About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Doing collaborative learning correctly

I just read Ken Allen's post on Collaborative Learning and felt that it deserved a post rather than a comment.

In the post Ken addresses Donald Clark's comments on the failure of collaborative learning. He says:

Clark explained how this has not worked, in spite of the huge cost in the attempt. Much of what he is quoted as saying has not moved a smidgen from the opinion he has shared on his blog since the interview.

I am not sure what Clark is using to measure the failure of collaborative learning. What I find is that the current educational system in the US is based on standardized tests which do not measure "deep thinking" or social interaction. My students come to the university expecting to be spoon feed by the professor, learning only what is going to be on the test, and not able to work in teams and groups. Furthermore, I hear complaints from those in business that new graduates don't have any ability to plan their work, work in teams, work without direction, problem solve (especially "messy" problems), or network effectively. My sister, who is in the field of science and my brother in law (a veterinarian and researcher for veterinarian pharmaceuticals) also have been seeing this trend in science. This is the result of an educational system based on testing, not collaborative learning.

What is collaborative learning

One of the common mistakes for new teachers using collaborative learning is that they equate "group work" with "collaborative learning". Vygotsky, in fact, did not take the teacher out of the equation but rather looked at learning as a social process. Many of my student teachers will put children in groups "to learn from each other."

As Ken asks: How does a group of children assist each other to develop the numeracy that they need? How does such a group help one another to improve their reading abilities? How can a group of young learners teach each other about Science or History or learn a second language?

I can only speak from second language learning, however, it can be done. In fact, this is the way in which I teach second language (French and English). Unlike my students that have a vague sense of what they want children to get out of a group experience, it takes me a lot to plan a group activity. Part of the plan is analyzing what my students have coming into the activity, what they will need from me, how much "space" I can give the groups, even a question of which students will need to be put into the group. If I do the groups randomly, I must know the needs and dynamics of these groups (which an inexperienced teacher might have trouble doing).

Also important in planning the collaborative learning activity is how I am going to assess it, and the directions that will be given to the students. This structure takes a lot of planning and anticipation of problems, my role, student roles, and scaffolding for learning.

For example, a elementary level English language class for middle schoolers working on pronunciation of "sch" or "sk" sounds can do this collaboratively. I might begin by having students in groups, generate a list of words with that sound. They would write down the list. This allows students to build vocabulary that they might not have had if they were to do it individually. I would need to monitor the list, check it over, ask the group questions such as "should 'schedule' be included in this?". After this activity, I would address to the class as a whole the question of schedule (which is pronounced differently in the US--part of the list--than in England--not part of the list). Next, I would have students create a dialog or "jazz chant" (basically a rhyme) so students could work on the pronunciation in context. After this has been created, I would ask each group to practice saying the dialog or chant out loud as a group. As they practiced, I would monitor their progress, identifying when there were problems with combination of the "sk" sound with other sounds. I would then ask students to come up with strategies to over come those problems. I might write group suggestions on the board as groups are working, take my own notes, or just monitor areas that need further work.

What is key here is that I am still working as a teacher. This is not the time for me to correct, or tune out. One of the hardest skills to learn as a good facilitator of collaborative learning is to monitor multiple groups simultaneously, listening and speaking at the same time. It also takes a tremendous amount of management skill to ensure the groups stay on task. In addition, the teacher needs to be able to identify common problems and address those problems either immediately or to create a lesson for the next class to follow them up.

Can collaborative learning work?

I am a product of collaborative learning. While my own learning was not completely based on collaborative learning, what I remember most from school were lessons in which we learned collaboratively. My high school was considered "experimental". We had 3 different types of classes for each course: a large lecture (100-200 students) usually once a week to introduce main concepts; a medium group 920-45 students) which was usually teacher led, but with interaction with the students in the form of questions and answers; and the small group (5-12 students) which was more of a discussion group. We had a number of group projects, especially in history and science. As my chemistry teacher used to tell us, "if you can explain a concept to someone else, you must really understand it." She often had mixed groups with the advanced students put with those that were struggling. One of my group members, who is now a doctor, told me that my questions in our group work helped in when he got to college because he really knew the information (he was brilliant and could figure things out when needed, but to explain, he had to UNDERSTAND it). I took chemistry in college (for science majors) for my required science course, even though I was not a science major. I did better than a number of the science majors. So I would say that the collaborative learning methods worked.

