Friday, January 20, 2012

Collaboration, Cooperation, Conflict, Challenges and Creativity

I'm about half way through the book 21st Century Skills and have recently read the chapter by David Johnson and Roger Johnson about how cooperation and conflict resolution are essential 21st century skills.  I'm interested in how developing these skills in students in the classroom, in face-to-face situations, will transfer over to their behavior both online and out of the classroom.  I'm also interested in how developing these skills will support both the IB and individual schools' mission statements.

The chapter opens with a discussion of the benefits of small group cooperative learning, for example working on shared goals and developing a mutual responsibility for both the group's and the individual's success leads to higher achievement.  Cooperative learning has also been linked with "more frequent use of higher-level reasoning, the more frequent generation of new ideas and solutions, greater motivation, greater long-term retention, more on-task behavior and greater transfer of what is learned within one situation to another."  Moving from the academic to the personal level, cooperative learning also leads to better quality relationships between the people in particularly greater social competencies, self esteem and the ability to cope with adversity.

Some students don't naturally work well together.  In the years that I was a homeroom teacher I often put students together that I knew wouldn't automatically get along because the way they managed to sort out their differences and develop their interpersonal or communications skills was also a valuable experience for them.  In the PYP we focus on the students' development of transdisciplinary skills, for example social skills such as accepting responsibility, respecting others, group decision making and resolving conflict.  Students often have to be encouraged to develop conflict resolution skills such as listening to others, compromising, and being fair.

When groups are given problems to solve, the members of the groups need to talk together, make decisions and eventually come to an agreement.  David and Roger Johnson refer to these problems as constructive controversies and they occur because students' ideas, theories or opinions differ which means they need to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action to solve the problems.   Constructive conflicts are cooperative, where students seek compromise and agreement.  Destructive conflicts are usually competitive, where there are winners and losers.  Through working together on constructive conflicts students are learning important problem-solving skills in a fun and enjoyable way, and these skills will be carried forward with the students when they leave the classroom too.

Each week I do two lunchtime duties in our Early Years playground.  Conflicts often arise and as teachers we try to encourage the students to solve these themselves rather than running to us to sort things out.  For example one student may want to ride on the small bicycles but there may not be one free.  Another student might to play but nobody wants to have him join in.  Someone else might complain that another student has been playing too roughly.  We tell our students they need to explain how they feel and describe what they want to happen.  For example "I don't like it when you push me, I'd like you to stop doing that." or " I would like to ride the bicycle now, please could you let me have a turn."  In a small way, these young students are learning about conflict resolution and developing strategies that can help them in the future.

At my last school the mission statement was to inspire and empower each student to enrich the world.  The IBO mission statement aims to develop caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world.  Today's world is one characterized by global interdependence - technical, economic, ecological and political.  Global interdependence is a double edged sword - it increases development and living standards, but it also makes us vulnerable to "internal" events in other countries.  For example the financial crises with the euro in countries such as Greece is having a wide impact throughout Europe, even in countries that don't have the euro.  Other events such as drought, hunger, population growth, terrorism or environmental issues are also not limited by national boundaries and therefore need international solutions.  Understanding how to manage such challenges and conflicts of interest in a constructive way are essential for future world citizens - learning how to do this starts at school.

This past year has seen the "Arab Spring"  with popular uprisings against dictatorship, corruption and human rights violations.  These events have gained worldwide support as a result of the rapid communication of information through technology, for example social media such as Twitter and YouTube.  There are predictions that in the future the number of democracies will increase while the number of dictatorships will decline.  Johnson and Johnson write that "a cooperative learning group is a microcosm of a democracy... a system in which citizens work together to reach goals and determine their future ... individuals have the right to express their ideas ... All group members are considered equal.  Decisions result from careful consideration of all points of view."

Being a good collaborator can also lead to students developing their digital citizenship skills.  As we have seen, social networking is leading to openness and sharing among numerous communities.  As social networks are becoming an essential part of our lives students need to learn to use technology in safe, legal and responsible ways.

Another 21st century skill is that of being able to think creatively.  Cooperative learning in schools can foster creativity and depth of thinking as larger numbers of diverse ideas are shared.  Johnson and Johnson write:
Research shows that cooperative learning, compared with competitive and individualistic learning, increases the number of novel solutions, results in the use of more varied reasoning strategies, generates more original ideas and results in more creative solutions to problems.
Students who are involved in cooperative learning feel more enjoyment, involvement and satisfaction in their work.  They also tend to be more open to the perspectives of others, which enhances the way they empathize with and support other students.  This behavior of often carried into their online lives too - research has shown that online relationships are built from mutual goals and common purposes.  For example almost every person I follow on Twitter is an educator and our collaborative communities can be defined by our hashtags.  For teachers as well as for students, the more skilled we are at communicating and cooperating face-to-face, the more successful we will be online.

Online groups tend to be large.  While I would say I have a few close friends that I relate to one-on-one and a larger group of acquaintances and colleagues that I relate to in groups or meetings, online I interact loosely with hundreds of people simultaneously and while we are in the same PLN we have a great diversity of perspectives.  Communication and cooperation skills are important in this community and I've found that I've built up positive and supportive relationships with many people that I've never met in person.  These people give me a different view of myself - they definitely shape my identify and self esteem.  While I've met everyone who is in my Facebook network I have met very few of the people I interact with in Google+ or Twitter.  Yet I still feel I know them - I know them through their writing, through their responses, through their views and insights, through their contributions.  The past few years I've faced many challenges and my online relationships have pulled me through many of them.

This is what I'm finding:  collaboration and cooperation help students (and teachers) to deal with conflicts and challenges and to become more creative thinkers.  As time goes on, and with our increasingly interconnected world, these skills are necessary for survival in the 21st century.

Photo by Tantek Çelik AttributionNoncommercial 

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