The question I asked, in a discussion on collaboration, was this: Does collaboration work to the advantage of all if there is inequality of ability? It might clarify where I was coming from if I sketch in what I had in mind as I asked.
In the last ten years of my career, I made several discoveries about my own teaching. I volunteered to take an all-boys class for S2 in a year group with a preponderance of boys, thus freeing other colleagues who preferred mixed classes to get on with it. I've often cited this class as an example of the best experience I had as a teacher, and as an example of what can be achieved. In the end, I had the same class right to the end of S4. Three boys jumped ship at the end of S2 - they wanted to be in a class with girls. The others, who were all offered the possibility of reorganisation, stayed put. This gave a class of 28 boys, of whom five or so were expected to gain a Credit Grade 1 at the end of S4, and six of whom were classified as Foundation and destined to a grade 5 or 6. Completely mixed ability, then, but together from a stage when adolescent attitudes hadn't formed.
I could wax boring about this class and the fascinating developments that took place over the year, but we're looking at collaboration here - collaboration between pupils. By the time we were in that first winter of Standard Grade, I could see that there were clear patterns springing up of collaboration among the boys. Most noticeable was the willingness of one of the very brightest in the class to sit down with possibly the poorest - intellectually, socially, in self-esteem - and quietly enable him to keep up with the rest of the class, pointing out how he could tackle a piece of writing, helping him to understand a bit of text that was causing bother, pairing him in Process Writing so that the limited subject-matter of the weaker student's writing was expanded and enhanced. He did all this quietly and unassumingly, and no-one raised an eyebrow. Other fruitful pairings grew up and flourished. When the results came out at the end of S4, no-one had a Foundation award. Fifteen had Credit passes, nine of them at level 1; the rest had 3 or 4.
So it worked. But I used to look at what the more able boy put into this collaboration, and wonder what he was getting out of it. He'd certainly deepen his own understanding in the way I think we all do when we have to share our learning; he'd know he was doing something really important for another person; he'd feel a sense of achievement. But my job was to make sure his experience in the study of English was as enriching as possible. And I used to fret, slightly.
Now I'm not so sure. He's graduated from University and is doing well. He seemed to be happy with what he was doing, and he stayed with me for Higher English. Maybe what he learned from the process of collaboration was precious to him - I don't know. I'd love to have the chance to ask him. The other boy, who was a delight in that class, seems to have taken to a life of petty crime. His background was stacked against him, and I sometimes felt that the all-too-brief time of civilisation that he enjoyed during these three years was the only chance he ever had.
Maybe that's it. Maybe collaboration is the bedrock of civilised - and civilising - behaviour. And I haven't even started on the business of collaboration with one's colleagues in teaching. Guess that's for another post. Comments on a postcard, please .... you know what I mean...