Friday, February 21, 2014

Collaboration Online vs. Brick and Mortar Classroom: Part I

The issue of enabling students to collaborate has always in the history of education created some concerns on the part of educators. Socrates had a unique approach and actually fostered student collaboration but it was the type of collaboration in which he held the students accountable for their participation and also for what they said as part of their participation. His goal was to teach young minds how to think and how to challenge what they heard in a rationale, truth-seeking manner. To actually suggest that truth is not just a matter of opinion but actually existed in human society was something that the society in which Socrates lived greatly feared. Their idea was don't teach students how to think but teach them instead what to think and not to question what the elite of that society stated as truth. This got Socrates into a great deal of trouble with the governing authorities and the rest is history.
Collaboration in the brick and mortar school still focuses on the idea that it is okay to have students collaborate but just make sure that at the end of the process, you are teaching them what they should think. Examples of this are readily apparent when it comes to dealing with social issues in which the given society has an engrained point of view that they want inculcated to the students. As a result, opinions and educated guesses are taught as being fact and truth. The idea that a student might challenge what everyone takes for granted reminds me of the story of the "Emperor's New Clothes" in which contrary to the wisdom of the adults surrounding him, one small boy stated very clearly that the majority is wrong in regards to the emperor's new clothes.
Educators can state all kinds of rationales for not teaching students to think and challenge but largely it comes down to fear that what they have taken for granted for decades may not be right thinking. To be fair, there are some school systems that do take seriously the idea of encouraging students to do critical thinking. Where it goes off the rails is when students want to take what they have learned and put it into social action.
One example that I was involved in many years ago involved the students studying the living habitats of animals in a large city zoo. The students visited the zoo to gather information, they used statistical analysis to come up with conclusions and then created a report with recommendations. One of the main recommendations in the report was to take some of the animals out of cages and create more open enclosures that more closely resembled their natural habitats. They even learned how to do a cost-benefit analysis through the research they had completed. Next came the social action component in which they requested in writing that they be able to present their findings to zoological society of that city. The response by the adults who had the responsibility for oversight of the zoo was that the students should stick to in-class studies and not waste this groups time. The postscript for this experience was that the recommendations the students had made were actually put into force the following year with the Zoological Society taking the credit for these brilliant modifications.
What do you think the students learned from this?
Essentially, it is okay for students to engage in collaboration in the classroom but leave the real world changes to the adults.
Students need to know that their participation in society is valued and real so that they can see the effects of their actions. The problem with the brick and mortar school is that there are too many people at the top of the education systems who feel threatened by potential change.
For example if a student breaks into a computer system run by a board of education, their first response is to want to have him or her charged by the authorities instead of hiring that student to help troubleshoot the problems of their computer system.
Collaboration in an online environment has the potential to break the bonds that suffocate innovation in the brick and mortar schools. How? That will be the focus of part II.

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