Parallel Play or Collaboration?

I am struggling with something I think many of my PLN folks are thinking about. . .and that’s HOW to improve our work, HOW to change what happens in our schools, and HOW to meet the needs of contemporary learners. Ben Grey introduces himself on his blog this way: My name is Ben Grey, and I am but one of the many. The many who are looking for change. The many who are engaging in dynamic discussions. The many who think there could be more to the way we engage education. I am also on that quest.

Dean Shareski wrote a post “My Big Fat Brain Dump” and he talked about how education conferences need to change to meet the needs of those of us struggling with these kinds of thoughts. Ira Socol Jen Wagner, Scott McLeod, Will Richardson, Becky Fisher, David Truss, Liz B. Davis, Michael Wacker, Miguel Guhlin, Paul R Wood, Scott Merrick, Jon Becker, Mike Fisher, Michele Bourgeois, Tom Woodward, John Mikulski and a multitude of others have written or talked about this topic of change in many ways.

Today , I received a tweet with a link to a YOUTUBE video by a 17 year old about  The iSchool Initiative. Kids can paint these pictures. Why aren’t we educators better at doing so for each other?

Here’s MY backstory: I have been using wikis with kids for two years now–really bright kids, really motivated kids, really thoughtful kids who WANT to learn and do well.They love having the opportunity to work on wikis and clearly “get” the potential! (See wikiworld.)

But my wikis–THEIR wikis– are pockets and pools and islands of isolation. . . They’re examples of parallel play at best, NOT collaboration. As the teacher, I own that outcome. I didn’t do enough ahead of time, I didn’t set up the structures, I didn’t paint the pictures for kids so that the work NEEDED collaborative efforts and so I didn’t get it.

I participated in several online, “collaborative” wikis this year as well. One was where we shared our writing based around a common text. Another I created, (And To Think) where kids also shared products around a common text/author, Dr. Seuss. Again, these I see as parallel play.

I skyped with several classes this year–about the Dr. Seuss wiki, about our state of VA– and found it fascinating to watch kids’ reactions to talking to other kids from “far” away. However, the interaction was bizarre. . very traditional, in that kids raised their hands to talk or ask questions, teachers (on both sides, including me) were CLEARLY in charge, and most interactions/questions were designed ahead of time. Again, parallel play in my mind, NOT collaborative.  I OWN these behaviors and outcomes, as, again, I didn’t do enough ahead of time, I didn’t set up the structures, I didn’t ask enough questions of my skyping teacher friends to make these experiences more than that.

So, I’d like to see models-and asked last night on Twitter “I’m wondering what is the most interactive /interdependent KID authored/written/produced wiki you know? Examples?”

I got no responses.


I got several DMs or replies from folks asking me to share the results of my request, so here it is.

NO one named a truly collaborative kid wiki.

So where are they?


@ellsbeth sent a couple of links this AM: “look up gaming wikis like & Kids contribute.”

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Parallel Play or Collaboration?

  1. The lack of true collaboration extends beyond just the realm of technology. Regardless of best practice, the reality is that most teachers are in private practice. Once they close the door to their classroom, it’s their kingdom, and what they say goes.

    Nice post!

  2. I did some collaborative work with my Moodle this year and the year before. I can’t give you access to it, though, without going through security procedures at the district. That’s one of the problems with breaking the private practice mode.

    I think Moodle and other platforms that provide security to a wider group might be a solution, but it’s not going to be easy. I can’t even Twitter in my classroom, YET.

  3. Oh what an amazingly difficult question you raise, Paula. The trouble is, learning of this sort is messy. And many people fear when things get messy, or out of control, or beyond the bounds of the box. We have mandates to abide by and standards to adhere to and content to cover. To let kids find a way to collaborate beyond a variant of parallel play means handing their learning over the them, and many of us haven’t figured out how that model plays nice with the model we are entrenched within.

    But hope lies in the fact that there are some who just want to grab a hammer and break the present model to bits so we can move to that which Travis was able to accomplish. Take charge of concepts and ideas and dig in and cover ourselves in the messy, nonlinear act that is learning.

    And I wish I had an example to share, but I don’t. Because I’m still trying to figure out how in the world we can make one in a way that is truly meaningful. And relevant. And based in the act of learning how to learn, not just learning how to learn to forget.

