Collaboration, Cooperation and Competition

At times, education can become quite competitive as students undertake class tests, external and standardised testing or, as they vie for positions at university. Competition can lead to individuals taking a very insular approach to their learning as they worry whether they help the give others will benefit them at their own expense. For some, this competition can be fruitful and spur them on to work harder and learn more, but for many others this can have a detrimental effect on their learning.

Recently, I was introduced to the term “Ubuntu” – an African term that has been defined simply as ‘human kindness’. However, it has a much deeper and richer definition that encompasses connection, community and mutual caring for all. Its meaning is possibly best captured by the phrase “I am; because of who we all are”. At its heart is the concept that together, as community, we can be better than if we work on our own.

When applied to education and learning “I am; because of who we all are” is probably best understood as:

Cooperation more than competition; and, collaboration more than cooperation.

When competition is present, it has the tendency to put the learner at the centre of the story. It can shape our world view that what I learn is of most importance. Cooperation, however, requires us to work together to make the task easier by splitting it in to parts for each person to complete and then piece it all together at the end. In cooperative learning, there can still be a sense that ‘my’ mark depends on how well ‘you’ complete your part. Collaboration is different to both of these as its focus is on individuals working and learning together and moving on only when everyone understands. It requires learners to shift the focus from themselves to others.

It’s not always easy to achieve but is something that we should be encouraging our students to embrace by providing opportunities to work together, and to see it as a way of serving one another. In essence it’s the denying of self to serve others in their learning. That’s not to say that our own learning won’t be as effective, or important, but that we will be looking for opportunities to serve others by using our skills and talents, often deepening our understanding as we clarify and consolidate what we know in order to help others develop their understanding.

Over the last couple of years, together with a number of other teachers, I’ve spent some time learning about Project Based Learning (PBL) and planning units of learning to implement in their classrooms. Project Based Learning uses an authentic overarching question to drive the learning and give it purpose. One of the key concepts of PBL is that it provides opportunities for students to work collaboratively to investigate and solve problems and grow their understanding of the topic as they consider a response to the topic’s driving question. At times, as we practice these new methods they may possibly seem messy and disjointed but the hope is that we can provide a learning environment that embraces the “I am; only because of who we are”.

Former US President Bill Clinton, in a speech to global leaders of business and heats of states in 2006 is credited with saying, “the world is too small, our wisdom too limited, our time too short, to waste any more of it in winning fleeting victories at other people’s expense. We now have to find a way to triumph together.” While it was spoken in the context of world politics, it can be applied just as clearly to education.

Avid Readers or Not?

It’s an interesting task to think through what would you like your children to be like when they are adults. I know there are a few things I don’t want my children to be like yet what I would like them to become can become quite a long list. Earlier this week, while meeting with teachers in a professional learning group, we were discussing a list of attributes that groups of parents had identified as what they’d like their children to be like as adults. The list, from the book ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ included attributes such as curious, engaged, able to persevere, empathetic, willing to take risks and try new things, able to problem solve, helpful, passionate about something, a listener, open-minded and so on.

As a group we evaluated the list by thinking what we, as teachers in a Christian school, would like our students to be like and whether there were any attributes we would like to add. As a collective we thought we would add gentle, loving, trustworthy, servant hearted (or service minded), to act with integrity, a disciple who loves the Lord, and to possess Biblical Wisdom. Collectively we identified ‘go getter’ as one which we would like to remove and possibly replace it with ‘shows initiative’. One of our group though wanted to challenge the notion that our children should become ‘avid readers’, however, following some rigorous debate being an avid reader remained on the list (English teachers can be quite persuasive!). We did decide that we don’t need to be digesting classic novels at every opportunity but that we should be reading something regularly, be it newspapers, blogs, novels, textbooks or even ‘how to’ websites.

Some children are easy to motivate to read but for others it can be a real battle. However, there are a number of things that we can do to encourage our children to read:

  1. Read to your children regularly from a young age and continue as they get in to the late Primary years (or even beyond). Reading aloud to your child can help improve the fluency of their own reading, helps expand their vocabulary and improve their comprehension.
  2. Be a positive role model. As well as reading to your child, it’s also important that your children see you reading and that you are reading for pleasure as well as by necessity. Boys particularly will benefit greatly from seeing their fathers regularly.
  3. Provide opportunities and resources for your children to read. Provide age appropriate books or resources that will engage them. Much to my mother’s displeasure I still have a box of Rugby League Week magazines in a cupboard at her house that she faithfully bought for me each week because she knew that I’d read them cover to cover. It will most likely be something different for your child but having something they want to read is a good start.
  4. Don’t discourage them from reading the same book over and over again. While it gets boring for us to read the same story over and over again, there’s obviously something about the book that brings them back again and again. Having “Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?” stuck in your head day after day might not be great for you as the parent but is probably have a positive effect on your child.

