Collaboration is important to learning; I have met very few teachers who would not agree. Presentations on the other hand are often used as weak plenaries or ‘teaching’ activities where students instruct others with summary of their findings. These presentations, often PowerPoint based, inhibit learning and destroy the value in collaboration.
Let me try and explain.
Imagine you have planned the best collaborative learning experience that you can, it’s well resourced, the group works well, divides roles, researches well, argues and debates, organises information and writes down their ideas. This is what you wanted from collaboration, higher order thinking, assimilation of new information and evaluation and creation that is greater than the sum of all parts. Outstanding, well done.
No imagine trying to get them to do this whilst they are scared, and with no reward. Presentations are scary, most staff hate standing up in briefings and assemblies to other staff, it’s terrifying at times. Why would you reward students with this deal?
“Work really hard and I will reward you with the most terrifying ten minutes that you are likely to have this week”
Why would you do it? I have not met many (thankfully) who think that fear is a good pathway to learning.
It is a well-known psychological fact that when we are scared we revert to a ‘fight or flight’ state. The human mind is incapable of interpreting, organising, storing and evaluating new information when it is scared and panicking.
Group 1 presents their presentation whilst groups 2 – 5 sit in a state of panic going over their own notes in their head, glassy eyed, stressing and generally not listening to the wisdom and teaching of the other students in group 1.
When group 1 sits down, the relief they feel ruins the concentration that they would require to comprehend what group 2 is now presenting.
It’s a no brainer. Presentations undermine and slit the throat of collaborative learning.
I can hear people muttering
“Well how do you assess them?”
“Being able to teach others is the best way to assimilate knowledge”
And I’d agree they are valuable points. What I would ask is this,
“Do you have to use a presentation to assess them?”
How often do we judge students learning on their presentation skills, such as whether they have or have not read from a PowerPoint?
Examiners will not care about how well they can present and argument by standing in front of their peers and battling nerves. No, they will want to see students reason and show understanding. Full stop. They use essay questions or exams for this, so why can’t we? Give students a question to write their answer to, they should write it in the style that the group has worked, collaboratively.
They don’t need to read it out, they don’t need to do anything but hand it to be read. Photocopy each essay and hand them out to get students to peer assess them if you like, again collaboratively or better still have them all research the same thing, don’t split the topics in case some fall into misconceptions or struggle with concepts.
I told my psychology students this week that the nearest they will ever get to presenting would be to work as a whole class collaboratively (I do have a small group admittedly) and that we would then sit together and chat about what they had found, that it would be organic and allow us all to share the knowledge and insights that we had found without the fear of standing up and entertaining their peers.
So in brief,
Keep the collaboration, but take away the fear, you can’t learn when you are scared. Think outside the box in the way that you can assess understanding and never underestimate the power of speaking before writing.
Maybe the golden rule should be that anything that creates a culture or atmosphere of fear should have no place in a classroom.
(I was quite happy typing this out in 5 minutes on my laptop, but I’d have been a mess if I’d have had to stand up in front of you and explain this, and I’m a teacher!)