Involving Students in Projects Helps Enhance Collaboration, Communication Skills
Many, or most of the expectations of adults may seem irrational to youngsters, but one that truly is so is our demand that upon graduation, they make a 180 degree turn from competition to collaboration. We tend to teach children to study individually and grade them on their individual performance at school and college. We rank them in comparison with each other and reward the toppers. Over twelve to fifteen years, we unwittingly but firmly establish the seed of competition among them. Except for an occasional group project, our method of education inculcates the spirit of competition rather than collaboration among the youth. As they join the workforce, we require them to be good team players, excel in communication skills, network with others, become inspiring leaders and later identify and nurture younger talent. Each of these capacities needs collaborative skills.
It is not just this or another aspect of our education, but there is much that we all want to change in this world. Gandhiji’s ideal of being the change you wish to see leaves us feeling helpless because we seem to be part of a system that is much larger and powerful than us. How can one person or even a group of like-minded people take on a whole system, in this case the education system that includes students, parents, teachers, school management, education boards, curricula, exams, government departments of education, private tuition classes, entrance test coaching centres and various internet players? Is it ever possible? We may have control or enjoy flexibility to some extent, but in order to be part of the mainstream, don’t we all find ourselves forced to fit in the overall structure defined for us by external factors? Is there a solution for that sense of helplessness that we feel when we wish to transform the classroom experience for our children?
There is no single solution. But there are several strategies that could be combined to address the challenge and convert it into an opportunity. One of them is the way we test our students. Instead of, or in addition to the conventional examinations that evaluate the students on their memory, comprehension and speed, a comprehensive, collaborative, formative assessment of the student’s learning, communication, presentation and networking skills can be made by a teacher for any subject in any grade.
At the start of the semester or school year, a project could be given to the students. It could be an essay, research assignment, experiment, survey, construction of a model or something else, the nature and complexity of which could vary with the students’ age. Students are given marks or grades for this project. But the marks are not just for completing it. Students need to report on their work continually to the class. Presentations need to be made at regular intervals. Each student must participate in others’ presentations and give constructive feedback. Grades are not just for individual work but for communication, presentation, participation and collaboration. It is not enough that they answer questions about their work; they must ask questions about others’ work too.
Students may work on their projects in school or at home, and regularly report on their progress to the class. The teacher can dedicate a part of every class or an entire class once a week or so for the presentations. Students can present their projects to their classmates, and the entire class is invited to comment, criticize, advise and offer suggestions for improvement. The students who present projects are certain to benefit from the collective effort, accept what is constructive and improve on the project. He or she in turn returns the favour to all the classmates when it is their turn to present the projects. Depending on the class strength and schedule, this kind of project presentation could be a daily, weekly or monthly affair. For example, one student may make a presentation on a day, taking five minutes to explain his or her work, and take questions or receive feedback for another five minutes. This simple ten-minute exercise every day can be an invigorating and enjoyable experience for all - the presenter, the audience and the teacher. Another option is to dedicate one class per week, allowing a group of students to make the presentation, thereby covering the whole class in batches over a period of a month or two. As every teacher knows, we learn more when we teach another. The current model of classroom teaching is suited to enhance the teacher’s knowledge. But taking ten minutes a day as described, the model can be flipped to enable students to learn more effectively.
The project presentation mode of learning has numerous advantages. Presenting one’s work to others compels students to look at their work from differentangles. While preparing to face others, they anticipate questions and tend to think in ways that they might not have done otherwise. Facing an audience and talking about their work improves their communication and presentation skills. While facing the crowd and becoming part of it and then criticising others’ work, they acquire the ability to seethings from the other’spoint too. As students are evaluated not merely on their presentation but for their participation during others’ presentation as well, it encourages everyone to apply their mind to others’ work. Classes become more interactive and everyone takes an interest beyond the self. Moreover, students tend to present their case, talk and respond in a way that makes most sense to them, thereby indicating to teachers what style they are most comfortable with. The questions they raise, the way in which they handle the questions they are asked, and their appreciation and criticism of others could provide the teachers a glimpse of their thought process. This could help the teachers adjust their own teaching method so as to have the greatest impact on students.
presentation by the students need not be a one-time activity in a school year. The
sessions could be an on-going process that integrates with learning. Once every
student gets a turn, the process can start all over again. The class would be
at a more advanced stage of the project and can come back with a greater
understanding of the task. Students would have collected all the feedback,
chosen the ones they wish to incorporate and modified their projects
accordingly. During the subsequent rounds of presentations, the impact of the
collective inputs of the entire class could be seen in each student’s work. To
see one’s suggestions shaping up others’ work must be a strong motivation to
continue coming up with original, creative and useful ideas. When the ideas given
by a student to others indirectly help boost own grades, the system is in a way
providing students with a strong incentive to actively help others. Evaluation
becomes a process that reinforces learning, instead of a pressure that
distracts students from actual learning. Education and evaluation become
collective and fun. Collaboration begins to make more sense than competition.
Peer reviews need not be merely for the college final year projects, online
courses or scholarly articles; we do not have to wait for students to reach the
university to try this. Right from primary school onwards, when we introduce
this method to complement or substitute internal assessment, students are
prepared to enter the workforce with the right skills in addition to academic