Topic 3: Changing our thinking together

When reflecting on the third topic of this course and choosing one of the suggested questions for the blog posts, I was in doubt whether I could find a real learning experience that included:   a) collaborative learning and b) something that moved my own thinking forward. The last part was the real challenge – how can we tell when we have moved our thinking forward?

The easiest example would be to quote collaborative learning experiences from this ONL course itself, since we have commented on our collaborative learning numerous times in our PBL group during the course. But I found that, being Swedish and growing up with group work in pre-school, group work (Swedish “grupparbeten“) in school years 1-9, group work in upper secondary school and finally more group work at the university in my language teacher training programme, I should have many useful examples to choose from. My problem was only, to be honest, that in my experience group work was seldom a rewarding, innovative and empowering experience, the way it is described in i.e. the online webinar by Miriam Fischer, Gregor Theilmeier and Danielle Santos for this course.  As was stated in the initial dilemma of the course, collaborative learning can too often materialise as co-operative learning at its best and social loafing at its worst. In fact, when reading the article by Capdeferro and Romero (2012), “Are Online Learners Frustrated with Collaborative Learning Experiences?”, I found myself transferred to many similar student experiences of frustration by group work that did not take place online, but that just seems typical of less fruitful collaboration.

The gap between theory and practice is clearly visible in a lot of pedagogical debate and thinking, to the extent that we start in theory instead of being present in actual practice, but then I found one example of real collaborative learning which did move my thinking to a new place – when I and two of my colleagues started a language teacher podcast together (“The Language Teacher Podcast” or in Swedish: Språklärarpodden).

The main reasons why I wanted to reflect on this example are: a) it was a spontaneous idea that was born during a meeting on how to create more inspiring course materials for language teacher students, b) it was an idea that could only be implemented as a group project and therefore required committed collaboration c) the whole project was completely new and would move us out of our comfort zone, which brought a certain “flow” to our thinking, because we thought it was fun.

Obviously this was a teacher collaborative project and not a student project, but being forced to step out and try something new, we had the valuable experience of being beginners again and we were forced to use our previous knowledge in new ares. The role of our emotions in this project was clearly of great importance (c.f. the necessity of bringing emotions into group work and learning in general, see the above-quoted webinar), not least because it made us prioritise these tasks within our otherwise full work-load.

I will not go into the details of the actual project (the podcast episodes can be downloaded on the above homepage) but while working out the actual technical and thematic framework for the separate episodes, I guess we actually formed a real “community of practice” (Wenger 2010) without being explicitly aware of this. We planned and revised our thinking together, we carried out the actual project together and we encouraged each other to stick to the project and to move forward to new places. The most interesting thing was to learn how much joy researchers expressed when they were given the opportunity to talk freely about their passion for research, and also how appreciative the students were when they listened to the episodes. It was an empowering experience and the only negative thing was that we eventually had to finish the project earlier than planned due to lack of time.

To sum up – in my PBL group (group 6), we actually had some very rewarding discussions about the advantages and disadvantages – seen from a practical point of view and out of our own experience – of collaborative learning in different scientific fields. We also ended up by recording a podcast with a fictional debate on collaborative learning that you can listen to here. My main “exit note” from this experience is that true collaboration can indeed move the thinking of a group to a new place with rewarding insights, and the secret must be how we as teachers can work harder to create those opportunities for our students. Maybe it will always take some courage too.

References:

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences?. The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer London