Thursday, July 17, 2014

Collaboration at CMK14

One of the central reasons that many teachers support making as part of education is that it teaches collaboration. There are many supports to this, and it is generally agreed that being a good collaborator is a very valuable skill to develop in life. One great challenge of taking part in the Constructing Modern Knowledge conference was to observe my own group's dynamics as it worked (and reflect on it afterwards) as a tool to be a better collaborator, as well as a better teacher of collaboration myself.

I emphasize that last phrase, as we so often feel as teachers that, if we take class time to actually teach the collaboration skills we value, we are losing content teaching time. Too often, content wins that battle, and we leave the students to wander the difficult terrain of managing group dynamics without the guidance of the adult(s) in the room. I learned this lesson the hard way in a Lego Robotics class I taught, which ended up being much more about the skills of collaborating well than the skills of building robots.

In our group at CMK, we all came to the table with the most important tool at our disposal: open minds. Because of that, we were able to quickly create perhaps the second most important tool: a shared goal. With those two things in place, we could move forward with the sort of thing that any group trying to solve a problem has to do: analyze the problem, identify sets of solutions, choose which solutions work best for the problems, work on those solutions, troubleshoot, change directions when needed, cooperate, listen, converse, brainstorm, handle failure, and continue working together. And all the other things that "collaboration" means--no wonder it's such a long word!

One very interesting set of dynamics in group work is leadership. We often think of certain traits needed to be a leader, but one of the statements that rings true in this regard is that "if the people will lead, the leaders will follow." There were many times over the course of the week when a particular subset of tasks was taken over by a quieter member of the group, and others returned to find them finished. This is the kind of place where leading by example is key!

A HUGE takeaway for me, and a good reminder for everyone, is the importance of talking through a problem. I have read and heard about how the brain processes information differently while talking, and that the act of speaking can change the way we think about something. How many times have you been in the middle of asking a question when the answer occurs to you? Well, this happened a lot at CMK, and we should all explore ways to help it happen in our classrooms. The conversation surrounding solving problems is important. Don't forget that vital part of the collaborative process.