Collaborative learning: hearing every child’s voice

Nancy Knowlton

As the co-founder of SMART Technologies, Nancy Knowlton brings a depth of perspective to education. She and her husband, David Martin, now create collaboration technologies at their new venture, Nureva Inc. The company’s Span™ classroom collaboration system uses a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model to enable collaboration on an expansive 40' (12.2 m) digital canvas. Nureva will be on stand B409 at Bett 2016 (20-23th January, ExCeL, London).

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Image credit: Flickr // Originally published on 13th January 2016. Image credit: Flickr // Originally published on 13th January 2016.

To set the scene for my thoughts, I first want to share with you that one of my pet peeves in the learning environment is the use of PowerPoint presentation software. Not that there is anything wrong with PowerPoint software – it can be an incredibly powerful tool when used in the right environment. But when used as a lecture tool in schools, attempting to provide students with information on a particular subject, it can become a cold, one-way communication tool.

Simply put, PowerPoint supports the lecture method and is all about student consumption of material. While there is no doubt that certain material must be taught, an appropriate balance must be struck between consumption and creation. Much of learning begins with creation. A lot of good teaching that I have seen in classrooms around the world has included what is commonly called the four Cs: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. We could also add another C for contribution.

In the learning process, there needs to be a catalyst for these five vital elements of development to come together. How can all children become confident and supported in contributing to their learning? Can technology assist in allowing all children to contribute beyond simply those who raise their hands first?

Some years ago in Australia, I visited a Primary school where the children were learning in a very different way. At this school, the emphasis was on the child creating their own learning and actively participating, and through this, they were achieving so much more beyond the traditional lesson activities.

Upon arrival in the classroom these 5-year-olds went up to the interactive whiteboard and "They then sat down with the understanding that this was a quiet time – time to focus on the start of the day."registered their attendance. Their names were listed alphabetically so they had to go through the alphabet to find their own name. They then sat down with the understanding that this was a quiet time – time to focus on the start of the day. One student – the day’s leader – whose name was marked on the register, would then stand up at the whiteboard and ask the class what day of the week it was. In unison they would all answer. Then they would continue rhythmically saying the days of the week. The leader then asked what month it was – they looked at a calendar and recited the months through to the current month. And so it went through a variety of preset, whole-class activities where every child was expected to speak up.

These students had an opportunity every few weeks to experience leadership skills. They looked very comfortable and confident standing up in front of the whole class – an incredibly powerful learning experience at such a young age.

Looking at what is possible through technology today, consider this scenario. Students are given a class project and assigned to groups. With the briefest of direction, they set off working and learning at their own pace. Students begin by working alone to capture their thoughts on their personal devices, sharing them to a large virtual canvas. Then they engage within their groups, collaborating while sitting at desks or on the floor or standing at a large interactive wall, totally engaged and absorbed in the activity – a level of maturity and focus that delights teachers and administrators alike.

With my history, I naturally value this type of collaborative learning for our 21st century learners. This vision of active student engagement has driven my thinking about leveraging personal devices that are increasingly available in today’s classrooms, namely tablets and mobile phones. Using these devices to record their thoughts comes naturally to students. As projects progress, each individual student or group sends their thoughts and ideas using digital sticky notes to a shared panoramic canvas on the classroom wall.

Students talk animatedly to each other in small groups at the canvas, moving digital sticky notes, pictures and drawings. Arms wave around as points are passionately and confidently communicated. As they discuss their points, multiple students move items around on the canvas at the same time, classifying and sorting the input.

Not only are they learning about the core objective, but they are also learning how to create, collaborate, communicate, contribute, debate, discuss and use critical thinking to agree! This vision is not a vague aspiration for the future – the technology building blocks are here today. Just add teachers and learners, encouraging contributions from all.

Do you encourage collaborative learning in your classroom? Share your tips in the comments below!

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