The influence of Joe Bower

I gave up Facebook 2 days ago. I’m hoping it’ll be long term but I’m not sure how long it’ll be for – but that’s another matter. One of the side effects of logging of Facebook is that I’ve been going to twitter more regularly that I have in the last few years. So when I logged in to twitter today, it was with great sadness today that I found out that Joe Bower had passed. Joe Bower was the author an educational blog “For the love of learning” and was instrumental in changing the way I thought about learning and educational practices such as assessment, grading, rewards and motivation.

His blog site was a go to site for me when I wanted to read a considered opinion about assessment and learning. He was passionate about education and more importantly about his students and ensuring that they had the best learning experience he could provide and that they deserved.

I didn’t know Joe personally other than a skype call here or there to pose some questions I had about the practicalities of de-grading my classrooms. I’ll always appreciate that he gave up his time to help me better understand how to change my practices. I no longer give marks or grades except when I have Anyway, if you haven’t read his blog, you should. If you didn’t know he had a book, you should buy it and share it around your colleagues. I’m thankful that I stumbled across him on twitter. It changed my professional practice.

Vale Joe Bower.

Post Script: After writing this blog I finally got around to checking the ‘report’ for my blog for 2015. I only posted once but so I wasn’t expecting anything too amazing but I was blown away that one of the 5 sites that was highlighted for directing people to my site was Joe’s blog. A quick search on his site and I found that he’d highlighted one of my blog posts back in 2015. I’m blown away a) by the timing of this revelation and b) that he thought it worthy of sharing.

referring sites

 

Focus on Teaching: A Day with Jim Knight

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending “A Day with Jim Knight” learning about the use of video for Instructional Coaching. Jim is the president of the Instructional Coaching Group and has authored a number of books about coaching and high impact instruction. He blogs here, tweets here and you can read more about Instructional Coaching here.

Many schools use teacher observation in their professional learning program as a method for improving teacher performance. Teacher observation can be extremely useful because, as Jim points out, we can easily fall prey to the concept of ‘habituation’. That is, when you do something over and over again you stop noticing what you do. We can become oblivious to what is actually happening in our own classrooms.

In most cases, teacher observation mostly takes the effect of a colleague sitting in the back of the room taking notes on the practice they observe and can be recieved by the teacher as a subjective evaluation of their teaching practice and can easily be disregarded rather than being used to improve their teaching practice. The lack of objectivity waters down the effect of the feedback received.

The use of video, however, can radically change the whole value of teacher observation. What it provides is a clear picture for both the teacher and the observer (who we will call the coach) to view and analyse what’s happening in the classroom.

So what were my biggest take aways yesterday?

  • Nobody likes to watch themselves on video and this is possibly because we compare ourselves to TV and Movie stars who we watch performing under stage lighting, wearing make up in professional studios.
  • Video gives a clear picture of reality. It interupts a culture of taling and it makes it a conversation about doing.
  • you need tools to help you acheive your goals – Checklists that help to gather data about how many questions the teacher asks compared to the number of questions from students; the number of open vs closed questions; the amount of instruction vs non-instruction time; identify consistent correction of student behaviour (eg putting hands up to speak); the number of disruptions; number of positive interactions with teachers and so on, enhance the teacher learning. (There are examples of proformas/checklists here)
  • Building trust with the teacher you are videoing is essential in getting maximum value
  • Teachers need choice. Any form of evaluation – video, student surveys, teacher observation – will have the greatest benefit when the teachers are wanting to be part of it rather than being made to do it.
  • Part of being professional is taking part of continuous improvement of practice in the classroom.

So, what would I like to do now?

  • I’d like to have one of my lessons recorded to understand what the process is like before asking someone else to go through the process.
  • I’d also like to create a guideline for the use of video that has a range of classroom practices that can be observed and analysed so teachers can choose what they’d like to focus on.
  • Read more about Instructional Coaching as a tool for teacher improvement.

The problem with diminishing grades

As we’ve just finished our end of year reporting process, I’ve been reflecting on giving students zero if they hand a task in late. Whether it’s a straight zero for being a day late or whether it’s losing 20% per day, it doesn’t make sense. What a policy like this says is that a student who hands in their project a day late (or 5 days late) has learned nothing when in reality, the project that they’ve completed could have communicated the most extensive understanding of the topic they were learning about. Is this fair? Does the lateness say more about their disorganisation than the development of their understanding? In NSW we are required to use Course Performance Descriptors to allocate a grade at the end of the school year for Year 10 (and now Year 11) students. Even if a student handed in all their assessment tasks late and received zero, we should still be able to give them an “A” if their projects showed an extensive understanding. I wonder how many students will have received a lower grade than they deserve because they handed a task in late?

