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.

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Dan Meyer’s making Maths fun again!

Dan Meyer has got me excited about teaching Maths. As I am Health and PE teacher, that will probably seem odd. Today, I had the pleasure of attending one of Dan Meyer’s Sydney Seminars hosted by 3P Learning (the makers of Mathletics). Although I’m a PE techer, deep down, I do love Maths. It was my favourite subject at school and I even voluntarily took a first year Maths course in first year university.
What was it that I liked so much about today’s seminar that got me excited? Dan has simply tried to make it interesting for students to do Maths. He’s trying to get students out of textbooks and into the real world to see the application of maths. In his words, ‘There are limitations to the medium of paper to convey the likability and usefulness of Maths’. Instead of opening the textbook in the first instance, Dan’s trying to get the students developing their own critical thinking skills, developing the problem solving skills by trying to get them to work out how to ask questions to solve problems and he is also advocating for the collaboration between students to get to the point of solving the problem. To do it, he’s using images or videos that he’s found or created to engage the students in the topic.
His process isn’t too dis-similar to that of Project Based Learning. Use a ‘hook’ to engage the students, get them record the questions they have and then work out how to solve the questions. He’s not telling them to do the math, but he’s asking them to solve their own questions – questions that you’d probably have found in a textbook anyway – but because a student asks the questions, they’ve bought in to solving them. That’s the kicker really. The student wants to see their questions answered and they can’t just look it up in the back of the book.
As Dan took us through the process, one thing stood out, there was no judgment on our individual  performances. We worked together using the ‘Think-pair-share’ method not just to formulate our questions but also as we worked out how we’d solve those questions. As Dan said, by using this method, it gives all the students a chance to think of questions before becoming distracted by the question that the student with the first hand up provides. By getting us to review our guesses from early in the process, he was giving those that didn’t have the refined maths skills the chance to succeed.
The reality is, this doesn’t happen enough. Allow the students to fail or succeed in safe environments that aren’t high stakes. It provides a terrific opportunity to build their confidence and enjoyment in what ever subject you teach. Students in this environment are willing to take risks with their questioning and problem solving and get to experience how others would tackle the question too.
We’re all passionate about our subject areas and want to see our students share the enthusiasm that we have, but sometimes we get bogged down in teaching methods that don’t inspire the students. Again today, I was reminded that I need to keep focused on how I engage my students in my subject so that they too may become passionate about health and physical activity.
For those Math’s teachers playing along at home:

Masterchef and the classroom

The third season of Masterchef is about to come to an end here in Australia and its just dawned on me that it provides a great model for teachers to use in their own classrooms.

What we see in Masterchef is home cooks who aren’t trained chefs given a task or challenge to complete but with very little instruction on how to complete the task. They have to create a meal or dish to serve in the specified time frame. Its not totally free play, they are given guidelines for what they can create and often a restricted number of pantry items to cook with but choice as to what they will use and create with them. Classic project based learning tasks.

The contestants demonstrate problem solving skills in deciding what to cook and how to overcome the limits they have to work in. At the end of each episode they present their dish to the judges for feedback on it success (or otherwise). This feedback isn’t only from the head judges, often its front the people they cook for in challenges and gives them a timely insight into what worked and what didn’t, or what tasted good and what didn’t. But the judges don’t just wait until the finished product, they move from bench to bench using their professional experience to guide their ‘students’ when they feel they maybe goin off track.

When they aren’t cooking we are often shown pictures of them reading books to learn new techniques, favours that work well together and about cooking food from other cultures – self directed learning.

This to me, is a great model for classroom learning. Create tasks that will incorporate problem solving, self directed learing, something to create tasks (that hopefully is meaningful), that they can present for feedback – not just for marks but for what they know, have learned or the usefulness of what they’ve created and that allows them to improve what they are doing before they’ve gone too far the wring direction. Scaffold the tasks to in a way to give direction but not to stifle creativity or independent thinking, and that allows students to work to a level they are capable of achieving.

The final piece that I haven’t mentioned is the Friday night ‘master class’. An opportunity for the professionals to demonstrate some techniques or dishes to their pupils. To share with them something they know more about than the students. And, more importantly they bring in other experts to their kitchen to teach the things they don’t know as well as they do.

This is one area that we teachers can really learn from. We shouldn’t be afraid to call on others who know more than we do to teach something. And that digest have to be from outside our school, we could use an IT teacher to demonstrate skills, an art teacher to teach design or even someone from our own faculty will have different expertise in different areas to me. To be honest there are probably students who could give masterclasses on many things to. Off the top of my head, in my year 10 class I currently have students who could give master classes on web design, photoshop.

The challenge now is to learn how to devplop the tasks, how to scaffold, write rubrics, as well as re-educate myself, other staff and most importantly the students on how to work in this environment. Easy right?