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Dolphin Teachers and Pod Classrooms: Why Two Fins are Better than One

08/20/2014 12:20 EDT | Updated 10/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Ninety Four percent of employers agree that collaboration is an imperative skill for 21st century job success for new graduates. Even though social bonding is in our human nature, we often forget this truth. I see it all the time -- highly intelligent university and college students who minimize their social connection with others because they deem their peers as opponents rather than teammates. This solitary "tiger" mindset often leads students to become overly competitive and lacking in important social skills. The National Education Association (NEA) deems collaboration as an essential skill for students to learn, because it is inherent in how work is accomplished and how our workforce functions. In my research, I have found the characteristics of one of the world's most altruistic mammals, the dolphin, to be a powerful metaphor for collaborative teaching and learning approaches.

Now, if dolphins could enter the current work world, they would blow the competition out of the water (no-pun intended)! Dolphins are famous for their highly social behaviour and collaborative way of life. Living in rich social communities called pods, dolphins use collaboration skills to hunt, play and survive in the deep depths of the ocean. For a second, imagine our education system as the ocean; how can our children survive the deep depths of group work, discussions, sharing, or playtime without the foundation of strong collaboration skills? One of the first places children can deeply explore collaboration is in the classroom. Twenty-first century classrooms are moving toward greater collaboration, discussion and group tasks in order to promote cooperative learning. As long as the teacher remains a dolphin (and not a strict tiger or permissive jellyfish), the development of pod-like classrooms will have your children swimming towards success.

A wealth of shared knowledge. While hunting, dolphins do not fend for themselves; they consistently work together and share their intellect with one another to enhance the vitality of the pod. The vitality of a collaborative classroom is highly dependent on the interactions and shared knowledge between educators and students. Children are no longer seen as "empty vessels" that can easily absorb the transferred knowledge from a lacklustre "sage on the stage." Instead, children are invited to discuss new knowledge in light of their personal experiences, ideas and inquiries in the classroom. Of course, teachers still behold important content about a given topic or subject, but the collaborative approach allows students' to take part in their own learning process. Researchers suggest that when students see their experiences and knowledge as valued, they become empowered and motivated to listen and learn in new ways. For my kids, it is always a big confidence booster when they are able to educate and teach something to their own teacher and classmates!

Shared authority fosters autonomy. If you witness the dynamics of a dolphin pod, you can tell there is not one sole leader or distinct rule-maker. Take a look around a collaborative classroom, and you will see this same type of shared authority. Shared authority allows students to take more autonomy over their learning. By participating in establishing classroom rules, setting goals and co-creating rubric guidelines, some shared authority can teach children the skills they will need to master in the near future (i.e. organization, time-management, communication, etc.). Research indicates that if students understand they are capable decision makers, they are more likely to take advantage of autonomous and collective learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

Gently guide rather than direct. As soon as a baby orca is born, it's mother gently nudges it to the surface while modelling swimming motions, which encourages independence right away. When students have more shared responsibility in the classroom, the teacher is seen as more of a guide toward knowledge rather than a director of knowledge. Rather than directly stating factual information, educators (like mother orca's) gentle nudge students toward opportunities where they can freely ask questions, provide insights and construct their own understanding. Mediated learning helps students become problem-solvers and high-order thinkers; students are encouraged to use creativity and critical-thinking skills to explore alternative solutions. In "The Teacher as a Guide: Letting Students Navigate Their Own Learning", Bonnie Bracy shares how turning her classroom into a hands-on laboratory, tapped into her students' spirit of curiosity and exploration, and offered rich-learning experiences.

Small-group learning and discussion. Through signature whistles and unique sounds, dolphins are great underwater communicators. Collaborative classrooms often encourage communication through student discussions, group investigations and the development of shared understandings between peers. Peer-to-peer interaction involves more than just working with others; it involves being respectful, reliable, social, motivating, challenging and competent. In Tom Wujec's TEDTalk "Build a Tower, Build a Team", he discusses how group collaboration during an instructive "marshmallow tower" design competition can encourages teams to find innovative ways to collaborative and develop a shared understanding. Wujec's study is a prime example of how diverse thinking brings multiple individual and cultural perspectives into collaboration, which not only generates more holistic results than individual efforts, but it also creates meaningful knowledge for a greater number of people.

The development of social bonds. The unique communication of dolphins allows them to develop strong social bonds with members of their pod, as well as other species. A community provides an environment within which rich social bonds can form - including those of friends, mentors and role models. The only way to learn essential social skills is to try them out; a collaborative classroom should invite students to learn how to communicate, display teamwork skills and resolve conflict (through trial and error). Developing social bonds with peers and teachers will help students foster their own social identity and social responsibility. The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program is a world-wide, hands-on school-based science program that allows students to collaborate with each other to impact global problems. GLOBE's vision promotes and supports students, teachers and scientists to collaborate and generate solutions towards our worlds current and future issues. These type of initiatives are teaching children to become involved contributors toward our social community; educators need to consider how to structure the social frame of collaborative activities to ensure positive peer-to-peer relationships and active citizenship can be nurtured. Here's another bonus: social interaction and social bonding both increase dopamine levels in our brains - and what teacher wouldn't want a classroom filled with happy, healthy and motivated kids?

As a metaphor, dolphins remind us of the value of collaboration and how it can extend beyond the work world. As parents and educators (coaches, role models, mentors...) we want the current generation of children to derive a great satisfaction from working with others while fostering greatness, inspiration and encouragement. Since children spend so much time in school, the collaborative classroom can offer rich learning opportunities that teach students the dolphin-like social skills they will need to be able to function successfully in a collaborative world.