Is collective learning really a good thing? Can more be achieved by doing something together than can be achieved individually?
In my adopted disciplines – Art and Design – there is a romantic notion of the lone pioneer scratching at the canvas, animating frame-by-frame, or discovering innovative methods of sucking up dust/drying hands/flinging toast etc. The pioneer and their ‘eureka’ moments plays well to the crowd (‘oh look, a falling apple. Hang on a minute…;). However, I don’t think it holds true.
When great discoveries are documented there is nearly always a story of iteration, of people building on and refining the ideas of others. In Stephen Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas come from’ he researches the environments where innovations spring from. He concludes that most innovations emerge when information is freely exchanged, which is why urban environments produce disproportionally more innovation than rural ones, and universities fare better than corporations.
I suspect the same prisoners dilemma is at play in education whereby more can be achieved by agreeing to co-operate over the longer term than can be achieved by pursuing your narrow interests in the shorter term. Your peer group is one of the most important resources that you can draw on, inasmuch as you have a wealth of thoughts and experiences swirling around to inform your own perspective. If we can design learning so that it taps into those many to many relationships rather than the one to one relationships between student and teacher I suspect that we will be rewarded. In a time of rising class numbers it might also release some of the pressure on teachers to support more and more people without the use of a time machine or cloning technology.
However peer learning does not need to be a community of practice. There doesn’t need to be shared sense of identity or endeavour to enable student to contribute to and benefit from each other’s perspective on stuff. There does need to be a sense of reciprocity. If I am going to commit my time and energies to working with you I want you to do the same. Quid pro qou. This for that. Tit for tat.
PS Connery. Obviously.