Friday, 2 September 2011

"Wisdom of the Class" - Collaborative Learning in Schools

Several years ago I was privileged to hear Dylan Wiliam address the HMC Conference on Teaching and Learning. The essence of his argument was that pupils learn more from each other than from the teacher. What he said struck a chord with me. I was teaching classroom ICT at the time [teaching the ECDL to Year 9] and could see this dynamic in action. Two or three pupils in the class got what I said, and I could see this knowledge spread around the classroom virally as pupils taught each other how to navigate the inner workings of the MS Office suite. I adapted my teaching style accordingly, encouraging the more able to support the weaker ones and [as extension tasks] to write crib sheets to help those found a particular topic challenging.

Eight years on and we now have web-based tools in place that allow pupils to collaborate on projects and to share ideas. Here at Berkhamsted, we have moved to using Google Docs and a whole range of web-based freeware to enable pupils to share ideas and to comment on each other's work. Pupils are able to share their expertise with other pupils, they are able to refine their ideas and to bring on the weaker students
This is so much more effective than a teacher standing at the front, or even passing round exemplar material. Clearly critics will say that such an approach is open to abuse, by pupils being humiliated publicly by their peers. Of course this is possible, but what is interesting is that the pupils themselves have put "rules of engagement" in place to make clear that such an approach is unacceptable.

The whole Wikipedia project is based on the premise of the "Wisdom of the Crowd", i.e. that there are sufficient experts and enthusiasts 'out there' who collectively know more any individual and who will correct, update and amend articles. Using collaborative tools allows teachers to harness the "Wisdom of the Class" - allowing pupils to support each other.

Schools should not be about teaching - they are about learning: it is not about well-crafted lessons, but about whether or not pupils actually learn. This will mean that the role of teachers will change. Teachers often (but not always) will need to set up the structures for the collaboration to take place. They will need to set the assignments and they will need to monitor that the discussions are on track, but a light touch approach is recommended. Pupils operate best when they see this as "their" space. Teachers are able to follow the discussions and even to join in the discussions when necessary.

Collaborative working is one of the most important skills that this generation of pupils is going to need in life - it is already the norm in work place . Collaborative working is not cheating - it is the future.


  1. Fantastic piece which really sums up where schools should be going with technology. I certainly look forward to hearing how your gdocs implementation goes as I am working on convincing our school to go for it.

  2. Not just a 'class' issue. Peer to peer learning is perfect for scaling up through technology. Some brave souls in HE are using it in large University classes with PeerWise, Aropa and PeerMark. The trick is to take peer-to-peer learning out of the class and on to the web where it has scalability.

  3. A high leverage technique such as this is what all teachers should aspire to - but a light touch takes great skill on the part of the helmsman. The tendency in the state sector has been to make teachers work ever harder (i.e. longer hours), rather than smarter.