Curriculum and Collaboration

Photo of many hands holding lego figures together in a circle

Curriculum and Collaboration

“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others” (A quote by Dalai Lama XIV )

This quote resonates with me as this is a large part of how I view my role as an educator. I and those who form my school community are social beings.  I collaborate with other teachers, with students and I create opportunities for students to work with each other, to collaborate with their peers as well as with me as their teacher.  One clear illustration of this student-teacher/ teacher-teacher/student-student collaboration is the project we took on as a musical theater class.  My co-teacher and I worked with a variety of students to create and perform our very own musical creation of “Pride and Prejudice”.  The learning that took place for the students as well as for us as teachers, far exceeded any expectations we had.  In my other classes, as the students I teach are part of a blended program and only attend two days a week, I build collaborative activities into most classes.  I have seen the benefits of collaboration both in connection to learning content/skills as well as essential communication strategy’s/ problem-solving.  From a social point of view, these activities also help to foster class community and build relationships.  Collaboration is part of my class curriculum and part of BC’s New Curriculum (Building Student Success-BC’s New Curriculum). 

Curriculum and Theories of Collaboration

Snaza et al. (2014) wrote that “consciously or not, we educators and educational researchers are used to looking at schools as places where humans dwell together to learn what it means to be human and to accumulate the kinds of skills and habits required to participate in human societies as adults” (p. 39).  We can presume that this would have been considered either “consciously or not” when developing B.C’s New Curriculum; likely in partnership with the following four “Basic Principals of Curriculum and Instruction” created by Tyler (1949).

  1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
  2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?
  3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?
  4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained? (p. 51)

BC’s New Curriculum, as part of their considerations, determined that collaboration was to be an essential part of classroom learning experiences.  I propose this to be a result of the researched benefits (building of 21st century skills), and the shift to personalized learning (Building Student Success-BC’s New Curriculum); likely also linked to the unconscious agenda proposed by Snaza et al. (2014).

Theories created by Vygotsky, Dewey, Bloom, Bruner and various others affirm the benefits of collaborative learning.  Vygotsky, who developed current theories around social development believed that we learn through interacting and communicating with others (McLeod, 2018).  Dewey also believed that we learn through interactions and theorized the teacher’s role as that of a guide; the student’s natural curiosity and interests should drive the learning (Lammert, 2020).  Bloom, who created what is widely known as Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, “derived much of its theoretical foundation from the work of Dewey (Salmon, 2019., p. 10).  Bruner, who according to Takaya (2008), initially discussed learning as individual in his early works, came to similar conclusions as Dewey and Vygotsky, stating in 1996 “that education tends to work well when learning is, first, participatory, provocative, communal, and collaborative; and second, when learning is a process of constructing meaning rather than receiving” (p. 84; as cited by Takaya, 2008., p. 15).

McLeod (2018) discusses some specific aspects of Vygotsky’s theories: reciprocal teaching, scaffolding, apprenticeship, the more knowledgeable other (MKO) and the benefits of working in what is known as the zone of proximal development (ZDP).  The MKO is connected to the ZDP which “is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner (McLeod, S.A., 2018 sec. 5).  Dewey’s theories are commonly associated with a mode of learning called “Inquiry”, a theory soon followed by a more structured approach in the work of Kilpatrick’s Project Based Learning (PBL) (Lammert, 2020).  While there may be slight differences in the exact details of each individual theory, and the specific application of it, all of these theorists have one thing in common, the belief that we learn with and from others.

Although this concept and these theories are clear, supported by research, have been trending topics in the 21st century ( in my experience) and are included in the curriculum, I am curious about whether teachers as a whole are equipped to implement collaborative activities or if the concepts are merely included in the curriculum as an ode to the latest trend without clear objectives and without the training required to implement them effectively.   I see collaborative learning taking place within the classrooms in my school; however, conversations with others, as well as research, indicates that this is most often not the case.  In a recently transcribed interview with Norris and Solway (both ed-tech researchers), Norris stated that direct instruction is still the most common teaching strategy used in classrooms (Gewertz, 2020).

 

Aoki, (1993) would likely claim that this is a result of the “planned” versus the “lived” curriculum.  In this case the planned curriculum of collaboration may be different than the lived curriculum.  Teachers may not have the training, nor the time to train.  Teachers may have a classroom of students who lack the skills needed for collaboration due to their lived experiences; teachers may not have the skills/knowledge needed to build collaboration within this environment.  I wonder then, as we shift from face-to face learning to learning that may be blended or all online, how will the lived curriculum affect this already weak integration of the planned curriculum of collaboration?  If we are in tension, and should live in between these two, as Aoki (1993) said, how do we as educators best do this?  How can we use technology to create opportunities for students to collaborate?  What are our lived realities when it comes to using technology and digitizing the practice of collaboration?

Working definitions of Collaboration

Crucially, it would be prudent to spend a few lines to explain and further define the practice of collaboration.  Smith and MacGregor (1993) define collaborative learning as:

an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together.  Usually, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. Collaborative learning activities vary widely, but most center on students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it” (p. 1).

