The Tools of Collaborative Learning
Nico Wiersema, Mexico
Nico Wiersema is a currently employed as guest lecturer at the ITESM in Monterrey in Mexico. He holds an MA in Translation Studies and has been EFL instructor, coordinator and director at several ITESM Campuses in Mexico. He is also a teacher trainer in the field of Collaborative Learning.
Collaborative Learning (CL) has been an important part of the dynamic in my classes for many years now. Based on that experience, I would argue that CL is a philosophy rather than a teaching technique in that it can be used as a tool to forge better citizens through co-operation, as students are expected to find means to work productively with people who are not necessarily ‘on the same wavelength’. Students’ team-mates may have different learning styles, interests, skills or characters and it is often a challenge for students to work in such a context. Traditional teaching is also necessary, because it is our job as teachers to show the students - through lectures or presentations - what is already known, or especially in the case of language instruction the building blocks of the language. We show students how something works, what they are expected to understand at the beginning of a class and subsequently it is the students’ opportunity to work with their knowledge and those building blocks to create new knowledge e.g. to create sentences they have never used before in written or spoken discourse. The use of language is limitless, and with collaborative learning teachers can take students to a higher level of foreign language use. This additional learning is new knowledge created at the moment of learning through practice or peer teaching. Benjamin S. Bloom already referred to this process in step five (Synthesis) of his Taxonomy in 1956 (Kok, 2002), and Anderson and Krathwohl revised this taxonomy in 2001 referring to this new knowledge as Creating. Collaborative learning is arguably an excellent tool to enhance students’ understanding and use of (new) language skills during the process of synthesis. Finding a constructive blend between traditional and collaborative teaching can take the students’ language skills to new heights. In this paper I will briefly discuss how new learning is achieved in my classes through a combination of traditional, individual and collaborative learning.
My English classes usually consist of three steps:
- A brief overview and lecture of the topic to be discussed.
- Individual practice – processing.
- Collaborative practice.
Step one is a brief presentation on the topic the students are about to practice. For example: a class on present perfect will list the different concepts of present perfect and if so required the differences between present perfect, past perfect and/ or simple past. There will be some simple examples on the board. Most, if not all, of these examples should be elicited from the students: this is also a form of collaborative learning in that the whole class works as a team to create examples that reflect the known grammar points and illustrate the new ones. Whether corrections are made is up to the teacher, but it is obviously recommended to correct versions of the students’ examples whenever necessary. All students learn during this step: students that can already give correct examples strengthen their knowledge by analysing it as they create their sentences based on the knowledge they already possess. The other students will see these examples and use those and the teacher’s explanations as building blocks for their new learning.
Step two is individual practice or pair work as a tool to guide the student towards processing and understanding the topic more. Individual learning is certainly as important in the learning process as collaborative work. The individual process, which is often overshadowed by collaborative efforts (Yahin and Or-Bach, 2010), should also be given attention in that the students’ learning outcomes are commonly measured individually with exams and quizzes. The students can be asked to complete a simple exercise created by the teacher or practice from the course book or the online version of a workbook. Students can compare their answers with those of other students and thus learn from each other in a collaborative way as students need to work individually during this process in order to learn from each other subsequently through pair work or group work (Kanev, Kimura and Orr, 2009). Good results in such an exercise are usually celebrated through the teacher’s recognition, creating a sense of team spirit for the students that have successfully worked together. This activity leads to a third, more collaborative form of practice.
Step three. The final and most comprehensive step is collaborative work in teams. When students work individually or in pairs, they may not fully understand what they have worked on, and feedback from their peers is a very helpful tool to enhance understanding and using newly achieved knowledge. Students with different levels of achievement can equally take advantage of this step: the high-achieving students benefit from cognitive restructuring that occurs when providing in-depth explanations (or the examples mentioned in step one) to peers, whereas less academically successful students benefit from the extra attention, alternative knowledge representations, and modeling that more academically successful students provide (Johnson, D.W and Johnson, R).
The collaborative activity needs to be prepared very well in advance by the teacher. Clear instructions are essential: beginning with team formation. In small groups, it is relatively easy to put students in teams because both students and teachers are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In larger groups, some of the traditional team formation techniques may have to be used such as placing the students in teams according to their birth months. There are many sources available online that give ideas for such activities. When students practice a certain grammar point in a team they practice numerous skills at the same time. To mention a few: listening and speaking (good for their fluency and social skills), writing (there is often a note-taker in the team), and public speaking when the representative of the team gives a report to the rest of class.
During such collaborative activities, students can explain the grammar point and/ or new vocabulary to each other. Not all students have the same level of skills and in small teams their language needs can thus be addressed more effectively. If a teacher is only using the traditional teaching method for the duration of the whole class, some students may find the new information hard to understand and apply, whereas others may find it too easy. In both cases students may lose interest in the class and not learn anything new or challenging at all. In small and successful collaborative groups, students can customize each other’s learning and enhance each other’s thinking, maybe even guiding themselves towards lateral thinking. Since teachers are expected to be part of all teams, they can guide the students’ interaction and make sure they take full advantage of the collaborative experience in the classroom.
To summarise then, the main objective of collaborative learning and language learning is to encourage the students to learn from each other based on knowledge they already possess and new knowledge created by the teacher, the students and the students’ peers. Practicing under the teacher’s guidance in a collaborative learning environment is a very complete learning experience that can effectively strengthen current knowledge and create an infinite amount of new skills and information; additionally, students improve their social skills through these activities and this may have a positive impact on the future lives as productive and ethical citizens in that they will have learned to work with and appreciate people with different learning styles and skills.
Atherton, J.S. "Learning and Teaching; Bloom's taxonomy." 10 February 2010. 8 December 2010
Gross, Ronald. "Teaching the World to Think." The Humanist May 1990: 13-14.
Johnson, David W and Roger T. Johnson. "Cooperation and the Use of Technology." Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Ed. Michael Hannafin and J.M. Spector.
Kanev, Kamen, Shigeo Kimura and Thomas Orr. "A Framework for Collaborative Learning in Dynamic Group Environments." International Journal of Distance Education Technologies 7.1 (2009): 57-77.
Kok, Marianne. "Bloom’s Taxonomie voor Cognitieve Vaardigheden." December 2002. Onderwijatelier. 8 December 2010
Yadin, Aharon and Rachel Or-Bach. "The Importance of Emphasizing Individual Learning in the "Collaborative Learning Era"." Journal of Information Systems Education 21.2 (2010): 185-194.
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