I like to think of collaboration in school as practised teamwork orientated towards an academic problem or project. When a school or an individual teacher approaches collaboration in a mindful fashion, it not only results in high-quality academic results but it shapes and reinforces a positive school culture.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Eoin Lenihan and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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Strangely, it has been my experience in many of the classrooms I have visited that collaboration and teamwork are scarcely valued. This is most obvious in the absent-minded manner in which a teacher may say, “Do this task in groups”, without carefully planning the composition of the group. What inevitably happens, in this case, is that students turn to those next to them, usually their best friends. In every German classroom that I have visited students are seated ‘freiwillig’, that is they are free to choose where and with whom they will sit. Therefore, group work usually means hang-out-with-friends time. This is both negative for school climate and for individual student achievement.
When teachers do not mindfully create groups for collaborative activities they are reinforcing cliques in the classroom. Especially in urban classrooms, a lack of intervention by the teacher leads to a strengthening of ethnic, religious and gender divisions. I recently observed a Hauptschule classroom in Ulm where three Turkish girls, friends from childhood, told me that they had sat together in every single class since they began primary school. At this point, they were in their fifth year of second level education. In a Realschule classroom, all the desks on the left of the room were filled with ethnic Germans from the surrounding little villages while the right of the room was filled with urban students from at least eight different migrant nationalities – themselves also subdivided, Turkish with Turkish, Russian with Russian etc. Chiefly because of the concept of ‘freiwillig’ seating, even though students share a classroom for years, a German could well leave school without ever having social contact with a Turk and vice-versa.
This lack of mindfulness also has a major impact on students’ academic performance. Because students remain within their own clique they are never exposed to alternative opinions, knowledge and skills. In their collaborations, they are restricted to the familiar personalities and processes of the clique, and the vast reservoir of skills and knowledge in the classroom is inaccessible. This point I again observed with the three Turkish girls above. The German Hauptschule aims to produce students for manual trades and training programmes. One of the girls, in particular, spoke of her ambition to go to university and obtain a degree. Sadly, because of the power exerted by the clique, it seems highly unlikely that she will realise her ambition, the gap between Hauptschule and Gymnasium in German education being so great.
This lack of mindedness in group formation has led to an all-too-common refrain among teachers in many schools: “This class is just not able for group work”. Students certainly are not ready to collaborate on an academic task when a teacher has indicated, through freiwilliggroup formation, that it is social time and that means reverting to the norms of the clique, which too often means distraction, student-teacher conflict and ultimately discipline issues.
I look at collaboration as the third and final step in a process of team-building. Before it is possible to expect students to work collaboratively on an academic task, they must know and trust one another socially and emotionally.
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