Collaborative learning benefits learners and teachers as it engages students in active learning, builds relationships, teaches tolerance, caring, conflict resolution, caring, how to create an active voice, how to listen as well as how to express ideas clearly (Smith & Macgregor, 1993).  It could be argued that collaboration as a social endeavor, inadvertently or otherwise has the added benefits of building community and creating a culture of respect, it may even create natural opportunities to work towards decolonizing the curriculum.  Collaborative learning in a face-to face classroom may be evident in a physical way, as students would be grouped together; a classroom may even be set up to encourage collaboration (e.g. pods rather than singular desks).

In addition to my experiences with collaboration in Musical Theatre, I have set up collaborative activities in Foods classes (e.g. group baking), as well as English classes (e.g. group writing).  With the move to learning fully online, these types of collaborative experiences changed and evolved; activities that were easy to create in class, became much more complex in an online world.  Although students had experience with the use of some online collaborative tools (e.g. forums/ shared docs/video conferencing), removal of the face-to face aspect created new challenges and changed many students’ collaborative experiences.  From Aoki’s (1993) perspective this would have been my lived curriculum; as a lived experience, my knowledge, perceptions and skills connected to creating collaboration online along with the students (their experience’s, skills etc.), created the curriculum in that moment in time.

Aoki’s (1993) contemplations with regards to the tensions that exist between the lived and planned curriculum may aid in the development of activities that will help to implement collaboration, regardless of the version of schooling that will emerge in the fall, as we can make a variety of predictions concerning what our lived curriculum as opposed to planned may be.  I expect that the return to the classroom in any form will create the need for the physical distancing and spacing of students.  This may inadvertently discourage collaboration and thus traditional face-to face collaborative activities may need to be revised to take this into consideration. There is also the possibility that even with the return to school, COVID cases could suddenly swing the other direction and we could find ourselves only teaching online again.

Opportunities, Barriers and Final thoughts

Students, as digital natives, have the skills to communicate online.  Salmons (2019) observes that this is “a[n] era where text messaging, social media, e-mailing and blogging are common ways that students interact socially, [the next step is to consider how we can create] collaborative learning [that] encourages students to apply these practices to meaningful tasks” (p.76).   Simple as this may seem, it can be challenging to create meaningful collaboration; collaboration that involves all/or as many students as possible.  While I experienced some success with this in the spring, there were many failed attempts and areas that could be further improved.  Salmons (2019) notes a couple of essential considerations when it comes to creating collaborative learning experiences.  The first and foremost of these is trust, as students need to trust both the teacher and their classmates.  The second consideration would be the skill level of the students when it comes to collaborating; this will determine the type of collaboration that would be most successful as well as the amount of time that would need to be spent on teaching students the necessary skills ( Salmons, 2019).  Like Bloom’s taxonomy, there are varying degrees of collaboration included as part of the taxonomy of collaboration (reflection, dialogue, review, parallel collaboration sequential collaboration, synergistic collaboration ) that move from one level to the next, and that could be used to create collaborative experiences that reflect student needs (Salmons, 2019).  In line with many of the theorist’s work mentioned earlier as well as the personalization of the curriculum, Salmons (2019) notes the importance of considering the needs and experiences of the students. Thought should also be given to the tools that students have access to as well tools that comply with district policies.  In my experience, this can be challenging at times; roadblocks may interfere with experiences we would like to provide for our students.

While no one can know for certain what the future will look like I, like many other teachers I know, am a planner.  So, I will plan, and I anticipate that much like the planned curriculum we use to guide us, my planned activities and my planned online/ blended classrooms will be different from the lived one I will experience in the fall.  Technology may fail, and new strategies may go up in flames, however, I will continue to work towards what may be the most important part of schooling; building collaboration, building community, as this, these relationships, are where “most of our happiness arises” (A quote by Dalai Lama XIV ).

 

References

“A Quote by Dalai Lama XIV.” Goodreads, Goodreads.  www.goodreads.com/quotes/31335-we-human-beings-are-social-beings-we-come-into-the.

Aoki, T. T., (1993), Journal of Curriculum and Supervision8(3). 255-268. Rhttps://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/09c0/8e959a4a83c9716e4bafdf233639a8a4c070.pdf

Building Student Success – BC’s New Curriculum.  https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/

Gewertz, C. (2020, June 3). How Technology, Coronavirus Will Change Teaching by 2025. Education Week.  https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/06/03/how-technology-coronavirus-will-change-teaching-by.html.

Lammert, C. (2020). Becoming Inquirers: A Review of Research on Inquiry Methods in Literacy Preservice Teacher Preparation. Literacy Research and Instruction59(3), 191–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2020.1730529

McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 05). Lev Vygotsky. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html

Salmons, J. (2019). Learning to collaborate, collaborating to learn: engaging students in the classroom and online. Stylus Publishing, LLC. https://ebookcentral-proquest. com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=5748777

Smith, Barbara & MacGregor, Jean. (1993). What is Collaborative Learning? Wash Cent News.7. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242282475_What_is_Collaborative_Learning

Snaza, Nathan, Peter Appelbaum, Siân Bayne, Dennis Carlson, Marla Morris, Nikki Rotas, Jennifer Sandlin, Jason Wallin, John A. Weaver. 2014. “Toward a Posthuman Education.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30 (2): 39-55.   https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/curriculum-facpubs/47

Takaya, K. (2008). Jerome Bruner’s Theory of Education: From Early Bruner to Later Bruner. Interchange39(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10780-008-9039-2

Tyler, R. W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  http://blogs.ubc.ca/ewayne/files/2009/02/tyler_001.pdf

 

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