January 29, 2018

Co-Learning: Modeling Cooperative-Collaborative Learning

Category: Educational Practice
students stand in a circle during class

Moving the classroom chairs in a circle had radical effects on the way we all looked at our learning: As I told my students, if we transported a warrior from 1,000 years ago to a present-day battlefield, he would die quickly; if we transported a surgeon from 1,000 years ago to a modern operating room, he wouldn’t know what to do; but, if we transported students and a teacher from 1,000 years ago to most contemporary classrooms, everyone would know where to sit, who was in charge, who would speak, and who would remain silent. In a circle, the teacher isn’t privileged as the single most important voice; there is no back row; instead of students and teacher staring at each other, we all become visible to each other. For me and my students, changing the physical arrangement of the classroom was only the first step.

When I understood that my fear of revealing what I didn’t know about teaching was subtly conveying a fear of trial-and-error learning, I started pushing my experiments with social media in the classroom to the point where something would go wrong, thus affording me an opportunity to debug my errors aloud. I was no longer just teaching. I was demonstrating that I was engaged in learning. Likewise, asking my students to comment on the effectiveness of my curricular experiments, then adjusting the curriculum to try to be more effective, modeled a willingness to reflect, re-examine, and adjust my thinking.

When I emailed my students, I always addressed them as “esteemed students.” When I started teaching my own online classes, the first time I sent out email to the learners who had signed up for the first course, I addressed them as “esteemed co-learners.” It was an experiment. I was surprised by the enthusiasm of their responses. The cohort immediately started contributing as if they were teachers as well as learners — and started teaching me about aspects of our subject matter that I had not been aware of. The elements of a class cohort as a co-learning community started to become clear. Although at the beginning I had to be honest that I wasn’t completely confident that my experimentation with co-learning and social media sharing beyond our classroom meetings would work as I expected, after the first two or three iterations, it became clear that a group of individual students could embrace cooperative learning — and come to relish it. That enabled me to frame our experiment with confidence at our first class meeting: “I can’t guarantee that the magic will happen, but I can tell you that it has happened. I, as the teacher and lead co-learner, can create the conditions and can encourage cooperative learning, but the outcome is always up to all of us.” Because students are so grooved into following the teacher’s directions, my confidence in the possibility of success multiplied our chances of gelling as a co-learning community where we not only collaborated, but cooperated by contributing to each other’s learning.

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