What should learning look like when schools reopen?

Over the last few months schools and teachers have had to drastically change teaching and adapt in real time to school closures. As summer approaches and schools start planning for the next year, they are yet again faced with the possibility of full or partial closures. However, the pandemic is also giving us an opportunity to try different models of learning that can be beneficial even in the long-term. 

Covid-related school closures have created a situation where in-person interaction has become a precious resource. Maintaining adequate physical distance, temperature screenings, and frequent deep cleanings are all adding a significant expense to normal day-to-day interactions that we had come to take for granted. We now need to treat classroom time as a precious resource―by conserving it and using it mindfully where it’s most effective. For example, a teacher giving a lecture to a classful of students is not a good use of classroom time as students could do that just as well remotely. 

The most effective way to structure learning would be to prioritize classroom time for building skills that require interaction and can’t be developed in isolation, while leaving individual work for offline.

Skills that need active interaction time with peers and teachers primarily fall under the 21st century skills umbrella – skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration. So it makes sense to “flip” learning along the boundary of 21st century skills and academic content. Here are some activities that would benefit most from in-person time, where the teacher plays the role of a coach or facilitator in helping students develop critical skills. 

Creativity and Collaboration

A key thinking pattern that underlies creativity is associative thinking―the ability to combine different ideas into something meaningful. When students discuss and build on each other’s ideas toward a common solution, they are exercising their associative thinking. The same skills also build healthy collaboration – instead of students trying to compete with each other to make their idea “win”, they try to include everyone’s ideas as best as they can. Teachers can help build these skills by observing how students interact with their group members, and guiding them to include all voices and focus on joint problem solving. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is when an individual improves the quality of their thinking by applying intellectual standards. It includes underlying skills like reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, judging, inferencing and reflecting. 

Socratic questioning and classroom discussions are a good way to discuss open-ended issues and build critical thinking. Critical thinking can be done both online or face-to-face, but there are differences. In online discussions students tend to use more evidence based reasoning as they can research before making their argument, while in face-to-face mode students listen to other ideas more and expand on them due to the spontaneous nature of the discussion. A blended model that capitalizes on the advantages of both models, can be a useful way to build critical thinking.  

Project Based Learning

Project based learning provides an avenue for students to be engaged in active, real-world problem solving. For students to gain most from PBL, they have to encounter and struggle with key concepts and skills behind the project. They build their thinking and knowledge in an experiential manner as they actively problem solve, by themselves or within a group.

The pandemic is causing significant disruption to the learning process and will require restructuring of lesson plans to address additional closures. Prioritizing 21st century skills for in-person classroom time can help stimulate students to think, engage in discussions, stay connected with their peers and learn from them. 

The full version of this article appeared on edCircuit

How To Improve Creative Collaboration

After decades of living in near obscurity, Einstein published his theory of general relativity a little over a century ago. He had toiled away for years on those problems, and when he finally figured out his theory, the rewards and recognition that followed completely changed his life.

But did he really deserve all the accolades? Many of his ideas were fleshed out through regular discussions with his long time friends, Grossman and Besso. Grossman, in particular, was a gifted mathematician who helped Einstein at crucial points. So was Einstein really a lone genius or just a smart collaborator?

The answer is both. Einstein was both a lone genius and a smart collaborator. While he relied on his collaborators for solving some key parts, he also provided the insights and ideas that led to the theories. Removing any of the two elements would have resulted in failure.  

All significant creative accomplishments are the product of both individual excellence and fruitful collaborations. And as the problems and challenges we face become more complex, the importance of collaboration is only going to increase. 

However, collaboration is not easy. For instance, several studies have found that group brainstorming is less effective than individual brainstorming. The challenges that get in the way of productive group work include social loafing, evaluation apprehension and production blocking. 

So the real challenge in creative problem solving, is finding ways to balance both individual and group work. Given the challenges involved in group work, here are some tips to improve the quality of collaboration:

Interleave Solo and Group Work

One way to improve the creativity in a collaborative setting is to allow for both individual and group times in the problem solving process. Asking students to think of ideas before presenting to the group avoids the problem of production blocking in the group setting. During the group session, ideas can be pooled and combined, and if followed by another solo session where everyone gets a chance to reflect on the results, the outcome can be much better than either solo or group work. 

Additionally, some kinds of tasks are better suited for individual or group settings. For example, solo work in the initial ideation phase produces better results whereas evaluating ideas as a group is more effective than evaluating individually. 

Assign Clear Roles

Collaborative work also works better when team members have complementary roles that all contribute to the bigger task. Team members are more prone to social loafing when they all work on the same task but when each team member had a separate task, they are more motivated to do their share. These results were true even when team members knew that their individual work is not going to be identified in the task. 

Increase Attention To Group Ideas

The advantage of collaboration from a creativity perspective comes from being able to combine different ideas in new ways, which is a cognitively demanding task. Simply sharing each others’ ideas in a group setting does not help as much. However, allocating time to listen to different ideas and asking students to reflect on all group ideas, with the intent to find ways to integrate multiple ideas can improve the overall creativity of the group. Having a more diverse group also helps in this case, as each person brings a different perspective to the table all of which could potentially be combined in interesting ways.  

Creativity requires both individual and group work to flourish. Truly creative ideas might start with an individual but really take wings when they meet other ideas and perspectives. Students need to build skills for both working independently and collaboratively, in a way that produces better solutions and learning.