40/300: What do you think is the most important thing for today’s kids to learn in school?

oh baby. this is my question right here. this is my question. rather than rehash things that i’ve already read, i’m just going to copy paste a segment or two from my undergraduate thesis, which is titled “Collaborative Classrooms: Introducing Ontario high school students to collaboration best practices.” a quick note: i ran a workshop with high school students where i taught them a handful of collaboration best practices. afterwards, they filled out a short survey on their experiences with the workshop and their group work experiences in general.

“[My] study reveals that collaborative learning is largely absent from Ontario high school classrooms and the majority of students have negative attitudes toward group work. At the same time, it shows that students have a desire to learn how to collaborate effectively with one another by learning and using collaboration best practices. This research gives voice to valuable student opinions, and it demonstrates the importance of working with students when assessing the state of education practices. Based on the results of this study, attention needs to be given to collaborative learning in Ontario high schools. Educators, administrators, and policy makers must listen to students and work with them in order to implement collaborative learning that mitigates negative attitudes and provides valuable, applicable skills.

What is clear from the research is that group work in Ontario classrooms falls short of qualifying as collaborative learning. Student responses to questions about their experiences collaborating with their classmates indicated that group work involves meeting together as a group and dividing up projects into individual subtasks. Such a process fails to meet the basic criteria for collaborative learning, i.e. high levels of interdependence between the participants, the co-construction of knowledge, and the occurrence of group learning. While putting students together into groups to work on tasks or projects is a widely accepted and utilized practice, little is being done to encourage students to work and learn as a collective entity. A key reason for this is that many students are not exposed to any strategies that they can use to improve their collaboration experiences. Over half the students (10 out of 19) in the study stated that they had no experience with collaboration best practices, and of the nine students who did, only two identified more than one. While this study does not uncover the exact reasons for the lack of skills, student responses indicate that a lack of instruction is at least partially to blame, as a number of students stated that they had simply never learned them before.

One of the most striking findings of this study is that students strongly dislike group work. Eleven out of the 19 students, without solicitation, expressed either negative opinions about group work or mentioned specific bad group work experiences. The criticisms were diverse, with students citing lazy group members, domineering group members, feelings of exclusion, poor division of labour, and a general lack of cooperation. A strong dislike towards collaboration is liable to limit students’ enjoyment, participation, and interaction during group work, thereby reducing the effectiveness of working together. Ineffectual group work that fails to benefit students amounts to wasted learning opportunities. When group work is ineffectual and students strongly dislike it, something needs to change.

The problem with negative attitudes towards group work coupled with the absence of collaborative learning is that students’ opportunities to benefit from it are severely limited. While it is possible to access the benefits without any guidance, a lack of instruction means the range of potential benefits is greatly reduced (Colbeck et al., 2000). After viewing the sheer number of skill development and social and personal development that collaborative learning can provide, it is clear that collaborative learning should be a part of high school classrooms. Not only do the students benefit, but teachers do as well, as their pupils are likely to show increased attitudes toward achievement and are more inclined to assist one another. A classroom where students that enjoy collaborating in their classes would be a marked improvement from the current state, and when asked, students confirm this to be true.

Not only did the students in this study identify many of benefits of collaborative learning identified in the research literature, but they also expressed a desire to learn how to collaborate effectively. Eighteen of the 19 students felt that collaboration best practices should be taught in schools. They demonstrated an awareness of the importance of the skills, extending their understanding of the benefits well beyond the classroom to extracurriculars and current and future employment. The students see value in the ways that learning the skills can reduce the stress of group work, create a more positive experience, and improve the overall quality of the work they produce. This study shows that students have a clear and well-articulated desire to learn how to be better collaborators. They are not satisfied with the current state of group work in their classes, and they are asking to be equipped with the skills they need to improve their experiences.

This study is important as it gives voice to dissatisfied students. The findings suggest that a critical eye must be turned to group work in Ontario high schools. Students are asking for a change, and teachers, administrators, and policy makers need to listen. Two of the students even suggested an approach to integrating collaborative learning into classrooms, stating that they want to see collaboration best practices taught at the start of high school, in Grade 9, so that they are equipped with the skills as early as possible. Collaborative learning in an Ontario context is under-researched, and this study provides some initial insights into changes that need to be made. By working with students, group work can move from a negative experience that amounts to little more than the simple division of labour, to collaborative learning, an interdependent approach to completing work that allows students to learn and create together. The benefits are known and the desire is clear; the next step is to equip students with the skills they require to be effective collaborators, skills that will remain relevant and valuable for the rest of their academic and professional lives.”

students need to learn how to work together. for real.