Children Naturally Want to Show What They Know

Each and every opportunity we have to collaborate, entice, introduce, facilitate, and amplify the ideas and creations of the other -- to keep curious and engaged -- seems more than worthwhile to me.
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I have not thought about co-teaching and co-learning since I attended my first teachers conference back in 1998 as one of the first teachers of one of the first accredited fully-online, high school class. Thank you Ginny Little.

The conference was for Whole Language, a philosophy of teaching and literacy that believes meaning and context is more important than spelling. I believe Frank Smith's book, Joining the Literacy Club, was hot.

I loved the idea of treating education as a meme, a mind-virus. Of taking what I knew, teaching the quick-learners, and then empowering those with this new knowledge the ability to teach what they knew to those around them.

The class was creative writing and our students were part of the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Education for the Arts high school magnet program. It was called Creative Writers on the Net.

Ginny and I agreed: The only way to effectively teach the class was to co-teach, co-learn, and truly collaborate with the students. Because we didn't have the power of height, weight, size, proximity, and age based on visual proximity, we needed to rely, instead, of creating an environment wherein each student felt essential and none of them fell through the cracks.

Since our classroom was online and mostly asynchronous (meaning, we weren't online at the same times), we needed to do a lot of deputizing. We quickly identified students not only based on innate talent but also on interest and passion. When the topic was poetry, we found the natural poets; prose, the natural writers; fiction, the natural story-tellers, and biography, those with the most to share. The best poets were not always the best co-teachers, but when it came to studying, learning, and writing projects, creating a safe and collaborative environment where there was a feeling of trust was oftentimes more important than the pure quality of column inches produced.

In many cases, the teachers would emerge. Online, there's no such thing as interrupting the teacher, especially on a message board-based platform that is not real-time. When one wants to contribute (not disrupt), there was nothing to interfere.

Co-teaching, co-learning, and collaboration were natural outcomes. In many ways, some of the best teachers and writers both emerged from the students who started off being the most withdrawn and reticent to participate. In the classroom, these natural talents and skills might have remained dormant for years if not forever.

The trick -- and our challenge -- was to continue to produce challenging, interesting, and compelling content and challenges all the time. One of the solutions was to become agile. When you empower a classroom and allow the students to pursue their passions and explore the air-worthiness of their wings, things don't always follow strict course.

This demands that the teachers aren't just teaching from a course book and actually has a true and deep knowledge of the subject matter and that he or she also feels confident enough to not know the answer to something and a willingness to recognize that there are bound to be teenagers with more passion, talent, skill, interest, and intellect than does their teacher -- and that is not only OK but should be the most rewarding experiences of one's career.

I must thank my university, George Washington University, for my passion to collaborate. Courses at GW weren't graded on a curve so there was no incentive to keep what you knew and understood close to your vest. Since grades were absolute, one could get together with fellow classmates and load-balance what you knew. Sharing notes and offering insight was commonplace -- it was a non-zero sum game. Over the last 20 years, apparently that's not commonplace. The most competitive schools and Unis tend to grade in ways that turn packs of students against each other in the fierce fight for the couple, few perfect grades.

What a pity.

The good news is that our class was neither a hostile environment now was it a threatening environment. It was a magnet class in creative writing in a magnet program for gifted students, so we were stacked with passionate, curious, and intellectually-gifted mid-westerners.

However, after watching Sugata Mitra give his TEDTalk on "Building a School in the Cloud," I don't think that matters. These kids could have been from anywhere. Ginny personally found the funding to buy a laptop, a modem, an online classroom, and the opportunity for each and every one of them. She gave each of them a hole in the wall to the Internet, all the way back in 1998, and they have collectively created their very own walls and easily superseded both Ginny and me, handily.

And it matters even less when the students are empowered to not only become co-educators but to become topic-experts, even of that expertise supersedes the interest, passion, or knowledge of the teachers themselves. That happened all the time in the EFA class that I co-taught with Ginny Little. OK, that was a joke. I was co-teacher with Ginny but we were all co-teachers. And, when we the teachers were supplanted by our students, we too became co-learners.

In many cases, in our class, past students would want to remain "logged in" well after they finished their credit work. They had joined a community of writers they did not want to relinquish after only a semester or a year. In fact, a number of students, once 17 are now 33 and still connected to Ginny and me online, on Facebook, in Twitter, in business, and personally as friends.

Case in point, my student Phillip Rhoades. I might have taught him something when he was my student, but he was a teacher from the very start. When we first met, I think he read my aura and taught us all how to read our health based on their color and shape. He quickly took the class into quirky edges and corners we were unaware of when we began, I hired him as my Chief Programmer when I started my own digital agency, and he's now the author of How-to-Phil, a platform for his creativity, his teaching, his writing, and his authorship.

Were it not for his early hole in the wall that we gave him and everyone in the class -- really our only essential contribution -- as well as our daily grandmotherly support and appreciation we proffered in the form of workshopping ideas, giving grammar and content advice, and walking through each student through different types of writing, different forms, different challenges, and introducing them to as many writers, poets, and processes as we knew, what might have happened?

I don't know. Maybe nothing different. The human drive and hunger to learn, to create, and to grow is powerful -- who could have stopped Phillip? That said, each and every opportunity we have to collaborate, entice, introduce, facilitate, and amplify the ideas and creations of the other -- to keep curious and engaged -- seems more than worthwhile to me.

I have come to the conclusion that what I am missing is the constant cheering and encouragement of Sugata Mitra's grannies! I know you can find personal assistants and support staff online but what I really want to do is hire myself a virtual granny as I try to push myself from knowing nothing to getting passing grades, right out of whole cloth.

Isn't it amazing to think that an encouraging word ends up being more valuable than a pedagogy in the end?

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