Unfortunately, I think that the idea of collaboration is very rarely understood properly by teachers of the PYP. For many of us, student collaboration has always meant “working in a group” and never really progressed any further than that. Part of the problem with this is our misguided belief that teacher collaboration means “planning in a group”, but more on that another time.
Ironically, it is our flagship student experience – the PYP Exhibition – that can be held responsible for our misconceptions about collaboration. It was always designed to be a “collaborative inquiry ” and so, to that end, teachers have been popping their poor students into groups in PYP schools worldwide every year. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, yes, its catastrophic for many of the following types of student:
- those students who end up being put in a group because there wasn’t a group based on their interest
- those students who end up being put in a group because the group they wanted to be in was “full”
- those students who always end up doing all the work in groups
- those students who always fade into the background while others take the glory
- those students who have always let others do the work because they lack confidence or skills
- those students whose interests and styles of learning are never quite the same enough for them to be in a group
- those students who make misguided group choices and regret it later
- those students who compromise their own identity just to be in a group
- etc… have I left anyone out?
When teachers create a finite amount of groups for the PYP Exhibition (often defined by a finite number of pre-determined things the kids can learn about) with a finite number of places in each group they are undermining inquiry from the word “go”. They are also pushing cooperation and not setting the scene for genuine collaboration to happen naturally. They are creating the conditions for conflict, frustration, bickering, divisive behaviour, sulking and competitiveness. We have all seen it.
When you remove this obsession with grouping from the equation completely and allow students to develop their own inquiries… a real, natural, diverse, dynamic and unpredictable culture of collaboration begins to evolve:
- you get partnerships and groups emerging at different times in the process based on a recognition of like minds or similar goals
- you get frequent, spontaneous collaborations taking place as students share information, exchange ideas or help each other with things
- you get collaborations happening between students and adults as teachers, parents and other members of the community get involved in the process
- you get collaborations between the students and students of all other ages who become part of the process
- you get collaboration happening by email, and online
- you get collaboration you never anticipated
Putting students (and all people) in groups and calling it collaboration is a mould that must be broken. We have been breaking that mould for a while now, and it works.
Why not give it a try? There’s no need to wait for the PYP Exhibition, after all… it’s just another unit of inquiry.
Myself and Chad are on our way to Phuket to spend a week at the wonderful, small, new school called The Gecko School. This is a cool story in itself, and one I will tell in subsequent postings this week.
However, I am going to look backwards first, to my time working in the city I sit in now – Bangkok – en route to Phuket.
I was here last week too, and bumped into a couple of ex-colleagues as I wandered around the city I both love and hate. We sat for a few minutes and analyzed the strange culture of one of my former schools – a place where innovative and “different” teachers tend to struggle. One of them casually came out with a statement about teachers who don’t share their ideas and try and glorify themselves by keeping hold of them and being secretive about how they teach. I nodded without really considering what was said. I only really thought about it afterwards, and it annoyed me because I was pretty sure it was a thinly veiled dig at me!
It is in the nature of ideas that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. It is also in the nature of ideas that they are spontaneous and organic. Very often, one is not aware of how good an idea actually is until its happening! A strong teaching team is aware of what each other is doing in their classrooms. Student learning is public. Doors are open. Chats about learning are frequent, formal and informal. When you see something working in another classroom, your curiosity is piqued… you ask the students and teacher what they are doing, why they are doing it and how. You may ask the teacher to come and run a session in your class – or, even better, some students. Or you may just pop back, take a few photos and consider how, or even if, to adapt it to the way your own students and classroom culture operates.
It is not a problem caused by “Ideas People” not sharing their ideas. It is a problem of the people who have the ideas sharing them and sharing them and sharing them and sharing them and ending up being stigmatized because of their ideas. Having other people not think their ideas were valid, worthwhile, important, meaningful, realistic… but then when they see those ideas come to fruition, when they see those ideas become powerful, when they see a transformation in those students because of those ideas – that is when they announce that ideas were not shared. That is when the envy kicks in, that’s when it all turns around… because there’s no proof. There’s no proof that they didn’t hear that idea, see that idea, chat about that idea… but just didn’t think it was a good idea.
But there is proof that they didn’t do it. And there is proof that the teacher who did do it, did do it! And there is proof that their students’ learning was transformed because of it.
Sadly, in some schools, that is proof enough to damage a great teacher, to render one guilty of not being a “team player”. I am not sure that many people in schools have a very sophisticated understanding of what a team really is.
- So, if you are one of those “Ideas People”, be strong. Let your practice do the talking. People who are genuinely interested will show their interest in positive ways – make them welcome. They will be important allies when times get tough.
- And, if you are one of those people who keeps pointing your finger at “Ideas People” and copping out by saying they are not a team player, look to yourself first… that may well be the root of the problem.
This podcast raises some interesting questions about the PYP Exhibition, but also about teaching in general. In particular, the discussion focuses on the problem of making sure that we spend time with all of our students. If we are all honest, we must admit that we have one or two students each year who tend to “fly under the radar”.
What do we do about that?
I recorded this bit of audio to try and remember my thoughts as I reflected on watching my kids play this weekend. I did start typing it up, but the more I listened to the recording, the more I realized it would just be better to upload it to Soundcloud and share it that way!!!
How do you create space for, and in, the learning?
By using very simple mindfulness practices and routines, you can start to develop genuine independence and positive habits with students. Giving them the skill to walk into a room, find a space, relax, slow down and begin to focus on what they will be doing – and why – puts them in control of themselves and their learning.
Taking this bit of time at the start makes everything that comes after it more effective, more student-centred and more indicative of who they really are as learners.
In this video, Chad’s class are in the middle of a creative – and messy project. He is hoping to see his students take complete control of everything they do and has seen the power of helping them find and create the right mood before each session.
A couple of years ago, I made a posting and video about the power of setting up classrooms to suit the nature of the learning going on at the time. The context, at that time, was visual art and each student was involved in their own visual art project. They were artists. Turning the classrooms into art studios was a natural step towards making them really feel like artists.
You can do this for any context.
In this clip, the Grade 5 classrooms at my school are becoming art studios and the students are creating their own workspaces and innovation boards. One student said “its organized… but its organized in our own way”.
It is extremely powerful to change classrooms in order to reflect the kind of learning that is taking place at the time. So, for example, they become art studios during creative units, science labs during scientific units, museums during historical ones and so on. Students should be encouraged to think about how their physical space can enhance learning and how it can be adapted to help them do their best.
I find it really exciting to walk into a room – even when the students and teachers are not there – and be able to get a real sense of what the students of that class are thinking about, and how they are thinking. Recently, when walking around NIST, I was really impressed by the amount of visible thinking I found, and the variety of ways that teachers are “extracting” that thinking from their students and then displaying it so that the walls do actually speak.
How wonderful for students to be immersed in their own thoughts, interacting with displays and surrounded by relevance at all times!
What visible thinking strategies have worked well for you?