Thursday, April 27, 2006

Done! (Almost)

Taught my last class yesterday--and no one left early. There are still papers to grade for one of the classes, reports to write, and a few overdue pieces of writing to finish and send--but still: done!

Back at the IHE ranch, Terry Caesar is shocked, shocked!--in fact shocked and outraged, he'll tell you--at what he thinks is the useless timewaster called collaborative learning, by which he seems to mean small group discussion.

He's right about one thing, and pretty much only one thing: I, too, learned in grad school that lecture format was the Great Satan. Collaborative learning was the only way to go. Be the "Guide on the side"--that's the ticket. I learned this so well that I was never taught to lecture, never taught to structure a short (or long) presentation that would hold a class's interest; I had to learn that on my own, prompted, really, by student requests for explanations of terms and concepts. And in the end, the "talks" or "explanations" I gave (still shying away from the L-word, although that's what the students called it) proved to be a really good method for conveying certain ideas and--this is crucial--providing a variety of classroom experiences. Group work, short lectures, classroom discussions, peer review, projects, online discussions--they all work better if there's some variety.

I think that what was lost was the idea that "collaborative learning" is a principle, not a technique. Yes, small group work, class discussions, and the rest are extremely important, but what's more important is the level of respect for students, and for student opinions, that creates the real spirit of collaborative learning. On days when the process works at its best, you're making meaning together and they're learning from each other.

It's like the "open classroom" movement back in the 1970s; the idea was a metaphor, but the schools took it literally and knocked down the walls. What I've heard from teachers who worked in these spaces was that (1) their classroom noise level hovered somewhere between "bulldozers operating" and "deafening shindy" and (2) that the teachers piled up books, boxes, and plants to make walls and preserve some sort of boundaries so that they could provide a better learning environment.

So too with "collaborative learning." It's a lot more than "sit in a circle and discuss." (And who, BTW, really sits down when the students are in groups, as Caesar charges? I never do; I'm always wandering from group to group, listening.)

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