Consider this scenario. A student is working on a project that they have become totally immersed in and is wanting to learn more and add more to their final project because they are continuing to learn more. As the due date looms, the student asks for a request to have an extension, not because they are sick, just because they don’t want to hand in something that’s not as well done as they feel they can do. It’s worth noting that I’ve never encountered this scenario myself, but I wonder what I would do if I wasn’t bound by school policy and have to do what it dictates?

A diminishing grade system, whether it be a zero policy or 20% per day, is no more than a big stick to help with management of students to complete their work in an orderly fashion I’m sure because it doesn’t seem to be there as a tool to help accurately demonstrate what students’ have learned.

Some other things to consider:

  • What effect does the zero have on the student’s motivation to learn? Joe Bower has given some thought to this both here and here
  • Why give a mark or grade anyway? Does it give an accurate reflection on what they know?
  • The board of studies in NSW doesn’t require us to give a grade at all until the end of Year 10 if we don’t believe it’s suitable which means a zero policy could be redundant anyway (although we do need to report a 5 point scale twice per year) but so many of us do anyway. Is that just historical?

I’m planning that in 2013 I will be giving away the grades and working with students to enjoy learning without the fear of judgement. I’ll be focused on giving quality feedback and allowing students the opportunity to improve what they’ve done rather than seeing a grade as an endpoint to their learning.

How “school” can kill the desire to learn

I used this image in one of my classes earlier this year and thought I’d struck gold. I actually had but, sadly, the school “system” quickly tarnished it and gave me clearest indication that school, which is intended to increase our students desire to learn, in it’s institutionalised form can actually do the opposite.

I’ve been encouraged to use stories and stimulus materials to pique the student’s curiosity and to use the stories behind the pictures to challenge their thinking and actions. As the Olympic games were bearing down on us, we were doing a unit in our elective sports science class about “Issues in Sport”. I thought I’d use this famous image of the 1968 Olympic Games 200m Podium to discuss the place of sport in society and whether their is a place for protests in sport or at the Olympics.

As the students entered the room I had this image up on the wall waiting for them. At this time, I gave them no information about what it was, when it was or what was happening. I simply asked the students to do two things:

  1. Write down everything they observed in the image
  2. Write down any questions that you have about the image

It was slow to get started but with a little bit of prodding the students really got going, they were calling out the things they observed and others were writing down ideas they were hearing from other students, they were asking me lots of questions and I just told them to record all the questions they had. They’d wondered why they were wearing gloves, why they had no shoes, why were they facing the way they did, what was the badge they were all wearing and plenty more.

Once the observations and questions started to dry up, I shared with the class the key details: that it was a picture taken at the 1968 Olympic Games after the 200m Sprint. Once the students had this they were then able to go and find answers to the questions. The next 20 -30 mins was some of the most enjoyable moments of my teaching year. Some of the students had found footage of the race and were watching it, others were finding answers to their questions. All 18 students were ‘hooked’. They were calling out the answers they found “The two Americans were banned from going to the Olympics again. Why was that?” Good question, write it down was my response. “Peter Norman never represented Australia again after this either. Why wasn’t he allowed to compete? He didn’t make the salute.” Good question, write it down.

This went on for the remainder of the lesson. It was pretty to watch.

Then the bell rang.

I didn’t have my class for another 3 days. As they came in, again I had the same picture on the wall. The immediate response from most students was “What? Are we still doing that?”. The break had killed their enthusiasm and curiosity. It had drained all momentum that had been built as we worked toward talking about why human rights were important enough to these athletes that they’d risk being banned from competition and why an Australian who wasn’t living amongst the racial tensions of the USA at the time would stand up for the same thing. Or what we’d be willing to stand up for?

It made me realise it must be so frustrating for students to go from one lesson to the next regardless of where they are up to. To be fully immersed in a learning experience and have to stop, pack up and move to another lesson and start again.

I’ve got no answers to make it right other than to say that it’s broken. So much of our schooling is institutionalised and constructed to fit in the “timetable” to make it easier for teachers to work but how much of what we do is set up to make it easy for the students to learn and enjoy learning?

As someone who doesn’t have the power to change things, I can only ask the questions. I don’t even have a solid answer to my own questions really, but it’s becoming clearer how much of what we are doing is actually making it hard for students to grow in their love for learning.

Alfie Kohn vs Dwight Schrute: What we can learn from “The Office”

I saw someone post this on Twitter earlier in the week and thought I’d share it here because it’s quite thought provoking.