…and it’s a learning model engineered to work with our human instinct to be social, and to learn socially. Have you seen it in your school?
By: Sara G. Stephens
According to a survey of 24,000 high school students in grades 9-12, 95 percent of students say they’ve cheated during the course of their education, ranging from letting somebody copy their homework to cheating on tests. Sixty-four percent of students report one or more instances of serious testing-cheating, which include copying from someone else, helping someone else cheat on a test, or using crib sheets or cheat notes.
The problem raises several questions, starting with, “What is cheating?” The answer is not as clear as one might think, and it leaves parents wondering, “Is it cheating when my kid invites friends over to collaborate on a homework assignment or school project?” No, that’s collaborative learning, according to many experts. Heralded by some as a teaching and learning method that better prepares students for their professional futures, collaborative learning differs from cheating on many critical levels.
What is cheating and what’s behind it?
“Collaboration means to work with someone to produce or create something. Cheating is acting dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage,” says Margaret McNutt, who heads Heritage Oaks School (www.heritageoaksschool.org), a Houston school that emphasizes project-based learning. McNutt explains that the distinction between collaboration and cheating is based on circumstance. And it’s up to teachers to stipulate the rules of the game in their classrooms, based on the goals and objectives of the exercise at hand, she adds.
“If homework is designed to help students understand concepts, think about what they are learning, and be able to move forward with more learning then collaboration helps that happen,” McNutt says. “If students choose to pervert the plan by simply copying someone else’s answers, that is cheating.” Other instances of cheating include when parents do their kids’ homework or projects for them. And when a group of kids is assigned to collaborate on a project, and not everyone pulls his weight, but everyone gets the same credit, that’s cheating, too.
“All of these things are forms of cheating,” McNutt says, “and all of them have detrimental effects on the students who perpetrate them—they don’t learn about their own capabilities, they are never allowed to fail and learn from those failures, and they have nothing to take pride in.”
Carolyn Means, an independent educational consultant and owner of Houston-based School Solutions (http://www.schoolsolutions.us/), is not surprised by the surge in cheating among students. “I think it comes from the lack of respect kids feel for the quality of the education they are getting,” she says, as she imagines the students’ rationalization for cheating: “’You don’t respect me enough to give me anything more than this boring homework, so I’ll give my answers to my buddy who had a late baseball game.’”
The consequences of failure in today’s increasingly competitive culture also play a role in the increased cheating among students. This happens when tests and standardization overshadow the true goal of education. “Students and teachers alike resent the mediocre, irrelevant experience tied to traditional education—desks in a row, scantron test measurements,” Means says. Cell phones are factors on both sides of the equation, as teachers occupy themselves during test-time by texting their friends, giving students the opportunity and the means to text test answers to each other via their own cell phones, she adds.
What is collaborative learning, and what’s behind it?
The solution, according to Means, is to “turn kids on to learning” by stimulating its inherent nature as a social activity. She emphasizes that it is human nature to retain more learned material when it’s learned with other people, and that kids take pride in contributing ideas. “How many times do parents hear from their creative children that they can’t wait to grow up and go to work?” Means asks. “Who wouldn’t want to work in a grown-up environment that is intellectually stimulating? Problem-solving and discovery in a partnership or a group is one of the most fun parts of the day for most folks. It makes the grinding work tolerable.”
This social tendency drives the engine of collaborative learning. “The goal of collaboration in schools is to engage students in their learning, to help them learn from each other, and to encourage them to develop a set of ethics and personal responsibility to uphold their part of the team project,” McNutt says. She adds that, using effective design, teachers can implement the collaborative method, and minimize the likelihood of cheating.
Collaborative Learning in Action
Embarking on such an important educational redesign requires a firm understanding of the underlying foundation. For the most part, today’s educational environment is based on memorization and regurgitation of facts. It’s a system that appeals to a narrow slice of students who are naturally geared to learn this way. But the grades that come out of this environment do not predict tomorrow’s thinkers and problem solvers, Means says. “Colleges are already complaining that Advanced Placement courses with their emphasis on facts are not preparing students for university-level thinking,” she explains, adding that, “Colleges want students who have been asked to think.”
The time and effort required to teach group work skills is considerable and daunting, but the results are impressive and palpable. Means offers these examples:
- Relevant projects: As Director of Admissions and Development and then Principal of the High School at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Means noted that, as the high school grew, students collaborated on many projects, including the arrangement of their environment, student government, class trips, a flag football team, girls’ cheer squad, organizing talent shows and senior project night. Middle school students prepared a daily salad bar and baked potato lunch for the school. “Leadership, time management, budgeting, materials and manpower all had to be managed,” Means recalls. “All kids had strengths to bring to the group and were valued.”
- Preparing for exit exams: In her role at a large public school, Means divided her college prep 11th grade English class students into small groups to review questions on the pre-test they had taken in September for the first state high school exit exam. Each group was instructed to explain in writing why each of the three incorrect answers was incorrect and why the correct answer was correct. Means’ assignment met with the unsurprising moans of protest from all groups: “This is too hard. We have to think,” they complained. Means monitored the groups, giving hints from time to time. At the end, the students found they had taught themselves several years of grammar and writing skills and scored highly on the exam. “They discovered it was actually possible to ‘think,’ she says.
- Literary Circles: Using this method, middle school students were responsible for discussing a group novel. Quality questions and answers won high marks. “Students gradually became fully engaged and learned literary elements,” Means remarks. “They managed group time, and were challenged by a character’s motivation, or how a vocabulary word was used in an unexpected context.”
