I was invited to give a talk on Thai education in an Asean context today along with Ajarn Bank Apichai Chaiwinij, a colleague/friend/mentor from Teachers College. We turned what could have been a typical lecture (aka information dump) into an engaging, learner-centered session that involved soliciting input from a group of 200 kindergarten and elementary school teachers.
Given the constraints and various point of improvement that could have been made on my part, I thought it was a resounding success. We introduced a highly intangible skill-set that we believe is crucial for educators (not just Thais) to embrace and foster among their students – - collaborative learning. The ability to engage in co-learning with peers in a spirit of openness and mutual goals and objectives.
Our assumption is that this represents sea change for Asian, particularly Thai, educators given a cultural context that embraces seniority, hierarchy and respect for authority. The question is:
How could teachers cultivate an environment that supports collaborative learning if they operate from the teacher-as-expert paradigm?
Of course there are other crucial factors that determine whether collaborative learning takes place. For one, students need to actually be willing to participate and engage in the learning.
Ajarn Bank Apichai Chaiwinij presented his research titled “Investigating Potential Factors to Increase Levels of Participation in Class Discussion Among Asian Students” (Chaiwinij, 2012), which explored various experimental conditions for what would influence student participation in class. The four variables that had the most influence on student participation were: level of anonymity, types of role played, discussion platforms (online vs offline) and age or level of seniority.
Interestingly, these experimental findings had implications not just for student engagement with each other, but also for teacher-student roles in class. For teachers willing to explore more ‘facilitative’ roles in the classroom, they would need to find ways of moderating their perceived seniority in the classroom – a difficult task, no doubt. This is not to suggest that teachers completely abandon their authority. However, it may be help for teachers to explore innovative ways of authorizing students to find their ‘voices’ in the classroom. Perhaps structure certain portions of class discussion online, under anonymous conditions, then work those themes into class discussion.
Role playing turned out to be a very interesting variable. Students who role-played positions of authority (i.e. prime minister) showed higher levels of engagement. This is another clue for how teachers could ‘authorize’ students to participate more in class.
I’m especially proud of the fact that we didn’t just lecture at the 200+ teachers. It would have been terribly ironic to give a talk on collaborative learning, yet not give the audience a chance to collaborate and engage with each other. Not to mention encourage the teachers to be facilitators, yet for us to continue to treat them as ‘passive’ learners. That would have been par for the course at these invited talks.
A quick side story. We had scoped out the school location on Saturday evening to get a feel for the space and to begin visualizing how our talk and activities would unfold. When we got to the school early Monday morning, one of the school administrators remarked:
We’re not used to having invited speakers come check out the venue before their talks. It’s generally not done.
It makes you wonder how often guest speakers simply drone on without any attempt to solicit input from the audience. I wouldn’t be surprised; it takes way more effort to engage the audience and turn them into active learners. Perhaps an additional 100 man hours of preparation needed. But it’s certainly more rewarding.
Key Take Away
There are a few take aways from this experience. First, while breaking the ice with the audience is the most important element of a learner-centered engagement, there are multiple opportunities to reach the audience. Multiple techniques had to be employed: crowd work, physical location and of course, planning to solicit audience input.
Technology and Murphy’s Law. I’m glad I rehearsed my presentation ‘as if’ technology would fail. It turns out powerpoint is useless in the presence of sunlight. Fortunately, we were still effective as we told a story with descriptions of the slides sprinkled in.
The teachers relished the opportunity to provide input on perceived challenges and potential solutions to fostering collaborative learning in the classroom. While I was initially skeptical about how much input the audience would provide, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of earnest engagement. We have 200+ post-it notes with comments and suggestions to address barriers to collaborative learning.
Beyond taking a learner-centered approach, the next challenge is actual organizational change. Will the comments/suggestions get taken up by the management and administrative staff of each school? That remains to be seen.
Although I’d don’t have concrete evidence, I believe the school we spoke to operated as a nonprofit organization. The school is primarily government funded with little to no activities to generate independent income streams. It makes me wonder how much ‘collaborative learning’ is viewed as a luxury, rather than a necessity. I suspect that schools that continue to rely primarily on government donations will have a difficult time implementing the requisite organizational changes needed to pursue innovative curriculum.