The reason for this is that in our effort to individualize learning, we’ve forgotten to define, or integrate the collaborative, groups of individuals working together. If you’re an educator, who is fortunate enough to have personalized computing devices in class, do a simple check. Ask whether you are still teaching as if your students were seated in rows? Even if students are not in rows, are you still teaching as thought they were? Are you working completely with individuals as a teacher, or are you allowing those individual to interact with each other, and not just with you as teacher? If done well, those sorts of interactions, or collaboration, have a much larger impact than working on oak tag. Personalized technology in the hands of every student can make the entire class a fluid and ever-changing collaborative environment, but unlike oak tag, there can’t be any edges or group boundaries.
This is a next step in thinking for many teachers, who are already breaking barriers in personalized classroom instruction, and can be one that is much more difficult. For those who haven’t thought along these lines, yet, it should at least be a thought, and then an eventual goal. It’s far easier to assess an individual than a group, and individual assessment is usually the one that gets the most attention and scrutiny by administrators—and used during parent conferences, as well as in most very archaic grading systems. For that reason, most interactive instructional technology in schools hasn’t gone beyond simple answer responses and last century slide shows. The key words there are simple, easy, and fast. Working in groups collaboratively for the best possible outcomes is not simple, it takes time, and unfortunately assessment for doing it well has taken a back seat to simple, easy, and fast.
Whether educators are looking at collaboration as putting individuals into individual groups to work separately, or classrooms, as learning environments with flowing and ever-changing groups, we have not begun to touch the possibilities in talk, blog posts, or education professional development. Part of this is because collaboration isn’t simple, and it actually requires more thinking, preparation and time to do. Collaboration continues to get lost in marketing catch phrases like, “easy, faster, and even 1:1, and personalized.” The word collaboration is not the problem; it’s our lack of doing collaboration right that is the problem.
Might I suggest, if you’re a teacher doing a wonderful lesson, and only a few out of an entire classroom of students are engaged, maybe you’re still teaching in rows, and bit of real collaboration is needed. And I don’t mean sitting students in small groups around oak tag. That just waters down the problem to smaller classroom problem groups. Seek ways to create that fluid collaboration within a classroom that takes advantage of individual expertise. You’ll not only discover the wonderful in individuals, but also the most complete and wonderful collaborative success in larger groups. We haven’t begun to address true collaboration in learning, and it’s about time we do.
About the Author:
Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.