Collaboration: The Lost Skill?

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This blog post is cross-posted over at Dangerously Irrelevant.

First I’d like to say thanks to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to write a post for Dangerously Irrelevant. The topic of student collaboration is one that has been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. I want to disclaim at the forefront that I want this to be a conversation. I want to learn from you. I want you to make me think. This is not the end-all be-all about collaboration. I want to talk about the necessity of this 21st century skill and how I think it dwindles as a necessary skill as students move away from elementary school.

My daughter is almost 6 years old. She just started Kindergarten. Recently she was at a playground with her brother and numerous other kids. As I watched her play, I noticed how comfortable she was going up to kids she’d never met, introducing herself, and engaging these kids in conversation which led to a new playtime opportunity. She was probably doing whatever she could to not have to play with her younger brother for a while. 🙂

If you have young children it’s really an amazing thing to watch. She just went right up to these other kids, and started in like she had known them already. Right away I thought about collaboration. Even if it’s in the most simplest form, she is collaborating. It doesn’t matter if it’s in her kindergarten classroom or on the playground. She wants to have a productive play/learning time. That is her goal. It would seem, that she is eager to collaborate for this to happen. I feel like I’ve been a positive guide for her to be this way; but it wasn’t decreed like, “You shall speak to all of your peers and engage them!” I am blown away by her comfort level. Even when I’m in a classroom of younger students (I’m thinking Kindergarten through 2nd grade), I am always intrigued at their collaboration skills (as basic as they may be) to achieve a common goal.

All of this thinking on collaboration and 21st century skills led me to ask this via Twitter, “What field of expertise DOESN’T require some form of collaboration to succeed?” I didn’t get one serious response. My friend Andy Marcinek, however, gets the award for funniest response. “A mime.” Seriously though, how can we say that students don’t need the skill of effective collaboration? I want to hear your thoughts on this.

I have seen tweets and blog posts recently about frustration that teachers are having getting their students to collaborate. These were mainly secondary teachers and library media specialists. It was even an #EdChat topic a few weeks ago: “How do we engage students who find participatory learning uncomfortable?” What do you find most difficult when getting students to collaborate? Criticism from their peers? A bad experience with a previous teacher? It seems like there’s so many factors that can come into play.

How are we fostering this skill beyond kindergarten? What have you found that really is motivating for students to collaborate? What gives them true ownership of their learning? There’s awesome digital tools that aid in collaboration, but those tools don’t MAKE the collaboration. It’s a skill that still has to be fine tuned. It’s a skill we should all be modeling effectively if we want our students to do it effectively. If you’re looking for some great suggestions on how to foster collaboration in your classroom, I would suggest reading Michelle Bourgeois’ post titled:  The Collaborative Classroom: It’s a Juggling Act. In this post Michelle tells a story of teaching students how to juggle and says. “Just like the art of juggling, there are several skills that need to be balanced and constantly monitored in a collaborative classroom to make it all come together.” Please be sure to check out Michelle’s post on how to monitor and keep balance of some essentials in classroom collaboration.

This leads to my questions, “Where does this skill go?” Am I the only one that thinks younger students are better at collaboration than older students? Shouldn’t this be the opposite? This is something we want our students to be better at right? We should be fostering this skill in our classrooms, not hindering it. How often are you allowing students to collaborate? Not to say that awesome things can’t come out of individual thinking, but as I always like to say, “We’re better together.” Sure, one mind can do awesome things, but a collective could really rock someone’s world.

Thanks for reading.

The Other End of The String – Thoughts from this week’s EdChat

Some thoughts and tips from this week’s EdChat, having a positive digital footprint

This past week’s EdChat was about best practices for increasing parent/teacher communication. Lots of great tips, resources, and ideas were shared as always. How effective is the digital communication between school and home? How great is the digital divide in your school or district? I need the proper PD to do this well, I don’t want to do it half way. These were just a few of the topics that came up during the evening edition of EdChat. If you weren’t there or haven’t yet had a chance to read the archive, check it out here.

Teacher ambition is always so high during the infancy of  implementing a digital communication tool. I know some districts, such as my own, offer teachers space on the web server to store their classroom/team/department/grade level web site. I realize this is not the case in every district. If you do have this option though, I recommend taking advantage of it and invest in the initial training necessary to create a web site for your classroom. Not only is it an excellent way to communicate with parents, but it can also provide resources for review, remediation, and enrichment to supplement the instruction that occurs in the classroom.

No matter which way a teacher chooses to communicate digitally with parents, choose one tool and stick with it. Consistently update it. If you post something that’s relevant for November, don’t still have it posted in February. Decide how much time you want to invest up front. Quite often the ambition quickly fades to update and maintain a classroom web site. Which, of course, easily happens with the one million other things that classroom teachers have on their plate at any given time.

If a district hosted site is not an option, blogs and wikis can be of use nicely and are easier to maintain when it comes to content and overall design. There are also many free web services that will walk you through building a professional looking site. I recently tweeted this resource, “45 Web Builders to Create an Insanely Awesome Free Website“. Definitely check out the tools there.

