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.

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.

How a ‘Road bike party’ can model learning

Video 1 – Road Bike Party

The last few weeks has been quite difficult for lovers of cycling. The USADA vs Lance Armstrong has been getting lots of headlines and left those that love the sport of bicycle riding disillusioned with the sport. However, the above video was shared with me by a friend. It shows an incredible level of skill riding a $12k+ road bike over obstacles more suitable to mountain bikes. Martyn Ashton (the rider) is a highly skilled rider who has been doing tricks on his bike for a very long time and it shows.

A few days after I first saw this, I was also sent the video below of the outtakes from the making of the Road bike party video. What I loved as I watched it was that as he took adventurous risks to learn/perform skills in new ways, even though he failed a number of times, he didn’t give up but tried again until he got it just right to put in his video. He didn’t just do the back flip out of the golf bunker but planned it and rehearsed it in a ‘safer’ environment before taking it on to the golf course. Even then, he stacked it big time … but still persisted until it worked. Watch the second video and see for yourself the difference between the two.

Video 2 – Road Bike Party – the outtakes

If the link between the two videos isn’t obvious yet, let me spell it out more clearly. Perfection in learning doesn’t just happen. The learner won’t get it right first time every time, but needs a safe environment to take a risk in when practicing and perfecting a skill – one that allows them to fail and try again (preferably without judgement).

I would hazard a guess that many of our students already learn this way in their own time as they learn to try new tricks on skateboards, surfboards, bikes, at dance lessons, when painting or something else they are interested in.

The question I need to ask is, how do we provide this in a school context? What do we need to do to get our students motivated to learn, willing to take a risk and fail and then persisting until they get it right?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Are exams a worthy form of assessment!?

Today we were having a discussion about exams and whether to keep an exam week for Grades 9 and 10. As you would expect there were very strong opinions for and against keeping exams from those that were in the discussion. I sat on the side of getting rid of an exam week because I feel that this form of assessment puts an end point on learning. Maybe that’s what is needed at the end of a stage of learning, but is that something that educators should encourage? Should we be encouraging students to think that learning has an endpoint? My observation is that too often exams are handed back with red ink on it and a grade at the top that shows what the student knew at that point in time. Rarely are students given a chance to re-sit to show that they have corrected the errors they produced or show they actually knew something that they weren’t able to communicate the first time. This is probably true of many of our types of assessment but the justification for our keeping testing has raised a number of questions for me:

Question 1: If the reason for continuing with an exam period in order to ‘train’ students for long exams, does a 2hr exam (or a series of them in a week) two years before the actual high stake exams you are training for actually enhance the students’ ability to sit a long exam better or does it just show them what they’ve got to look forward to (or dread) in future? If this does actually help, shouldn’t we be providing more opportunities to sit for 2-3 hours in the lead up to the high stakes external testing (in this case the HSC)?

Question 2: Do skills need to be tested under high pressure for us to gather information on whether our students know how to perform them? That may be the case if the normal performance of the skills is in a high pressure situation. Otherwise, shouldn’t we be giving the students an environment that gives them the best opportunity to show us what they know?

Let’s apply this to a sporting context. If I was teaching a student how to putt a golf ball into the hole. They get to practice it as much as they like before their test, but they’ll only get once chance to show me that they can make the putt. Under pressure they aren’t able to do it, so they get marked wrong. I can give them some marks for their working (or in this case their technique) but as they didn’t get the right result they can’t get full marks. Is that a fair assessment if they were able to get it write the majority of the time in practice? Isn’t this what a traditional test/exam does?

Question 3: If we set a testing regime, are we more likely to teach to the exam? Will this mean we just communicate content in order to give students something to study rather than educating them on how to learn, how to gather information and create something with the information?

Question 4: Is using tests just the easiest way of gathering a mark or grade to put on our reports?

As I’ve been writing, I’ve started to think, does the way I conduct other forms of assessment allow me to do things better? What do I need to change to give the students better information about what they know and what they can improve?

Does anyone have any definitive answers or research that gives answers to these questions? I’m open to suggestion and/or correction if my thinking is wrong.

Classroom expectations – theirs or mine?

At the start of each year, a common discussion topic among teachers is ‘What do you do in the first lesson with your classes?’. Old school teachers may reply “Be tough, don’t smile until Easter”, “Put them in a seating plan, get them working hard to set a good work ethic” etc etc.

Well, this year, for the first time in a long time, I’d never taught any of the students in three of my five classes. Two were year 9 and one was a year 7 class. For year 7, that’s par for the course, but for the two Year 9 classes, their only knowledge or experience of me as a teacher will predominantly have come from others – either siblings or friends – evidenced by comments such as ‘don’t you give lots of detentions for such and such’, ‘I heard you give lots of homework, is that true’. So my first class had greater significance than ever before. Rather than set out my class rules/expectations, our first lessons were focused on students developing/setting the expectations, giving them some ownership over the culture we are to develop int he classroom.

Our first activity was to work in small groups and discuss what they thought were reasonable expectations for each of them in this class. This was followed by a class discussion and developing a set of expectations for behaviour and work ethic that would set the standard for the year.

Here’s what they came up with:

Student Expectations

  • Do your best. Work to the best of  your ability at all times.
  • Listen when someone else is talking
  • Treat your classmates with respect (this probably covers number 2 anyway)
  • Submit or complete work on time
  • Ask Questions when you don’t understand something
  • Come to class with everything you need

The only thing I had to add was:

  • Try new things and expect to make mistakes.

I thought this last one was important to add to get the students thinking about the role of mistakes in learning and because I want to try and foster an atmosphere  where they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Hopefully, this will help them take more risks in their learning and experiment more with their projects and tasks.

The second part of the lesson was to determine what were realistic expectations of the teacher. Again, students had time to brainstorm their thoughts and then report back to the whole class. This is where the activity got interesting and required some light hearted negotiation. Students’ suggestions included ‘Give no homework’, ‘Don’t give detentions’. The most interesting and provocative though was “You need toteachus”. My response was “I can’t guarantete you that I’ll teach you as much as you want” This really got them going. “You have to teach us, that’s your job”, “that’s what our parents pay fees for” (we are a private school). I countered that my job isn’t to teach them, but to help them learn. Well, this seemed to spin a few heads as their were lots of confused looks in the room. It’s the first time that I’ve ever had that discussion with junior years and proved that it is a really worthwhile task to do with your class. Let them set the expectations and negotiate with them how the classroom will work to provide a positive learning environment.

Here is the final teacher expectations:

  • Have realistic work load expectations and time frames.
  • Treat students with respect
  • Encourage students in what they do
  • Give meaningful feedback on your work (this was my addition)
  • Listen to students’ ideas

So, a few final thoughts, who sets the expectations in your classroom? Do students have a voice in their learning environment? Will you be teaching the students, or helping them to learn.