Long gone are the days when, in a classroom setting, only teachers did the talking and students did the learning. While things did not flip entirely (although teachers could learn a thing or two from the younger generations), students today are encouraged to speak their minds about what they learn.
Actually, students need talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. That's the main purpose of education: encouraging students to apply their learning, for a better future.
Cooperation and working together in groups is usually better than learning individually and also better than learning in competition (against each other). The reason for this is simple: humans are social animals.
While everyone seem to agree upon the fact that collaboration in the classroom is not only desired, but necessary to a great learning experience and more engaged students, there is one crucial aspect that somehow got ignored by most decision makers: the classroom. The physical space students get together to learn is not collaboration-friendly. The classroom structure remains rather archaic from this point of view.
With studying desks bolted to the floor, maybe higher on each stair step, long tables, maybe aligned in a semicircle, the furniture in a traditional classroom leaves little space for discussion and collaboration between students.
One needs eye contact to establish a connection with an interlocutor and this is hard to get when the most comfortable position makes you look at the back of your colleagues' heads. Things can be worked around a bit, but the greater the physical distance between two students, the harder it is for them to have a decent conversation about a certain topic.
What can teachers do to maximize collaboration in the classroom?
You know the saying, "Where there's a will, there's a way". Maybe there aren't too many things a teacher can do, especially if we consider the physical shortcomings of a classroom, but things are not that grim. Here are a few suggestions for possible solutions:
Work with what you have. If the desks in your classroom are not bolted to the floor and students can move them, encourage them to do so. Let them gather together in groups of different sizes and oversee their activity by roaming the room and participating in the conversations when necessary.
Assign smaller groups. For any group learning project, go with small collaborative pairs of two to four students. Let them know exactly what each of them has to do, so they will rely on each other for the success of the team.
Mix the groups. A classroom is rarely linear in terms of student performance. Try to pair low performers with average performers, average performers with average performers and average performers with high performing students. This will make them overcome any learning frustrations and open up to conversations.
Encourage feedback. From all directions: among the group members, among groups, from groups to you, from individuals to you, and of course from you to each group or individual. You can clarify any misconceptions immediately and ensure that students are on task.
Go online. A cloud-based LMS usually comes with collaboration tools, such as wikis, blogs, chat rooms, forums, and groups. These tools will help students stay focused and excited and the virtual classroom will give the feeling that everyone has the best seat.
Hope is never lost
Classrooms need to turn into spaces that encourage self-organized learning and learning from each other and teaching each other, which is the most valuable way to learn.
The Sun will rise many times before the education systems in the world will revolutionize the classroom, but there is hope this will eventually happen. If a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, that step has already been made by architect Takaharu Tezuka, who designed an amazing kindergarten in Japan.
Those kids will know that learning can happen without the restriction of walls and fixed studying desks. By the time they go to college, their demands will be higher and their voice will be louder, so important decision makers will hear them and design the new classrooms according to the new millennium learning needs.