Toward a Community of Scholars

For a few years now I have had a vision of students engaging in intellectual conversation about their individual research, where one student will know of a source that will help another, where the coveted “aha” moment comes as a result of students talking with each other and not with me. Yet, despite some efforts at round table discussions in the middle of projects, it has not panned out. Kids share their work and politely listen to their classmates, all the while itching to get back to their “real work” in isolation.

The process needs to change so that students can see sharing and working together as a natural part of learning and growing, even on what appears at first glance to be a solitary project, the research paper. I always lament that the best work is shared only with me. I think it is time to change that. Here is what I am thinking.

On the day I introduce the project, I am going to have students working in small groups to identify topics of interest, potential sources and even preliminary research questions. If the groups seem to be pretty functional, I may have them be set research groups that meet for the first fifteen minutes of a seventy minute class to debrief their progress, identify trouble spots and provide ideas to one another. I might also let kids shuffle groups to allow students doing similar topics to help each other. That is something I will need to see once we are in the thick of it.

This is a cultural shift – they have been so programmed to work in isolation on anything that is not designated a group project. And yet, almost nothing that is published is the work of a single person without the input of others. I think to show that I am really serious about this, I will have them blog through the process – not every day but periodically – reflecting on the project but also the development of the study group. While I do not want to create more work, I recognize that the kids judge what I value by what I spend class time doing but also how I focus their assignments outside of class.

Ideally, after a while, the students will organically seek one another out and begin to know that their learning is tied not only to their own research but also their contributions to the work of others. I know that there is a balance between getting help and having someone else do the heavy lifting for you. It is a little risky to open the process up like this; I need to trust that my students will be able to strike the balance, with my guidance.

Given the potential reward, the creation of a community of scholars, it is worth it. I welcome any thoughts or suggestions as I will be launching this in early January.


5 thoughts on “Toward a Community of Scholars

  1. Andrew Thomasson and I have talked about this collaborative learning environment, particularly how it looks for our students in light of our collaboration together. We try to model every skill we can for our students so they see us collaborating and change their own “academic setpoint” that says everything worthwhile is done individually. We’ve found a lot of success in some areas, particularly changing our students’ “DNA” of how to do English. But it took a lot of practice. Similar to what you’re describing here – scaffolded group time, lots of sharing, putting their projects on MentorMob playlists so the other students can be the audience as well – but seeing the way we work together was transformational to the way they work together.

    I guess I’m arguing that you should get a collaborative partner and show them what it looks like to work closely with someone. 🙂

    It’s changed us, it’s changed our students, and it’s changed the way our students view audience – it’s about community, not isolation. I’m not saying we have it all figured out, but it’s certainly helped.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how your students do!

    • Thank you for your insights, Cheryl. I do work on a collaborative team in teaching the course, but I had not made that connection. Now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense. I had been thinking back to my graduate school days and the deeply clarifying seminar discussions we had. The collaborative teaching model is an even better example for my students because they can see it in action.

  2. I love Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From.” He talks about how it takes multiple perspectives to generate really great ideas – how people have to talk with others in order to make sense of their own thinking. He calls earlier groups “liquid networks” because they often met in English coffee shops. It may be difficult and time consuming to go through the book with your kids but he has a great TED talk that summarizes his thinking at:

    Sounds you’ve some great ides. Good luck!


    • I just watched the TED talk you linked in your comment. I will check out Steven Johnson’s book myself, but I think I will show the TED talk to my students to launch their research project. It sets a great tone for the value of collaboration and conversation. I think that students will actually end up being less stressed and more successful if they invest some in each other’s projects and not focus solely on their own. Thanks so much for sharing this with me.

  3. Pingback: Liquid Networks, PLNs, and growing professionally | History Tech

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