classroom 2We all agree that creating social learning environments where students learn from one another is beneficial. Creative teachers plan for this, advocates of problem-based Learning — PBL — take advantage of this and new models in games-based learning — GBL — are building this into the learning process. And, we can all agree that technology can help facilitate these environments — students will peer edit each others’ literary analysis so that they can learn from observing the changes suggested as they compare solutions. With or without technology, these environments stretch the learning relationships from “one-to-one” (teacher-to-student) to “one-to-many.” By expanding the number of potential “teachers” in the learning process, these environments strengthen the main component of social learning — that we learn through observation, modeling and making decisions about quality, not solely through reinforcements, such as grades.

We can also agree that providing a more real-world context strengthens the sense of purpose and provides for deeper motivation and engagement. One way to strengthen purpose is by giving students an authentic audience for their creation: Write a petition to your local chamber of commerce. This type of authentic audience is nothing new to PBL believers; it constitutes the “A” in the always helpful GRASPS acronym shared by Wiggins and McTighe regarding structuring authentic assessments. These are the situations where students strive to effectively apply their content understanding. We unleash their potential as we give them a heightened sense of purpose.

We need to go one step further. We need to develop more learning opportunities where students constitute the actual evaluators for the work itself. Imagine if students, teachers and others evaluate and provide feedback to determine the effectiveness of a student’s creation: Develop an 60-second speech to be shared with the student council and three advertising posters to be copied and placed around school to decrease bullying. Your work will be evaluated according to our rubric by the students in our class, outside professionals and me — as the teacher. These are the experiences that push learning beyond a one-way conversation between student and teacher. They demystify the assessment process and allow each student to be a creator and simultaneous evaluator, providing multiple experiences for students to recognize and apply the criteria for quality.

This challenge is important for all educators and resource developers. Thus far, we have plenty of examples where we facilitate collaboration. Technology — thankfully — makes these even more plentiful. But this collaboration is still aimed at producing pieces of higher quality which will eventually be turned into the teacher. They foster the “one-to-one” teacher/student relationship aimed at helping students get at the right answer. However, in the real world, if my message is poorly written, I probably won’t sell much. In this way, failure is the currency of growth; other students help peers to identify gaps and demonstrate quality.

The “one-to-many” and “many-to-many” networks leverage social learning. These environments do not exclude that a one-to-one relationship can/should exist. Individualized feedback and diagnostic data can be shared on an individual basis as each student does her best to apply content. But the learning task itself needs to stretch beyond the “teacher as audience and sole evaluator.” This is not only a real-world task, but it’s real-world learning — where students present solutions, seek feedback, adjust and ultimately strive to produce work that others deem high quality; they are not solely focused on the teacher’s grade. And, while this post discusses the products of learning, imagine the rich feedback we could also share with students about their process in a learning task such as this.

How can you be part of this change in education?

As you design or deliver instruction:

Go beyond facilitating more efficient pathways which help students get to the right answer in order to share that answer with a teacher, provide interactive experiences where students must use content knowledge to solve problems and create solutions while evaluating each others’ solutions. Create learning experiences that open efficient pathways where students interact with content in an authentic way. Engage students in highly collaborative processes allowing students to learn not only from their own work, but from listening and comparing their work and thought processes to their peers.

As you evaluate student work:

Take a step back from your role as the sole evaluator. Look for opportunities to involve others, especially the students themselves, in the evaluation process.

As you consider what best prepares our students:

Go beyond asking students to complete work that “prepares them for the next level;” they need opportunities to use content to solve legitimate problems and create solutions through collaboration and critical thinking. Prepare students to succeed in the real world as effective social learners — as they collaboratively problem solve and simultaneously evaluate in a quest for quality.

Derek Luebbe a high-school principal at the American International School of Budapest. He blogs at Does It Catch Mice? and is the creator of the simulation simCEO, winner of the SIIA award for Most Innovative Ed Tech Product 2013. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C., and Budapest, Hungary. Follow him on Twitter at @dluebbe.

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