Our students also need to know about creating and communicating a positive, professional presence on the web. I call it “having a positive digital footprint”. I spoke this week to students at the Missouri FCCLA State Conference about this very topic. I wanted to help students understand that the way they communicate on the web now can either have a positive or negative impact for when they enter the workforce after college. I shared with them tools and strategies that will help them have a positive digital footprint. Universities are starting to look at a student’s web presence when determining whether to accept or deny entrance into the school. Potential Employers are certainly looking at a job candidate’s web presence when deciding whether to hire someone or not. I shared this recent study by Microsoft in regards to why your online reputation matters. Be sure and check out the statistics and watch the video “What does your Online Reputation say about you?” Whether we like it or not, teacher or student, Google is quickly becoming one of the “silent references” on our resume.

Creating any kind of classroom website, blog, wiki, or Twitter account can be a great way to keep in communication with parents. Some of those allow for two-way communication, but some don’t. The teacher has to evaluate and plan exactly what type of information and resources they want to provide to parents via the web BEFORE any creation starts.

Thank you for reading.

How do we prepare students for the future?

I ask this question to educators with regard to today’s students. Do we know what we’re preparing them for? I’m going to guess that probably all of us would say no unless Doc Brown and Marty McFly are your next door neighbors.  How do we as educators even begin to grasp a glimpse of the future we are preparing students to enter after they leave high school and possibly college?

David Warlick has said, “For the first time we are preparing students for a future we cannot clearly describe.”

He’s right. We can’t describe it. We don’t know what will be going on in 5, 10, or 15 years from now. We don’t know what it will even look like for students to go to school. Or what kinds of skills they will have to have in order to survive in the workplace. We can only imagine. So the question is how do we prepare our students for a future we cannot clearly describe?

I just came back from Tweetdeck, looking to my PLN for inspiration as I regularly do, and came across this excellent tweet from Tom Whitby: “Educators remember the world we learned in is not the world we live in. The world we teach in is not the world we teach for.”

Needless to say I immediately retweeted his profound words and just as quickly sent Tom a DM asking if I could quote him (and he kindly obliged). This portion in particular stuck out for me: “The world we teach is not the world we teach for.” We don’t know the world we’re teaching for. We as educators should continually strive to better ourselves professionally. Twitter and my PLN definitely help me do that. We’ll talk briefly about other ways to learn new tools and resources in just a bit.

With regards to technology, does this mean it’s our job to teach our students every type and variation of technology tool in addition to all the required curriculum? Absolutely not. Teachers often are confused by the term “technology integration”. Teachers often think it means that on this particular day we’re going to use one particular program or on this particular day each week is going to be our “use the wireless lab day”. I’m starting to think the term “technology integration” is not correct. Technology should be infused with our teaching to the point where it becomes as common place as the pencil. Is this hard to do? It can be very hard to do without proper support, equipment, PD, etc.

Students need to be exposed to tools that foster creativity and promote collaboration. Those are HUGE skills to have in your “toolbox” of skills. Technology lends itself well to both. Here is a great article I came across this week from CNN. I it think gives us a pretty accurate glimpse at the type of work environment and collaboration level facing today’s students. And it’s probably not that far off. This would be excellent to share with students:

Virtual businesses: Going to the office in Second Life

We need to expose our students to lots of tools that will bring technology use into our classrooms on various levels. Technology is a great way to differentiate our instruction.  Take a look at this video for example. I came across this on Twitter this week and thought, “Where was this guy when I was struggling in math?”.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zx3qd2BN_6Y&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

I bet those students will never forget that math lesson again. How strong would your retention be? I also wonder how many of those students at that point said, “Wow that was some really cool video work. I’d like to learn how to do that.”

I would assume this teacher considers himself a lifelong learner. Maybe he just attended a PD event or conference session about using technology and he really wanted to learn more about the power of video with some dabbling in video editing.  We don’t know for sure but look at the direction he went by putting a creative spin on an otherwise boring math lesson.  He decided to use his new knowledge to enhance something he’s probably been teaching the same way for years. I would love to talk to this teacher and find out how much of an impact this had on his instruction and how it has given his students a new way to grasp a mathematical concept.

So how do we educate ourselves about new technology tools? There’s many ways to learn about new tools and resources to infuse technology in your classroom. Building a PLN (and following awesome educators such as @shellterrell @web20classroom @tomwhitby @nmhs_principal and countless others), utilizing your instructional technology specialist/coach, and attending PD events and conferences in person or virtually. I also learn by subscribing to blogs, podcasts, Delicious, and RSS feeds to learn about new resources and tools.

Try to expose yourself to many technology tools so you at least have a working knowledge of the kind of results they can produce so you can make an informed decision if it will be an acceptable tool for your students to use. You don’t have to become a master of everything.

Preparing our students for the future starts with us. We have to want to prepare ourselves first.  The future arrives in our classrooms every day.  Strive to infuse technology with your teaching. The more you do, the more seamless it will become.

If I can help you in anyway with resources of how to infuse technology into your classroom, please do not hesitate to contact me or DM me on Twitter.