Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New wine into old wineskin

As we grapple with ideas of how to encourage self-directed learning and foster collaborative learning, two unrelated studies are revealing that the necessary trigger mechanism still eluding us is a combination of biology and psychology.

Biology encodes in us human beings a natural tendency to collaborate. We are social animals (some more so than others, it seems) and our success as a species is directly related to our heightened abilities to organize ourselves and work together for our common good. Compassion for the less able (to contribute) is also hard-wired within us, so by right there should be no difficulty in creating social networks of mutual assistance and partnership from within the microcosm of the classroom.

And yet in my discussion with the 'expert' and in the classroom experience I had yesterday; the expert said that the classroom as it exists today is not ready for such a pedagogical paradigm shift, and the debacle that ensued in the classroom confirmed it (yes, I was trying out another experiment which again failed miserably).

So something else is happening in the classroom that is subverting our natural biological impulses. I believe I've identified what it is: the psychological side-effect of our current teaching-and-learning model itself. Though Haidt is not specifically writing about classroom practices, we can scale down his national politico-economic analysis and see how it operates in small communities (of say 20-40 kids).

In the experiment he draws his conclusions from, there is a machine that rewards the subjects for their effort. In short, the subjects are more likely to equalize their rewards (i.e., act in a more egalitarian manner towards each other) if the mechanism rewarded collaborative effort. Even if the rewards between two subjects were unequal, as long as it was obvious that without working together neither would have been rewarded, the subjects were more likely to even out the reward between themselves.

But the willingness to share the reward significantly diminishes when 1) the two subjects start out with an unequal distribution of reward even before any effort is made, and 2) when individual effort determines the reward allocation (i.e., work harder, get more; work less, get less).

This is all starting to sound familiar. The motivation for being in the classroom for practically all our students is a reflection of condition 1. What each student brings to class in terms of economic wealth and cultural capital is a lunchbox that isn't meant to be shared with others, but a personal advantage to capitalize on and get ahead of the pack.

The idea of working for what we deserve is condition 2. The end-of-year exam is seen purely as the result of individual effort. We promise the kids who work the hardest and sacrifice themselves the most the 'A' grade; sucks to be everybody else.

Although we encourage collaboration in Project Work, we all know the exercise is problematic because it, likewise, is graded competitively as an end-of-process exam. So although we say the process is more important, we still end up assessing the product anyway.

We failed to see this scenario when we went on course a couple of weeks ago. We collaborated nicely and had some fun working with our group members, and we thought it would be the same when we tried it out in class. Nope. We collaborated because we knew we could gain something from each other, and we didn't have to take an end-of-course exam. The kids, however, do.

As one of the ICT guys on campus, I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. We're working towards two opposing ends and our job is to make East and West meet in the middle. We desperately need to figure out how to turn our flat world into a globe. What have we gotten ourselves into now?

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