In the Architecture and Islam workshop I designed for the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 semesters (MEST 329 Islamic Art and Architecture), members of a group are required to articulate their competencies, therefore distill what they are great at – and what they do poorly (sketching, researching, analyzing, working with software…) – while gathering, analyzing and presenting a written and visual content on mosques, mausoleums and palaces built during the Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, as well as on contemporary architecture of mosques and futuristic models.
In the Christians in Southwestern Asia workshop for instance (MEST 350 Religions of the Middle East), students combine their individual research projects (phase I) on the current situations of Christians in Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, GCC, etc. and produce a common discourse (phase II) based on interdependency. Following the workshop, they realize that a group, an institution, a society thrive where there are diverse and complimentary identities and systems that enhance each other’s lives and management.
Sometimes students work together according to certain interests, but I usually try to mix them so they would learn to work with different types of people. Class activities’ goals as designed for the WLDC 301 Religions of the World course include in particular students from different religious/non-religious backgrounds working together to identify what could be complimentary about their different worldviews, and the intra-religious and inter-religious differences they are tackling – when studying together for instance the subject of Kashrut in Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, comparing Kosher with Halal, and drawing on each other’s perceptions and experiences.
Sharing information and dialogue inevitably help students to acknowledge cultural/religious differences and better understand other cultures, religious and points of view, especially when the personal story sharing component is included in the plenary session. Collaborative activities indeed involve the construction of new ideas based on personal and shared foundations of past experiences and understandings – applying here some of the principles of constructivism. When the WLDC 301 students are asked to search individually, then collectively for the definitions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism as three of the main perspectives/positions in theology of religions, they are also asked to reflect on the content of the definitions by drawing back on their own experiences.
Each time a student collaborates with others, he/she finds himself/herself in a setting that optimizes his/her capacities to extend beyond the comfort zone, grow a variety of intelligences (theory of multiple intelligences by Howard Garner), acquire a deeper understanding of content, increase overall achievement in grades, and in turn, stretch the boundaries of the classroom. According to Garner, we can improve education by addressing the multiple intelligences of our students: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, musical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and existential.
Most students become usually highly motivated to remain on task, to actively construct content, to take ownership of their own learning and to pursue the search for knowledge, as indicated in their end-of-semester qualitative evaluations of the courses. It goes without saying that encouraging student-student thinking is paired with the development of strategies necessary for the inclusion of critical-level thought. Clear questions are identified at the outset and I make sure to show how these questions relate to students’ interests and abilities, and to the teaching goals and learning outcomes of the courses.
Furthermore, collaborative learning is used in conjunction with other educational methods and techniques, and it certainly helps students construct knowledge rather than only reproduce a series of ‘facts’- regurgitate information. Through problem-solving, inquiry-based, story sharing and experiential activities, students are challenged to actively engage in the learning process. While being guided by the professor, they are provided with tools to formulate and test their ideas, draw conclusions and inferences, pool and convey their knowledge, articulate and defend their ideas, create their own conceptual frameworks and not rely solely on an expert’s or a text’s framework, and link their existing knowledge and real-world experience to the content of the course and class activities’ goals.
As I see it, it’s about intellectual gymnastics in a dialogic setting where positive interdependence is valued and experienced.