  4. Here’s what I believe the developmental continuum to be…from the play world to the teaching world to the social media world
    1) solitary play…private practice teaching…publish
    2) parallel play…PLC structures are in place…publish and allow comments/linking
    3) group play…professionally engaged teachers…multiple authors who exercise editing

    What do you think? beckyfisher73

  5. I’ll play, since you just tweeted me to this. Tell me if you think the several wiki projects I present on the Wikispaces in Education webinar preso I gave here:

    FYI, I think the Ant Farm Diaries, which was intraschool instead of interschool, was the most developmentally appropriate and pedagogically sane (collaborating with teachers across time zones, and depending on their students without knowing them, is a headache I’ll think twice before inviting again). The 1001 Tales was collaborative too, and flat world woo woo. Too much work for the ultimate payoff, probably, but I had to learn that (and that’s just me).

  6. Clay, I can’t access your webinar on the slow connection I have currently, but will watch it Sunday when I return home from camping. I am familiar with the Flat World project, though, a bit and was surprised no one suggested that as an example of a collaborative project. From your descriptions, the projects you name do indeed sound like examples to set out there.

    Your wiki homework comment (“one of my pet peeves, seeing ppl using wikis to replace paper homework instead of do better things”) resonated with me and was similar to the tweet that got me going here. It was a tweet about wikis being glorified drop boxes. I think they are, way too many times. There is no collaboration, no interaction, (except perhaps judgmental comments on each others’ work), and no follow up or continued connection between kids. The learning may be powerful (or not) in the moment, but is there a long term return?

    Thanks for responding and for your constant pushing in your tweets. Hope to meet you f2f at an ADE event or conference sometime!

  7. Paula,
    I’ve had similar reflections as I work with students. I agree with Becky Fisher that there is a continuum. I think communication (maybe a bit more teacher-directed?) comes first. Only once students are comfortable communicating will they move toward collaborating.
    I didn’t see your tweet asking for student collaborations, but here are the examples that come to mind: check out Thinkquest is a competition for global collaboration. I haven’t (yet) participated with students, so I can’t speak to how kid-directed the work truly is, but I find it a very intriguing project, one that might be have good potential for our students.
    The most truly collaborative work I think my kids have been involved in was a collaborative writing based on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick organized by Lisa Parisi. My 5th grade students in Florida used google docs and skype to write stories with 4th grade partners at a school in NY. Highly motivating, highly “messy,” still not completely collaborative as in each group there was a more dominant person..BUT, to me this represented an excellent beginning. Afterwards the kids had the opportunity to reflect on a Voicethread about the experience. Most reflections included how much they enjoyed (LOVED) this project as well as how difficult it was for them to truly collaborate. There were so many barriers to good collaboration, some of them technical, most of them based in lack of experience with real collaborative work.
    I don’t feel frustrated by it, although I continue to push myself to do better with and for my students.

  8. Andrea, Thanks for your comments–I HAVE done a Thinkquest project (with 5th graders) and it was INCREDIBLY powerful and life changing for them. See their comments here: Sarah’s last paragraph is particularly poignant.

    THAT’S the kind of experience every child should have regularly in school–and, as you say, “There were so many barriers to good collaboration, some of them technical, most of them based in lack of experience with real collaborative work.”

    It’s that experience with REAL collaborative work we need to set up more and discuss more as teachers. It IS messy. It IS hard. It IS time consuming. But it IS also worth it and we need to keep asking questions of each other and sharing the successes (as both you and Clay do) so we can learn from each other.

    I also did a collab project with Lisa this year, but she added pieces to yours that weren’t part of mine–and that made your experience richer. There’s that continuum you and Becky reference and that we should attempt to articulate and share.

    Thanks for your comments. I am struggling to work on that continuum in another way through the Bloom’s Rubrics (with examples.) Feel free to add to and join in! (

  9. Your honesty and reflective nature are refreshing signs at a time where we are consumed by the excitement of the possibilities never stopping to question the reality of the situation.

    I continue to wonder if we lose our knowledge of pedagogy too often when bringing these items into the classroom. In other words, let’s say your approach to collaboration is through Johnson and Johnson’s cooperative learning. When you (and hopefully the students) are working towards the use of wikis for collaborative purposes, are we drawing upon those works and helping the students understand the notion of collaboration?

    When we see islands, are we talking to students about what we want to see and drawing upon their experience of face to face collaboration that surely took place in the classroom before the advent of a wiki.

