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The Curious Teacher

An aspiring teacher, exploring the dynamics of education, with the student at the center

Collaborative learning is toted as the ultimate tool in helping children to construct and make sense of knowledge.  Indeed, there is much research to show that children in the primary grades and later elementary years tend to learn, or internalize more information, when working cooperatively with their peers.

As Martin Henley notes, in Classroom Management: A Proactive Approach, learning is “trial and error”, and students need to move; they need opportunities to directly interact with the material being learned and with each other.  Restlessness, particularly at this age, can set in after just 10 minutes of sitting, which then not only contributes to diminished focus and awareness but also serves as a gateway to ‘behavioral’ problems.  Such data is supported by positron-emission tomography and other neuroscientific data, showing that movement encourages the brain to release chemicals like noradrenaline and dopamine, which heighten attention.

Of course, not all activity-centered learning, which by its very nature lends itself to peer collaboration, is created equal.  And surely not all key content is best learned in group form.

This notion, seemingly simple but really ever dynamic and complex, sparks the beginning of what I see as one of my primary missions as an educator…the quest for creating a proactive and interactive learning community that is most conducive to students (emphasis at the elementary level) learning new information and being able to relate and apply that information in ‘real life’, whether it be through unguided interactions in their lives outside the schools walls, or on a particular form of assessment – including those dreaded standardized tests – within school jurisdiction.

I can never be sure quite when or how I took up an interest, or even heard about, project-based learning (PBL) – but ever since that anonymous moment, it has been a qualified force in steering me towards finding out all that I can about this relatively new (over the last couple of decades) phenomenon, which has been implemented in various school across the nation.  The Buck Institute for Education, a non-profit organization that focuses its work on PBL, is at the forefront of the movement and their website is invaluable for learning more about the nature of PBL and for sourcing meaning and ideas – http://www.bie.org/about/the_bie_story/.

Collaboration is one of the key 21st century skills that is inherent in the PBL system.  I suppose at the end of the day, my question is – how much is just “the right amount” of collaboration, particularly at the elementary-school level?  When does the traditional “industrial-style” system of having students learn at separate desks in individual and disciplined fashion generate the most merit and reap the most benefits?  How can a PBL system be implemented in the elementary grades and effectively incorporate both of these types of learning styles?  Would all or most schools benefit from such a system?  And how does this type of learning contribute to or affect the standardized-assessment system that our schools currently rely upon? …the rabbit hole looms.

These, and many other tangential but related questions, will be basking in the forefront of my executive function as I launch my  Master’s-thesis research into what PBL is and looks like at the elementary level; what it can or could look like; and how such structures have the potential to affect students’ learning and current assessment outcomes.

Though biases will have to be mitigated along the way, or at least put into a properly-balanced perspective, my hunch is that there is more hip than hype in the idea.  Much, much more to come, as I share my developing approach, ideas and progress in this, perhaps, undervalued pedagogical realm.

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