Thursday, 7 June 2007

Student collaboration in international school projects

Whenever possible, I am all for face2face student exchanges in our international projects. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the most critical challenges during these meetings is facilitating true collaborative interaction between the students from different countries. Experience has taught me that, contrary to what might be expected of the ‘global world citizens’ of today, young people still need prompts and guidance to break the ice in a foreign language.Here is a typical example from a recent EU project meeting:

Students from Italy, France and Finland travelled to visit a school in Spain and, as you can see in this picture, mostly stuck to their own little groups speaking their own language. What a waste if the whole visit proceeds like this, isn’t it? Why do we take students to visit partner schools – only to be outside observers of buildings and monuments? If that’s the only goal, we might as well save the money and look at pictures on the net at home. In my mind, the main goal is to learn to work together with diverse people who don’t necessarily share our language or values. So, what to do to draw students away from the safety of these automatically congregating national groups?To begin with, well-organised planning and preparation in advance is paramount. This calls for open dialogue and collaboration between the teachers in all the participating schools. If we teachers can’t do it, how can we expect our students to be natural collaborators? It often takes time and effort and lots negotiation to create good working relations with teachers from different cultures. Clashes are inevitable, and good intentions easily misunderstood. But I have learned that if most of the activities during such visits are guided tours to see historical and other important sights of the place, scenes like the one above will be the norm.

One example of a different activity is to prepare a town tour where students go around in small, MIXED groups with a worksheet to find out about history, the sights or whatever is relevant. Initially it is time-consuming to prepare fun and motivating tasks for students for such a tour, but once you have invested the time, you will be able to repeat the tour with new guests.
Just look at the difference between the first picture and this one.

This was taken during one such collaborative town tour when we had EU project visitors from France and Spain. Some of the assignments involved taking pictures of different styles by certain landmarks of the town. A tour like this allows natural communication, but still gives students the reassurance of given problems to solve together. Although some students, of course, are sociable by nature and confident users of foreign languages, the many quieter ones certainly appreciate their teachers gently pushing them into situations where they can start learning how to break down language barriers.Hmmm, I can see it now. We teachers should concretely model to students in our own actions what collaboration means. Just leaving them to their own devices or telling them to go and mingle will rarely have the desired effect.

“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” (Caleb Colton)

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