In a recent article in CoExist titled Replacing the Classroom-as-Factory with Collaborative Learning, Aaron Harris, co-founder and CEO of Tutorspree, looks to centuries of Jewish religious education through discussion and argument – a variation on the Socratic method - as a living example of the power of collaborative learning.
Reflecting on his Jewish education, Harris recalls what he calls the “highlight of my Jewish school experience” – his Talmud class. ”In high school, “ Harris explains, “Talmud was a double period: One-and-a-half hours wherein we sometimes only made it through a few lines of text because of the intricate material and layered commentary we built upon it.
“While the instruction provided by our rabbi was important, the true value of our studies came from the time we spent learning with one another. Conveniently, there’s a name for that time: chevruta study, from the root chaver (“friend” in Hebrew). This style of intellectual engagement has been a staple of learning the Talmud for thousands of years, originated by the first Talmud academies. There, scholars would congregate and engage one another in Socratic dialogue over the true meaning of the Mosaic law, improving, through each point and counter point, their own understanding of the law.”
Harris concedes that the model is not scaleable to the large numbers of students in modern classrooms. “When held up against the size of the needs in the current system, though, it makes sense that this more personalized approach would lose ground to the factory model.”
But technology he says, is changing the playing field, and collaborative learning, sometimes known as peer-to-peer or distributed learning, is finding its place everywhere from the boardroom to the classroom. The time is ripe, says Harris, to take chevruta mainstream.
Certainly, collaborative learning provides engaging and enduring learning. LI4Es community FIRST STEM education program, now in its fifth year, is an excellent example of applied, real life collaborative problem solving. Instead of sitting through lectures about engineering, computer aided design, and programming, students work together and with professional mentors to solve the engineering challenging set forth each season. Students consistently report gaining a better understanding of STEM principals in the context of team experience, and through the trial and error of brainstorming, discussion and experimentation. Starting this year, Brandeis University is undertaking a multi-year longitudinal study to better document student experiences and outcomes.
But as Harris points out – none of this is new. A study on collaborative learning published in the Journal of Technology Education in 1995 – not as far back as the beginnings of chevruta, but about two educational research decades ago-concluded that “collaborative learning fosters the development of critical thinking through discussion, clarification of ideas, and evaluation of others’ ideas,” going on to say, “if the purpose of instruction is to enhance critical- thinking and problem- solving skills, then collaborative learning is more beneficial.”
The ship of education moves slowly, but it is moving and in a hopeful, collaboratively driven direction.
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