Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Craft Knowledge and Collaborative Learning

Bruce Speck’s article “Learning-Teaching Assessment Paradigms and the On-Line Classroom,” (and I’m sorry, I see the word “Speck” and all I can think of is Pee-Wee Herman’s dog) really grabbed my attention.

Writing of course is going to be the key interaction and task tool in most online classes (the one I’m working on tosses in a speech element, but students will still be required to turn in written speech outlines).

Speck’s discussion about teaching as craft knowledge has helped me come to terms with come contradictions I hold about writing. As Speck, John A. Nicolay (in “Group Assessment in the On-Line Learning Environment,”) and David A. Sapp and James Simon (in “Comparing Grades in Online and Face-to-Face Writing Courses: Interpersonal Accountability and Institutional Commitment,”) all address writing and writing assessment in their articles, I feel it’s pertinent to discuss writing and teaching in the light of craft knowledge.

To a certain extent, I believe good teaching and writing is craft knowledge. Some have a natural ability to write or teach (or both) and others don’t. Improvement comes through analyzing and emulating those we regard as successful writers or teachers. Good writing and teaching comes through practice, trial and error. Good writing and teaching is inexplicable, unteachable, and, as Speck writes, “shrouded in mystery.”

But not really. That can be part of explaining what makes for a good writer and a good teacher, but we can all learn, to a certain extent, how to improve our writing or teaching skills. It’s just as Speck says, an effort that’s more complex than many of us realize or want to realize. Learning to write well can be accomplished, just as learning to teach well, but it takes effort in understanding the theory of good writing and the application of that good writing through trial and error and practice.

I look at a favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkein, who spent years crafting his stories, not only writing but writing in linguistic and historical underpinnings for everything he did. He argued that his books were linguistic in nature, and that the story came as he sought ways to apply the linguistic experiments he produced. Then I look at authors like Christopher Paolini (who wrote the Eragon fantasy series) and Terry Brooks (who wrote the Sword of Shannara fantasy series). They write good stories, but only from a craft knowledge perspective. They’ve studied Tolkein and others like him, worked on emulating them, figured out what they did right and wrong. But their stories still lack depth. They’re there in form and function, but Tolkein is still better. Why? It goes beyond the arbitrariness of saying Tolkein is better, or that he worked longer on his stories, or even that he worked so hard to create a backstory and the linguistic underpinnings. He went to the theory – no real great Anglo-Saxon tales left, since Norman conquest in 1066, just stuff borrowed from the French and the Vikings. He burrowed into the theory of what makes a great story and painstakingly created a masterpiece.

Craft knowledge, practice and emulation, only carried Brooks and Paolini so far. If they’d undertaken a deeper approach at learning the theory of what makes for a good fantasy story, they might have done better.

I also appreciate the emphasis on collective assessment. As a writer, I know the danger present in falling in love with one’s text, meaning that the closer one is to a piece of writing, the less evident its flaws appear. This can be remedied to a certain extent, of course, by the writer literally putting the piece away for a week or two, then approaching it with fresh eyes. But with multiple sets of fresh eyes looking at a piece, or with multiple perspectives on a subject going into a piece to begin with, I’ve found my writing is improved. I can learn to work well with others. Hearing peer reviews is just as pertinent to me as instructor reviews, because peers often have perspectives the “sage on the stage” does not.

I also like Speck, Nicolay and Sapp/Simon’s concentration on collaborative learning, even though I have long harbored the attitude that collaborative writing is nasty, and that a document written by a committee resembles an animal created by a committee – all elbows and rough spots and tails where the nose is supposed to be. But the emphasis in collaboration is in collaboration, not necessarily in several different people writing the same document. They emphasize working together on ideas – the pedagogy, if you wish – and then the technology – writing the paper, response, whatever – once the ideas are agreed upon. Yes, there will be those who want to micromanage the writing to the chagrin of the “writer” who is used to writing as a solitary exercise, but I have to admit in the times I’ve collaborated with others on the ideas that go into the document, the nitpicking over wordsmithing is a minor corollary to the effort that goes into making sure the agreed-upon ideas are present in the paper.

As Speck writes: “Learning is not merely a matter of individual effort in groping toward the light; rather it is a social phenomenon because language is social in nature, and without language, learning is severely limited, perhaps impossible. Thus, students can learn from each other, and professors can learn from students through the written language.” This ties in with the constructivist approach to online education. We’re allowed to explore ideas and make mistakes.

Nicolay echoes what Speck says: “The collaborative experience is foremost a social and cultural one. Like any other academic benchmark, group assessment is a critical part of the learning experience and requires standards and experience.”

We have to learn to “write” collaboratively. Where I work, about 75 percent of what I do is collaborative writing. When I worked at the newspaper, the number was about the same. Only rarely are edits from editors and subject matter experts mere mechanical nitpicks. More often than not, the edits are suggestions on how to improve how the ideas are communicated.

Sapp and Simon bring forth a powerful argument for collaborative writing, especially in the online environment. In their study of online versus face to face classes in retaining students, and student achievement, one of their recommendations for online is this: “Teachers can facilitate a sense of accountability among class members by encouraging (or requiring) team projects and promoting peer critique sessions. The business writing students interviewed in this study reported that group writing project transformed the class and enriched the learning experience. Such strategies can make students invested in each other rather than existing as autonomous workers.”

Again, I have to go back to where I work. In the times I’ve worked closely with others to write a document, I have earned a profound sense of investment from the other parties involved, and that sense is shared. Other collaborative efforts have become easier because the first few were so successful. We’re also able to work together when others come in at cross purposes with contradictory ideas or inflammatory language. We’re able to rely on our past collaborations to calm the waters.

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