The Collaborative

When did everyone go to the seminar on how to run a seminar? Since I graduated college, every class, training, conference, and workshop I’ve attended has run on the same lines and those lines are collaborative learning.

Collaborative learning (or teaching?) is what I call (maybe correctly?) the classroom technique where, at its most basic, a teacher becomes a ‘facilitator’ and learning takes place through groupwork with colored paper and constant mini-presentations. Along with it come all sorts of New Age brainstorms, notecards, markers, stickers, interactivity, storytelling, and everything else you left behind in elementary school.

This just doesn't say 'professional learning environment' to me

This just doesn’t say ‘professional learning environment’ to me

Peace Corps was the first offender, but it has some valid reasons for the technique that I’ll get into in a minute. The PC’s stated reasoning, or at least the reasoning our trainers gave us, was that adults learn fundamentally differently than adolescents (and, apparently, the slightly younger adults who learn like normal people in college). They backed up the methodology with a couple of learning-style tests that ‘proved’ that only about a quarter of our group (and ostensibly of humanity at large) learns through the tired old “teacher actually teaching” format.

Nearly every session we had ran on these participatory lines. Maybe three or four, all taught by outside educators on a one-off basis, were traditional lectures, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that those were clear favorites among the volunteers.  Many of the rest of our sessions had us dividing large packets on running workshops, community organizing, environmental education, etc, among ourselves, reading an assigned section in small groups, and then “reporting back” to the larger group what we’d read. Blind leading the blind-cum educational philosophy. Other favorites had us breaking into groups to fill poster paper with brainstorms, lists of contacts, commentaries on the training, and always “reporting back” to the main group, that is, “reading the poster verbatim to the class (who can read it from where they’re sitting and in any case has the same information as everyone else’s poster)”.

Which begins to take on a certain tone after awhile

Which begins to take on a certain tone after awhile

The Peace Corps benefits obliquely from this kind of teaching, because  it’s great for mapping a community, getting a feel for for its residents, allowing them to voice diverse opinions and showing residents that they’re being heard. For all that I’m hating on this method, the PC sessions taught us to run similar sessions in more appropriate circumstances. This, maybe, is the crux: collaborative education and meetings work when the participants have something valuable to contribute on the subject at hand—in PC-style diagnostics, community meetings, etc, everything community members have to say is valuable by virtue of being community members.

Before I go on, I want to say that certain elements of the Peace Corps’ adult education, like our field visits, where we went to actual schools and taught actual kids, were effective, extremely so, and I’ve got no beef with them. I’m talking about the classroom stuff. A version of which is what we used to do initial yearly planning in my park office, to run a recent Ecochavos planning conference in the city, and which I’m starting to see all over the place now. I think it’s a cancer.

Many of the folks I’ve seen do this type of thing have done graduate work in education, and I haven’t, but a lot of upper-level education thinking in the US seems to be producing poor results no matter how well it was thought out in Masters and Doctoral theses. So I think there’s space for a lay critique, especially since collaborative teaching as I’ve seen it is a bad idea, prima facie. 

If I want to learn a specific subject or plan a particular enterprise, I want to be learning from or being led by somebody who knows what they’re talking about. Generally speaking, if I’m the one who’s taking the class, that person isn’t me; similarly, in meetings like the one in the city, where my boss, the Germans, and I were the only ones who knew what the Ecochavos were about, collaborative planning led collaboratively by mostly people totally ignorant of the program seemed like a poor choice. This is the simplest criticism to offer: why would I go to class to teach myself? And more damningly, why would I go to class hoping that a committee of the similarly ignorant would work any better?

It doesn't scream 'recipe for success,' at least

It doesn’t scream ‘recipe for success,’ at least

I don’t know the intellectual pedigree of this brand of participatory education, but it smacks to me as a development or offshoot of the Montessori-minded, overly-liberal educational trend that seems to say: “Who gave these ‘teachers’ all the power?” The kind that talks about learning as some sort of discovery within, that treats education like Protestant revelation—everyone can work on their own towards an understanding with the Lord/whatever subject at hand.

This is how professors and educators become ‘facilitators,’ a word that has an Orwellian ring to me, and one that robs authority from the most important figure in the classroom. I imagine some of the originators of this trend were thinking of Socrates’ maxim about reaching truth through dialogue and the classical heritage of the Socratic seminar. But it’s a misreading of the message. Not any two people can converse or ‘collaborate’ (another doublespeak word I’m seeing everywhere now) their way to the truth—they’ve got to be informed and capable of dialectic.

