Cooperative and collaborative learning – lessons from the artroom

Arguing, discussing, instructing, squabbling…..call it what you will, it is all communication.  And communication is a crucial and live part of any classroom and in particular the bilingual classroom.  Here we are encouraging the pupils to practice and use the second language (English in my case) as they participate in my art lessons.

A well-constructed group/collaborative project forces communication, discussion, and consideration with others.  I often find myself saying to the Dutch teenagers I teach how much I love when I hear them arguing in English, it underlines how far that they have come in their mastery of a new language.

A well-constructed collaborative project may have relatively modest artistic aims but could have a very significant goal in the use of clear and concise communication within the group.

A class reworking of Guernica using collage of war related images and text

Such projects are a work-form that I have made a lot of use of over the years, I found myself hanging one up on the walls in school only last week.  But beyond the communication issue there are several other educationally sound reasons to be making use of such projects.

  • The result is ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ argument and a chance to produce something big with a wow effect!

There are many reasons why in art lessons we often find ourselves working on a relatively small scale.  Storage limitations, costs of materials, time pressures, large classes, the necessity for pupils being able to take work home with them, they all play a part.  A group project allows the pupils to see something different.  A large-scale project spreads across the classroom floor at the end of each lesson, slowly taking form and seeing how their own section of it contributes to the big visual statement that is developing.

  • It seems to force the underperformed in the group to up their game

Every class has them, the pupils who are content to do just enough in their work to gain a (just) sufficient grade.  It continues to surprise me how working within a group project, where their contribution is visually so obvious, the result is often that these very pupils feel the pressure to up their game.  There is, it seems, nowhere to hide, rather different perhaps than with a written group project. 

  • It shows pupils that often very complex and ambitious work is possible if it is broken down into smaller parts…..rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead

This is perhaps most a benefit to those who are the more interested in art and want to produce the best possible results in their own visual work.  They suddenly realize that given time, and perhaps a slightly more systemic approach than they might usually use, could lead them too towards making more impressive and resolved individual work.

Tim Rollins and KOS

And on a personal note, it allows me to borrow from an important art educational influence, one who is responsible in part for me making the step into working with young people, Tim Rollins and KOS.

While I was still studying for my fine art degree, I watched a documentary about Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival.  At the time I didn’t really have any plans to enter education, but the film gave me a glance into what might be possible.  I found it fascinating and inspiring.

About a decade later I was lucky enough, while doing my teacher training course in Utrecht, to observe a guest workshop given by Rollins to other students.  If there was ever anyone able to demonstrate the power of the group project it is Rollins, and a fantastic example of the “result is greater than the sum of the parts” argument I mentioned earlier.  Fantastic to see, and for a teacher in bilingual education, all the more inspiring for the way in which language, text and literature found its way into the work.

Tim Rollins and KOS on Artsy

With the classroom door closed…

classroomdoorA couple of weeks ago something unusual happened. I had visitors in one of my classes. Obviously the pupils were there, they always are, but sitting at the back I had my bilingual department head, an educator from New Zealand and two teacher trainers from Leiden University complete with video camera. I knew they were coming, all of us except for the guest from New Zealand are part of a professional development study group in the area of bilingual education. With this as background it really didn’t feel like a big deal, except it did feel, like I said at the start, rather unusual.

The reason it felt this way is that in teaching, certainly once you get beyond your first year or two in the job, you are largely left alone. The bell goes, the class comes in, the classroom door is closed and you get on with it. As long as no complaints come in from pupils or parents this is generally the way things stay. With this as background it is no wonder that when visitors do come to the classroom it feels at best unusual and at worst threatening.

It is an irritating fact that part of my job is a couple of times a year to spend the best part of a week sitting watching a classroom full of pupils complete tests and exams, checking nobody cheats, but otherwise doing nothing. At the same time there is virtually no time or opportunity to sit and watch a colleague teach, to learn from them or to offer them feedback. Occasionally attempts are made to try and facilitate this sort of visit, but the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to find the space for it in an otherwise packed timetable. Classroom visits to colleagues’ lessons are very definitely not the norm in education. As a result of this it does feel slightly strange to walk into another teacher’s classroom, if only just for a moment. You feel as if you are stepping into someone else’s territory, crossing a line!

It is slightly bizarre that we try to educate our pupils in the importance of working in groups, stressing the benefits that it can bring, learning from the strengths of others and helping them with things that they find more challenging. Yet when it comes to our key activity of being in a classroom with up to thirty children, coping with issues of content delivery, communication, classroom management, use of IT, differentiation and so on, the benefits of working with and learning from others is extremely underplayed.

I feel fortunate that I work at probably a quite open and social school, staff room discussions in the breaks are normally open and frank. Yet I still can’t help feeling that so much could be gained if there was the chance for more observation of other peoples’ teaching styles. But that would seem to require something of a shift in both classroom and school culture, an opening of the doors, doors that like the fire doors in the corridor, tend to swing shut when the last pupil has come in. Are we not missing a chance for better education when a teacher with fifteen years of classroom experience can say that it feels slightly strange to have someone sitting at the back of his classroom?