- Community service: Students are asked to conceive a community service project; get a faculty sponsor; enlist other students; organize all elements of materials, transportation, permission forms, funds, insurance, clothing, food, fuel, etc.; and manage the team, Means suggests.
McNutt shares similar stories of quantifiable success with collaborative learning models she’s either used or witnessed throughout her own professional educational career. In one instance, she was teaching high school English and took on the challenge of revealing the literary classic Beowulf as an engaging, meaningful, and enjoyable read. “Just because a literary piece is considered a classic, doesn’t mean every student will like it,” McNutt explains. Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem written in Old English, consists of 3,182 lines of alliterative poetry, and is consistently perceived by students as a challenging piece of literature and a reading task that is arduous, at best.
McNutt set out to change all that. In her class of 35 students (many of whom spoke Spanish at home at least part of the time), she organized groups of five, being careful to balance the groupings with various talents. She then divided the poem into equal parts, assigning a section to each group. Each group was asked to rewrite their sections, design an accompanying illustration, and devise a creative way to present the section to the class. Means’ objective was to have students translate Beowulf into modern-day English. She succeeded in her efforts, with one group’s. presenting a rap performance of their section of the poem, complete with dancing. The performance was an undeniable hit, with the entire class whooping and hollering with delight.
“Did any of those students go on to become great literary scholars?” McNutt asks. “Maybe. Did the entire class realize something about their own talents and capabilities as well as those of their classmates? Absolutely.”
“When they hear the word Beowulf now do they at least know what is being talked about?” she continues. “Yes! Can same be said about most students who simply read the poem to themselves? Probably not.”
McNutt describes another strong example of collaborative learning among 5th grade students, which she witnessed as the school principal. Classes of students moved between two teachers, one who taught science and math, and the other who taught language arts and social studies. Here’s how it all played out. At the start of the year, the math teacher set up checking accounts for her students using her own classroom bank. Through the bank, students were given play money, which they used in a very serious fashion. They had to pay rent on their desks and other classroom amenities, with corner desks costing more than desks with less space or in less desirable locations. When social studies introduced the history of the American Revolution, the students, “of their own accord,” according to McNutt, divided into groups of loyalists and patriots. “Fully aware of personal financial responsibilities, the patriots became understandably incensed when the loyalists began to tax them on everything they could think of—including use of the recess equipment,” McNutt says. The discontent erupted into full-fledged protests on the playground, with raging chants of “Taxation without Representation.”
“I have never seen students develop a better understanding of the causes of the Revolutionary War,” McNutt marvels.
Getting There from Here
When spoken, the term “collaborative learning” has an almost liberal-parent-fad-like sound akin to “attachment parenting” or “placenta eating.” In fact, collaboration in the classroom dates back to the early 20th century with the introduction of the Harkness table at southern New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy in the late 1930s, Means explains. Today, many Houston schools employ this method of learning.
To understand the concept, one must understand its two definitions. First, and most literally, Harkness refers to a “table, oval, with enough room to seat 12 students and a teacher,” according to privateschool.com. Secondly, the Harkness table philosophy embodies collaborative learning by a diverse set of students.
Exeter Principal Tom Hassan expands upon the definition as “a way of learning: everyone comes to class prepared to share, discuss, and discover, whether the subject is a novel by William Faulkner or atomic and molecular structure. There are no lectures.
“It’s a way of being,” Hassan continues, “interacting with other minds, listening carefully, speaking respectfully, accepting new ideas and questioning old ones, using new knowledge, and enjoying the richness of human interaction… It’s fun, it’s exhilarating, it’s the way to be.”
With the unprecedented interconnectedness of today’s youth, the notion of collaboration seems like the most natural step in the learning evolution. The technology facilitates the notion well beyond the scope of physical table, when you consider the Internet, social networks, mobile apps, and so on. After all, one might argue that these applications of technology have been driven in whole, or in part, by the very human need to be social, and to learn socially. And this is why collaborative learning inspires students to their highest potential, whereas older systems that ignore such human nature increasingly invite and entice cheating, the antithesis of learning and ethics.
“Does this mean that we should do away with directed teaching, grades, and tests altogether?” McNutt asks. “Absolutely not. It simply means we need a balance of activities and teaching methods. We need to give students lots of opportunities to think and to pursue goals of their own making and not simply to memorize material, be tested on it, and forget it the next day.” She adds that a society that relies on multiple-choice tests to measure learning strips students of the chance to learn to think, see the big picture, and discover their strengths and interests.
McNutt quotes New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink, who wrote, “’Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.’” Although the author applies this concept to the workplace, McNutt draws a direct parallel to education. “If schools intend to continue to educate students, then we must take this connectedness into account and be ready to make use of it in our classrooms in a variety of ways,” she says.
For teachers, managing a collaborative-style classroom is a lot of work. “The teacher becomes a facilitator for learning, not a solitary lecturer,” McNutt explains. Careful attention must be paid to devising and evaluating projects in such a way that cheating via copying another student’s work is not possible. This implementation includes the need for work to be done at school, thereby preventing parents from producing the work, but still enabling them to advise from home. Finally, it’s important that students working collaboratively are graded both individually and as a group. With the right execution, all the extra work pays off in spades.
“When students are able to work collaboratively and to have some autonomy in their learning, they become much more engaged in their work, they take personal responsibility, and they take pride in what they are doing,” McNutt encourages. “And best of all, they really enjoy learning, because they get to discover their capabilities and develop their own passions. Students do well because of their own intrinsic motivations.”