School provide amazing opportunities to redefine the prevalent understandings of learning. With the advent of formalized schools, came the assumption that students were “empty vessels” to be filled with the requisite knowledge required for their success in the world. Teachers were understood to be the gas station attendants responsible for filling the tank. Fortunately our understanding of teaching and learning have both evolved.
Educators spend their lives honing their skills so they can make content accessible to their students and prepare students with the resilience and strategies to access learning in all aspects of their lives. This includes teaching students to work independently and collaboratively to problem solve and express themselves in a variety of ways.
A successful learner is a person who is confident in their ability to find answers to their questions in a variety of contexts. An undergraduate degree today demonstrates that the person has demonstrated the perseverance and resilience to bring a difficult task to completion. There is an understanding that young people today will be working in several different jobs therefore it is imperative that students learn to generalize their knowledge.
Lessons from Kindergarten to Grade 12 are all structured to connect the background knowledge of the student to the learning being presented. When students respond with “Oh, yeah. That reminds me of …”, the teacher has the indicator that students are ready to proceed with the lesson. The challenge is when that background knowledge is absent. This is when we see the power of collaborative learning.
When students are able to share background knowledge and teach each other specific skills and strategies, the classroom becomes a community of learners. At the recent TEDxVancouver2018, Dr. Kevin Heyries talked about working collaboratively with other doctors to cure disease with antibody based drugs. The expectation in a scenario like this is that everyone is coming to the task with ideas, skills and a good work ethic to solve a problem they care about. The challenge for teachers is how to structure collaborative learning experiences that are meaningful and develop the target skills. In some cases, this will be demonstrating a concept or skill or ability to complete a more detailed project.
My daughter bemoaned the “group project” in high school. My son would tirade about the “bottom feeders” who refused do their part in group projects at university. These were the projects where a group was assigned to complete a research report. The students that required scaffolding to get started opted out to avoid embarrassment in the group. The students with the skills and motivation to demonstrate all of the criteria and get a good grade, took over the lion’s share of task completion. A project was completed but collaborative skills were not developed. Relationships suffered.
Project Based Learning has similarities but it is not the same as the old style of “group project” that many of us are familiar with. Students are working in a group to accomplish a task. However the role of engagement in learning is now better understood. Old style “group projects” were designed for students to research and demonstrate understanding of a body of content. The starting point for Project Based Learning is for the learners to define a question they care about and then plan how they will go about finding the answer. Sharing the learning to an audience and answering questions makes it necessary to have a thorough understanding of the topic. Self assessment by the student about his/her functioning in the group and goals for next time, ensure the student is invested in future development of their core competencies.
The curriculum in British Columbia is regarded as a model for quality education globally. It has been designed by B.C. educators who are reputed for their own collaborative practice and presents many ideas and supports for teachers to engage students in their learning. The focus on student learning rather than mastery of a specific body of content is undoubtedly why so many students were so excited to be back school.