    Insightful thoughts that I hope others will explore and I really hope we start holding up models of collaboration.

  10. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately, mostly because of my own daughter and her experiences with blogging. Laura started a service blog several years ago now, and for a long time, she really enjoyed writing in that space, sharing what she was doing, and connecting to others who were doing the same. Recently though, she decided to stop blogging. She told me that she loves doing service work, but that she doesn’t like blogging about it as much anymore. She feels more connected to the folks that she sees face to face, and blogging and connecting online was feeling more like an exercise than a meaningful experience. She’s at a cross-roads with it all, and I can understand why. I see this happen over and over again in classrooms as well, and so the questions you ask here are ones that I’ve been turning around in my head for a while now.

    I honestly think that if we want students to be authentically connected and engaged with others inside of these environments, they have to want to be connected and engaged with those others…..not merely with the tool. And they need to be the ones doing the connecting, around things that they are most passionate about….not the things WE are most passionate about (or the things that we are mandated to cover). Often, students are invited to connect to other kids online simply because their teacher has required them to do so. The entire experience has been manufactured. Kids aren’t invested in it, really. They are jumping through the same hoops….only these hoops are clickable. For a while, it’s all shiny and new–they are learning to master a new tool and set of functions. This sort of motivation is short-lived though.

    Finding out who are kids truly are, helping them discover what they love, what they are good at, and how they can accomplish something with all of that—maybe that’s what our first priority needs to be. Changing practice and systems and structures to make that happen is the key, I think. Maybe if we set that priority, we’ll be better positioned to support students as they make real, self-motivated connections to others and begin building their own learning networks online. Not because it connects to OUR curricula or OUR interests…but because it will help them accomplish what they are most eager to accomplish and connect in ways that nurture them.

    Every time I hear someone say that we need to “use more technology” in classrooms because it “engages kids” I cringe. Maybe we just need to invite kids to bring what they know and love to the table. Maybe we need to begin by allowing their interests and their passions to drive their learning a bit more? I don’t know…I suspect that if we were able to do this, the learning they do and the relationships they build with others (online and f2f) would be far more authentic though.

  11. Pingback: @AngelaStockman thanks for the thoughtful comment-will respond later-have to wake up my grandson! (10:30 is late enuf!) - Twitoaster

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  14. @Angela
    I just love the way you think about things. I have been meaning to respond for a few days, but just got back to my computer. I reflect a lot along the same lines as you do. And, as you know, I do try to weave my own interests, passions, required content together with those of my students. It really is a balancing act.
    As much as I love the idea of letting students’ interests and passions lead the way I feel that, as the adult and the teacher, I must also guide them to new ideas and subjects that they might not yet have encountered.

    As a parent I have a similar balancing act with feeding my kids. If I just let their passions lead the way they would pretty much exist on junk. Even if I don’t buy junk they manage to sniff it out wherever they go. As the older, more experienced person I understand the craving for junk food, but also the need for healthy food. I try to engage them in the healthy food, also allowing some of the junk food or trying to find less-junky junk food.

    I’m not trying to say that whatever kids love to learn about or communicate about is junk, not at all. However, I notice that sometimes the kids do better when there is a combination of teacher-led and student-led. It’s like the trellis that guides the vine. It doesn’t keep the vine from growing or being beautiful, just gives it some guidance and direction.

    A good example is the mitzvah blog I started with my 5th graders. It was a manufactured idea; it came from me. I love service learning, it is a huge part of our school culture, and as the technology teacher I loved the idea of finding ways to use technology to broaden and deepen the mitzvah curriculum. I showed them Laura’s blog as an example and suggested they connect with her through leaving a comment. However, they were the ones who wanted to skype with her, they were so excited about that, and I followed their lead.
    In the end, I felt disappointed with the blog. It didn’t go far enough or deep enough for me, to meet my expectations. But I know that it was a learning experience for all of us. We take steps, try to walk, fall down, hold the table, walk a little further, then, one day,hopefully, run.
    Laura has learned so much through her experience as a blogger. I love that she does what she wants to do, she follows her heart and that you are there for her to guide her and help her. It doesn’t take away from the blogging experience or the people she has touched through her blog that now she wants to stop blogging and just focus on doing. I would be willing to bet that this will not be Laura’s last blog.

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