My sustainable and happy classroom project began with the premise that our school, and most importantly our classrooms, cannot be a space for knowledge transfer only. It is not a lack of knowledge that is behind our social inertia in the face of environmental challenges. Yes, knowledge is important for action, but it is not the only or the most important factor behind mobilizing us to be part of the solutions. Actually, many students experience a sense of powerlessness and alienation as their knowledge of the environmental and social state of the world increases. Our classrooms need to be the breeding ground for action, for personal and collective transformation. If our environment encompasses our community, a shared habitat, this conceptualization requires that we acknowledge the need for social engagement, for developing connection as a basis for collective action toward sustainability.
As I now contemplate the classroom as a place for social engagement, for the development of relationships of friendship and collaboration and the establishment of a peer community, I can’t help but think of all the time I have focused on discouraging students from talking to each other because of my strong reliance on lecturing as a pedagogical tool. Now, I still don’t want them to talk while I lecture, but as I lecture less, I have found more time to support student engagement.
One of the main strategies to promote social engagement was redesigning the coursework from three individual assignments to two group assignments. Now, it is important to point out that group work is high up there with oral presentations on the list of students’ least-liked activities. A highly competitive environment coupled with students’ busy schedules makes it difficult for them to find the time and trust needed to work collaboratively. Issues of accountability, communication, organization and personality conflicts are what students associate with group work. As a strategy for success, we set out to support group dynamics by providing time in class for students to organize and carry out their group work. Students were able to choose whether to work with a partner or in a group of up to four. We also had a workshop carried out by Chris Adam, an expert on leadership training, that guided the students on a reflection about group dynamics and the role that each individual can play keeping the group on task, meeting the set objectives as well as ensuring the group’s maintenance: its emotional life, that the social needs of its members are met. Students had an opportunity to reflect on how they contribute to the establishment of a peer network that promotes mutual respect and collaboration as well as the accomplishment of specific tasks.
What were the results? I do not have hard data to draw determinant conclusions but what I experienced was a classroom where people really began to know each other. I saw students collaborating with each other and having fun doing it.
Students provided feedback on how they felt about their group work, and one of the more striking comments was “this is the first time I made friends during class”. I just talked to a student and asked him, what did you like about our class? He said “the people”. So, I think we had some success. We did, however, also experience many challenges with our group work. I learned that, as a teacher, I need to learn how to design group assignments so that they are conducive for shared accountability and provide support to deal with group dynamics issues that compromise group effectiveness. I also felt challenged by the pressure of providing more content. Let me remind you that this was an Economic Geography class and not a leadership class.
Supporting more socially engaged dynamics in the classroom supports the development of important skills needed for collective action but, more than that, of values required to support community. Learning about each other, each other’s social context, and reflection on your own contribution to a shared goal are all valuable experiences in the classroom context.
Here is a sample of a student’s comments regarding the group dynamics workshop:
“Chris Adam’s presentation on leadership was very insightful. It did provoke reflections on how we all act within a team and what we contribute to it. Subsequently, I re-evaluated my position within a group as to allow for the full participation of others. However, the context of a research project and a game is different. Even if it does teach us strategies to function more productively within a team, it is much harder to get the full participation of individuals in a graded assignment than in an activity. On my part, I believe that group projects are hard to do in CEGEP. Since I work 20 hours a week and have after school activities, finding time work with multiple partners outside of school is nearly impossible.”