Seeing Students As Co-Collaborators

The traditional model of education is hierarchal, with organizations and administrators of learning on top and students and their families receiving the learning somewhere below.

While this made sense in the past when public education–inclusive systems of public education at that—were still finding their way, there is little excuse for such a workflow as we approach 2013. Embedded in this simple pattern are troubling implications that sabotage learning processes from the beginning.

In informal and as they occur learning circumstances, the concept of power and currency is highly dynamic, constantly shifting based on context. If you are researching for the best fix for a leaking roof or an injured lower back, you might seek experts, or demonstrated expertise. That is, someone that can directly help, or some published media that might inform you.

In these situations, you are constantly evaluating information and re-contextualizing it—understanding what you hear or read, and seeing how it makes sense to the specifics of your situation. There is no single authority for information or process, but rather dozens of sources of both information, and as a result, authority. In fact, here authority is based on the (perceived) value of information.

In formal learning settings, this is all turned on its head. Those that plan education are seen as quasi-authority figures, designing learning experiences, evaluating knowledge, extracting ideas from curriculum, prioritizing processes, and so on, endlessly.

Collaboration, when it occurs, is “lateral”—that is, from teacher to teacher. Everything else—administrator to teacher, teacher to student–is a directive. Collaborating with a student implies a similarly lateral relationship, which is not seen to exist.

But what would be the benefits if it did?

Evidence of Collaboration

  1. Students prioritize content (rather than treat all content equally)
  2. Students are sought for expertise and ideas (rather than patronized through “voting”)
  3. Students suggest or locate relevant resources (rather than having it given to them under strict guidelines)
  4. Students design assessment forms in conjunction with teacher (rather than simply completing what is given)
  5. Students identify characteristics of quality (rather than read the terms of quality handed down via rubric or red marks)
  6. Students understand and freely alter learning sequence (rather than blissfully asking “what are we doing today?”)

The Tone of Learning

If students are seen as co-collaborators in learning, it immediately shifts the tone of all of the inherent processes.

Students are honored for their passion, curiosity, and even expertise. They are consulted for decisions, are accountable to a variety of audiences, and are under the spotlight to produce constantly. With the right design, passivity is impossible, and any apathy impacts peers, adults, and the community.

Of course, this all assumes that students can prioritize content. That they can source relevant ideas. That they know the causes and effects of altering learning sequence. But if they can’t, isn’t that an issue? A bigger issues than prove you know content?

When they can’t, the teacher, in a fit of here let me do it, retakes control of the learning sequence, and shifts the tone of learning again to compliance in a swift and troubling tilting of the scales. But if the tone of learning isn’t playful, inquisitive, humble, and recursive, learning results—from depth of knowledge to retention and application—can degrade. This kind of loss dynamically shifts “accountability” to the teacher, and reduces that of the student in a quick and curious twist that does no one involved any favors.


By definition, anything healthy is sustainable.

Sustainability depends on interdependent roles and independent capacity. Simply walking into the classroom one day and demanding students “cook their own dinner” is not the path to such capacity.

Capacity is instead iterative—takes time to develop and balance to sustain. Visualizing learners as collaborators is the first step in changing the brand and tone of your classroom. As critical decisions are identified, analyzed, modeled, and revisited, capacity in students will begin to grow.

This honors students more than any granular notion of content might, and begins to build learners rather than learning. Your expertise in content and pedagogy is still as critical as ever, but is no longer the singular and isolated catalyst for learning.

Image attribution flickr user josekevo

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