Rules of collaboration – a few ‘big ideas’

While browsing through a book called ‘Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom’ (Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager), I came across a passage dealing with lessons learnt from a research project from 1999 led by Seymour Papert. He laid out his ideas in a document designed for a visitor to the classroom. As soon as I saw this list, I thought back to all my collaborative projects (the most recent one being a site-specific opera project for which I wrote the libretto). Several of these ‘big ideas’ as Papert calls them, can be usefully invoked when explaining collaborative process to new undergraduates. I cite some of the most relevant ones below as Papert lists them; with some tweaking, this could be adapted to collaborative process in a performing arts context:

  1. Learning by doing
    1. This one’s easy enough to understand and an approach central to my teaching, whether that’s practice-based or not. The best way for us to get something is to try it ourselves – in a practice-based scenario such as a keyboard skills class the effectiveness of this method is immediately obvious. In a research scenario, the principle still works but requires temporal adjustment and the time for students understand, own and apply specific methodologies or ideas.
  2. technology as building material
    1. Papert meant this in a different way to the one I’m suggesting here but nonetheless, within a collaborative situation, students do have to work with technology. Whether that technology becomes an over part of the outcome product or whether it simply guides, helps and inform the process makes no difference. Technology can be used in many ways both in the classrooms and outside during independent learning time.
  3. you can’t get it right without getting it wrong
    1. The classic view is that the classroom or seminar, whatever the case may be, is the only place that students get ‘permission to fail’. I hear this need to fail bandied round a lot in education, and while I understand and support the premise, I wish we could give it a more positive spin. Ultimately however, in the classroom, but also in a collaborative situation, ideas have to be tried and tested. Group projects require that all members of the group participate and own a project. The trialling and testing period allows all collaborators to get a clear grasp of the performing process and subsequently begin to own not just the process but also the outcome.

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