These guys could handle collaborative learning

These guys could handle collaborative learning

It’s hard enough gathering a group of intelligent people in the classroom of a good University. Anyone who’s sat through a freshman philosophy class knows how dangerous it is to tell a group of students that their uninformed take is valid or valuable and how impossible those classes are if you don’t have a professor who’s willing to stand up to the platitude that there are no stupid questions or wrong answers. Participation is good, but there’s a place for the guiding influence of an informed party (i.e. the teacher, the Socratic stand-in).

One of my best classes in college was a tiny seminar called Historical Interpretation. It was a survey of Western History designed to get us through the canon and to teach us how the practice of history had changed over the last three millennia. There were only five of us in that little room, and in each two-and-a-half hour class, we students did 90 percent of the talking. Each class even had a different one of us assigned to ‘master’ the material and lead the discussion. But I can tell you that without our professor, Tommasso Astarita, the class wouldn’t have been worth the time. It was only the expectation of his hawklike attention during class that ensured we read every one of the 1,000 or so pages we had to get through each week. I don’t care how ‘responsible’ we pretend the average professional adult to be, nobody puts up with 5,000 pages a week (five classes) without an external incentive. During class,  the student teacher of the week would outline the broad topics for discussion, but without Astarita’s intimate, line-by-line familiarity with the subject matter, the seminar would have been a whole other animal.

Only his expertise could bring out attention to the tiny details that mattered. When, in Froissart’s Chronicles of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry V trips off the gangplank of his ship and breaks his nose, his lords beg him to get back inside so his men won’t see.

WHEN the king of England arrived in the Hogue Saint-Vaast, the king issued out of his ship, and the first foot that he set on the ground, he fell so rudely, that the blood brast out of his nose. The knights that were about him took him up and said: ‘Sir, for God’s sake enter again into your ship, and come not aland this day, for this is but an evil sign for us.’ Then the king answered quickly and said: ‘Wherefore? This is a good token for me, for the land desireth to have me.’ Of which answer all his men were right joyful. (Thanks, Fordham)

Branagh would've crushed it

Branagh would’ve crushed it

We thought it was just another weird embellished episode among many. but Astarita had the background to know that the line was in fact an allusion to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who made the same sort of exclamation after falling from his ship to the beach of Carthage, with the same aim of dispelling thoughts of bad omens. Henry V likely never fell or yelled, but Froissart included the story to couch Henry in a historical tradition where he represented virtuous Rome and France, perfidious Carthage. It’s a detail that matters little to the narrative in a casual reading, but one of huge importance in the writing of history, and it’s one that we never would have come to without guidance.

That seminar highlights the failings of collaborative teaching—the method expects both too little and too much. It wants us, the students to come up with Astarita’s point about Henry V—that is, somehow divine it through the sheer power of collaborative effort—and it wants us to do so by reading, in groups, a ten-page document. If these collaborative sessions expected us to do the thousands of pages of background, to write the dozens of pages of essays that make actual Socratic seminars effective, or if they didn’t turn professors into ‘facilitators,’ they’d work better. But then they wouldn’t be ‘collaborative learning,’ something that seems to be trying to get the results without the work. Teaching a good class, running a good meeting, those are hard things to do, and the responsibility rests with the leader/teacher. The idea seems to be that we can circumvent mediocre teachers by somehow making everyone a teacher. I’ve never heard of a group of poor educators (which the general public undoubtedly are) somehow becoming greater than the sum of its parts through the power of committee.


We, the body of humanity, when we gather in these sessions and are told or carry the belief that our contributions have intrinsic worth, are nothing if not the stagnating, self-important liberal democratic parliaments that Nietzsche diagnosed as the cancer on late 19th-century Europe. In his conception, the only cure for their self-induced and self-indulgent malaise was the appearance and the will to power of the Übermensch, the superman with the power to transcend their ineffectual norms and systems to deliver actual results. That übermensch, in our classes and our meetings, is the professor, the leader, the teacher, and imagining that we can conjure him or her through the combined power of our collective ignorance just doesn’t play.

As for me, I’d rather go retrograde and attend the Trivium and Quadrivium than read another packet and “report back” and pretend that because I’ve involved myself that I’ve learned anything of value. I’d rather seek the tutelage of an Aristotle or a Cicero or an Astarita than a classroom of my well-intentioned peers. And I’d rather go to bat behind the leadership of a visionary than a committee pretending to have vision.


One thought on “The Collaborative

  1. Pingback: Sick | Another Peace Corps Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s