Many countries with successful educational systems, including Japan and Sweden, use collaborative learning as the basis for their educational systems.

So is collaborative learning THE model for learn?

It was obvious from Ken's posting that for collaborative learning to be effective 1) the teacher needs to have a strong presence and be trained in planning, assessing, and implementing collaborative learning activities, and 2)students need to be trained and prepared to learn from each other. Also, I am a firm believer in a variety of approaches to teaching so that students can learn in different ways, drawing on their strengths and working on their weaknesses. I was never a good memorizer, although I do recognize in teaching foreign languages that sometimes it is necessary to memorize content (i.e. irregular verbs and verb conjugation).

I hope that Donald and Ken don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the other hand, I do agree with them that collaborative learning is not an easy out to budget crises. Poorly executed collaborative learning is the same as poorly executed teaching in general: bad education.


paul c said...

One of the joys of teaching for me over the years was well designed collaborative learning. The teacher essentially gets down from the soap box to observe students provide the empowered discussions and learning.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

I agree with what you say here.

The assumption that I made in my post was that collaborative learning needs both content input and guidance. It is often thought that collaborative learning 'needs guidance, but requires little significant content input from a teacher'. Perhaps I didn't make this too clear, but it is the latter assumption (in quotes) that is the false one.

Collaborative learning in groups needs both content input and guidance from the teacher, which your post underwrites. But teachers need training in this style of teaching - to many it does not come naturally. When technology is the conduit for the collaborative learning, there is further need for the teacher to have the skills, know-how in pedagogy, and the experience to do this effectively.

I am well aware that language teachers have used this as an important tool in their profession, and it works very well for them. For this to be a useful tool and an effective one in Science teaching or Mathematics teaching, it nearly always requires a paradigm shift for the teacher who is new to the practice.

I think that one main reason for this is that Science and Mathematics are disciplines that are quite different from languages. It is far more difficult even for the learners to work collaborativey in Science or Mathematics than it is in a language. At the same time, however, I am not saying that collaborative learning is no use in Science or Mathematics. The techniques applied are, by necessity, significantly different.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

@ Paul- And one of the worst (sweat producing) moments in the classroom is when you realize you didn't prepare well enough for collaborative learning!

@ Ken- I think inquiry learning is very much collaborative learning. I agree with you that there does need to be content input. I think inquiry learning (which is being used and is growing to be a major force in science teaching education) is a good model that gives science teachers the framework for collaborative learning, while helping them to identify the areas of scaffolding.

I think the main paradigm shift for collaborative learning is the focus on inductive (students discover the concepts) rather than deductive (students are given the concepts to use) approaches. I think many teachers are afraid students won't "learn correctly." However, helping students work through the concepts means they will construct their own understanding.

In terms of technology, I find that many of the teachers that incorporate technology in the classroom have changed their paradigm. The challange for online learning is getting policy makers and educational administrators to change THEIR paradigm for testing and lack of resources make it difficult to effectly use collaborative learning in online programs.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia.

I regard Inquiry Learning as one of those terms that no two people can agree on what it means. I never use it for the simple reason that I'm never sure if people understand what I mean by it.

I'm aware that recently the term is now tending to include a collaborative component, and I wonder at the usefulness of it as a term.

A similar term that I rarely use is Interactive, at least I try not to use it unless I've already clearly defined what I mean by it. Education seems to be peppered with all sorts of terms that fit a vague niche by those who use them to further a cause.

I often wonder if some of these terms are invented by pedagogues who have a barrow to push :-)

But aside all this, there is also the tendency for pedagogues (education authorities) to swing the proverbial pendulum. There seems to be no balance when this occurs - it's either all or none - and my feeling is that's when the art starts to fall out of teaching.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Ken, that is true of any teaching approach. In the US, Inquiry Based learning in science, however, has become more structured as a lot of money has been invested in researching science education. Likewise, there has been a lot of work on developing a standard model of project based learning.

However, as your posting indicates, the implementation is going to differ as teachers are human and not machines.