This is the second in a series on the characteristics of a meaningful learning environment. The first was Active Learning: Engaging Students’ Minds.
The Collaborative characteristic describes the degree to which technology is used to facilitate, enable, or enhance students’ opportunities to work with peers, experts, and others who may be in different locations and may represent different experiences, cultures, and points of view. Collaborative learning checks all the boxes: it promotes critical thinking skills, it’s an opportunity to practice and improve communication skills, and it’s a skill highly desired by employers.
What’s not to like?
Well, for starters, a successful collaborative learning environment doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a sense in which it’s both the hardest and the easiest of the five TIM characteristics to implement. Hardest, because it initially takes lots of scaffolding to create a collaborative culture among students who are not accustomed to it. Easiest, because once a collaborative culture takes root, there can be an explosion of student energy directed toward working together to solve shared challenges. In my years of observing in many different schools, the most memorable classes were those that had mastered collaborative learning. How exciting to see students pour into a classroom and immediately assemble into teams tackling projects long before the tardy bell rings. The teacher could spend the class period talking with the outside visitor (me) and the class continued humming along, but I knew it had taken a ton of work to get to easy.
As with the other four characteristics of a meaningful learning environment on the TIM, Collaborative Learning is described at five different levels of technology integration (Entry, Adoption, Adaptation, Infusion, and Transformation).
At the ENTRY level, student work is primarily individual. The class is typically teacher-focused. Tasks assigned by the teacher are simple enough to be completed by individual students. Although this is the “lowest” level of technology integration, it isn’t considered to be a “bad” level. From time to time, it might be the most appropriate level. Until a class is practiced at collaborative learning, just suddenly assigning a high-level collaborative project would be inadvisable.
In Entry level lessons, students may begin to acquire collaborative skills through activities that do not yet involve technology use. A teacher may also appropriately decide to drop a lesson down to the Entry level to introduce new concepts, begin a new unit, or just give students time to work through some ideas on their own. Sometimes, creative ideas are born when an individual has time away from the group to rethink some of the shared presuppositions the group has been operating on.
But whole new worlds of collaborative learning can open as a teacher begins to implement lessons at higher levels, so while Entry may be an appropriate level for a class to either begin at or regroup at, there are better—much better—things to come.
At the ADOPTION level, students are beginning to use technology for simple collaborative tasks. Collaborative technologies are introduced and used at their most basic, conventional level. Such use is highly supervised by the teacher and is not yet a regular practice. Essentially, the technologies still have their training wheels on.
At the ADAPTATION level, the training wheels come off. Students are now experienced enough with a limited set of collaborative tools that they can begin to explore their use without continued teacher oversight. Rather than just following directions as they may have done at the Adoption level, they are now developing a conceptual understanding of their use and possibilities for working with others. Students now have some choice about which tools to use for a particular task. Typically those tasks will be more complex than those assigned at lower levels so as to require collaboration to solve.
By the INFUSION level, students’ use of collaborative tools is a regular occurrence. Students have enough experience in using the tools that they can choose the most effective tool for a specific task. The tools are always available to students and can meet the collaborative needs of all members of the class.
Wait a minute, Roy. I’ve got a question! You just said that “regular” use of technology tools is part of the descriptor for an Infusion level lesson. But you always say that when doing a TIM observation, the “unit of consideration is the lesson,” not some ongoing regular level for the teacher or the class.
You’re absolutely correct. We do say that the “unit of consideration is the lesson.” We’re not doing an observation to assess student technology skills, to grade teacher effectiveness, or to inventory district technology readiness. We’re observing a particular lesson to see how technology is used to support pedagogical practices (active, collaborative, constructive, authentic, and goal-directed learning) that have been demonstrated to positively impact student success.
Any lessons at the higher levels have been preceded by a lot of scaffolding. Getting to Infusion or Transformation levels of technology integration doesn’t happen overnight. From my experience observing in schools, it’s simply not possible that students are suddenly working at the Infusion or Transformation levels if they have not had “regular” access to technology. There have been times when a teacher tried to impress the university observer by attempting an Infusion or Transformation level lesson with a class unprepared for it. Believe me, there is no question when students do not have “regular” access. Confusion and chaos reign.
Finally, at the TRANSFORMATION level, students regularly use technology tools to collaborate with peers, experts, and others who may be in different locations and may represent different experiences, cultures, and points of view. This is one descriptor that has changed from the second edition to the current third edition of the TIM. We added the phrase, “and others who may be in different locations and may represent different experiences, cultures, and points of view.” The addition extends the meaning in a direction that is becoming more and more valued in an increasingly interconnected world.
An important takeaway from the tangent above about “regular use” is that, more so than with the other four TIM characteristics, the Collaborative characteristic has both what we might call a formal and an informal dimension. The formal dimension is the structure of the lesson itself. Has the teacher planned a lesson that implements a jigsaw strategy? Or a think-pair-share activity? Or a scheduled videoconference with a scientist? These are the sorts of things you could identify from reading the lesson plan. But just as important is the classroom culture of collaboration that has been built up over a period of time. The mechanics of sharing devices. The ongoing “permission” for students to consult with each other. The comfort level of students interacting with others different from themselves. Listening skills. Understanding of the affordances of particular collaborative technologies. Respect. Shared responsibility. These and a hundred other indicators are evidence that there is an ongoing culture of collaboration in the classroom. When a good collaborative lesson plan meets a good collaborative classroom culture, the sky is the limit!
A postscript to PD trainers and coaches working with more experienced (aka older) teachers:
Have patience with us! We attended school and started our careers back in the days of the dreaded “group project.” When you say “collaborative learning” we think of every horrifically awful group project we were ever forced to participate in. We dredge up every unfair group grade we suffered. We remember doing more than our fair share since we did kinda like school or we wouldn’t have become teachers. And we remember every group work argument and freeloader. We also recall that we learned virtually nothing from poorly-conceived group projects. My only memorable takeaway from a pointless elementary school group creation of a 15-foot papier-mâché canoe was how much moldering papier-mâché smelled like old beer bottles. Before you can get us onboard with collaborative learning, you’ve got to undo quite a bit of our personal histories. We’ll come around. Just help us to realize that what we know to be a miserable practice for all concerned is not at all what you’re talking about with CL.
Roy Winkelman is a 40+ year veteran teacher of students from every level kindergarten through graduate school. As the former Director of FCIT, he began the Center's focus on providing students with rich content collections from which to build their understanding. When not glued to his keyboard, Dr. Winkelman can usually be found puttering around his tomato garden in Pittsburgh.