International College Hong Kong
Oct 18, 2016

Creating a Culture of Cooperation

In their review of current best practice in education, as informed by recent research in the learning sciences, the OECD draws this second "transversal conclusion”:

Once again, this speaks directly to our 5+1 model, in not just one but several of its dimensions. It is also relevant to other curriculum innovations at ICHK. Indeed, there is so much to say that giving a taste of how and why will be my aim in this and my next piece.

I would like to start by pointing out that the power of this second conclusion is not unconditional. There are strings attached, and this is why it is more difficult to address than might at first appear.

The truth is that the mere fact of collaboration is not, in itself, enough – something more has to be in place for shared activities truly to pay off.

Establishing a Culture of Learning

To assess the impact and influence of pair or group work, we must look first at the quality of the culture within which they take place. What values, norms and relationships does the culture promote and make natural? How do we feel about the people with whom we share our efforts?

If the values are right, then the opportunity for people to work together, pooling their talents and knowledge, gains traction and purpose. The culture’s values will promote mutual respect, openness to giving and receiving feedback, appreciation of others’ input, care for others’ feelings, and, critically, a belief in the credibility of the task undertaken.

If, on the other hand, the values – and the life and work habits that flow from them – are not right, then collaboration and cooperation are of limited value.

Indeed, if ‘cooperation’ is nothing more than people being made to work together, like it or lump it, this can provide students with a sterile, perhaps even damaging, impression of what true interdependence feels like and can offer.

So, getting the culture right is vitally important.

And, for us, as a school, it has to be a culture of learning. How we achieve this will be the subject of a later blog.

Out of the Comfort Zone

At ICHK, a positive culture of learning is in place. And, therefore, in our case, it makes perfect sense to organise students using a range of strategies and methods that encourage them to work in unison and to their mutual benefit. We turn to the teachings of Lev Vygotsky to guide our efforts.

In the guise of the ‘comfort zone’ – and the need to escape it – Vygotsky’s thinking has entered into popular culture. Whilst in the comfort zone you are confident and cruising, life proceeds on autopilot and routine is the order of the day. In a nutshell, the comfort zone is safe but dull!

However, what tends to be less well appreciated is that simply "getting out of your comfort zone" is not in itself always the answer. For someone with a genuine desire to learn, profiting from time outside the comfort zone requires more thought and method than simple ‘escape’.

For learning to occur you certainly do need to find the courage and take the risk to step beyond what you already know and what you can already do. However, travel too far beyond your comfort zone and you will find yourself in another space. Called variously the “terror", “anxiety” and "paralysis" zone, this is another situation in which little or no learning is taking place.

Successful instruction, then, becomes a question of expert judgment on the part of the teacher, who takes on the responsibility of identifying that often delicately calibrated middle space between tedium and terror. This is the zone within which the learner feels herself to be pushed and stretched but, once provided with the proper scaffolding and guidance, learns she is equal to the task.

Without the challenge that this space affords, there is no novel experience, but merely rehearsal. In the comfort zone, the risk is that the learner becomes stale and bored. Pushed too far beyond this space, on the other hand, and the learner has no coordinates, no footing in existing skills or knowledge, no means of making worthwhile connections. In these conditions, an excess of stress shuts down thinking. The learner freezes.

This optimal space for learning is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). For teachers the world over, it is the holy grail of instruction – the ‘Goldilocks’ conditions for learning: where the challenge is not too easy, nor too hard, where it is just right …

At ICHK, in working with students, identifying their individual ZPDs is our priority. This is true both in and out of the class, on the basis that every moment, every interaction, every conversation, is a potential moment for learning. Our closeness as a community and our policy of running small classes help promote a culture in which individual students are thoroughly known by their teachers. This means having a good sense of their prior knowledge, their profiles as learners, their preferred learning styles, their approaches to challenge and their readiness to work with others.

Our application of Vygotsky’s work goes deeper than this, though. Crucial to the notion of the learning zone are two associated features that impact on the ways we set up learning sessions. Once again, these features tend to be under appreciated, even by those who are familiar with the headlines of Vygotsky’s approach.

Everyone Can Teach

First to consider is the figure of the more knowing other (MKO). The MKO is the person who provides the learner with the necessary support and guidance first to cope and then to thrive in the learning zone. The MKO has achieved competence where the learner is a novice.

Importantly, the MKO need not be the teacher of the class. Anyone who knows more than the learner can be the MKO – provided that knowledge is secure. And, in fact, someone who knows just a little more, who has recently been through the learning process herself, and who has mastered it, can often be the ideal person to offer the keys to understanding to someone who is struggling to “get it”.

Successful students are ideal MKOs – and good teachers appreciate and draw on this emergent expertise. Doing so creates a win-win situation. First, struggling students are supported by their peers, which builds of culture of trust and mutuality. Second, in successfully demonstrating the skill or concept, the MKO knows for sure that her own mastery is secure. There is, after all, no better way to learn than to teach.

If Teaching is Tiring, Learning is Exhausting …

The second feature of Vygotsky’s theory that explicitly informs learning at ICHK is the recognition that being in the ZPD is necessarily tiring.

By definition, time in the learning zone is time when you are being stretched and challenged. In the learning zone, concentration is needed, the body is on red alert, setbacks are par for the course and the system is under stress.

When we genuinely learn, the brain is in overdrive, the cognitive load is heavy, and the prefabricated ‘chunks’ of information or action that are a defining feature of the comfort zone have yet to be formed. True learning places significant burdens on brainpower and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Indeed, any school that imagines that students are capable of remaining in the learning zone, non-stop, for six hours a day, five days a week, is deluding itself and its students. Accepting this reality is the value of having a diverse curriculum, and drawing on different reserves of energy – mental, physical, relational, emotional – at different points in the day.

Part of great teaching, then, is not only identifying each individual student’s ZPD in the first place (what is known as ‘differentiation’, which at ICHK is represented by the +1 in our model) and carefully ‘scaffolding’ students’ learning. It is also having an accurate appreciation of how long the learner, once in the zone, can sustain the draw on their cognitive or physical resources – and supporting them to extend and protract this period.

Feedback in the Here and Now

Given that the teacher is not a mind reader, the best person to report on her on-going experience is the student herself. And it is here that another strand of the 5+1 Model comes into play.

At ICHK, we invest in what we term adult-to-adult relationships with students, having lifted the phrase from Eric Berne’s formulations on Transactional Analysis (TA).

TA tells us that even very young children are capable of making ‘adult’ decisions. In this connection, adult means decisions based on an understanding of one’s own welfare, with a clear sense of future purpose, whilst grounded in a realistic appraisal of the “here and now”.

The celebrated “marshmallow test” is a snapshot both of this capacity itself and for its significance for subsequent character development. The test demonstrates that children as young as five can defer gratification and, in an atmosphere of trust, can develop strategies to promote sensible, future-orientated behaviours.

From the moment our youngest learners arrive in Year 7, we work to promote adult-to-adult relationships with our students at ICHK.

A major aim is to empower them to assess realistically and honestly the level of challenge they can face in the learning zone and the length of time they can sustain that effort. And, allied to this, to develop the language and the confidence to communicate their feelings to their teachers, so that effort and learning can be maximised.

For this to happen, they must know their teachers to be sympathetic and supportive, whilst holding very high expectations. This is the hallmark of the best teachers – and, in this way, teachers and students form partnerships, setting the optimal conditions for individual and collaborative learning.

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