‘I speak, you listen! I order you obey!’ Teaching has come a long way from this doctrine, and teaching styles have changed immensely. All for good reason. We speak now of collaboration and interactive learning. We speak of 21st-century skills and preparing learners for the future—building social skills, developing effective communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving. It is all very exciting, but what does this really mean for our students in the Indian context? How do we hone these skills in our language classrooms?
A good start is ‘Collaboration’. Empowering our learners with the skills essential to work together. In the words of Henry Ford above ‘If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.’
Collaboration involves deciding goals together with others, sharing responsibilities, and working together to achieve more than could be achieved by an individual on their own. (Barfield, 2016)
Where do we start?
There are a variety of strategies to introduce collaborative learning experiences in the classroom. The simplest of these being whole-class discussions, group work and pair work. Students work together, share different perspectives, and listen to the thoughts and opinions of their peers. All of these processes ‘discussion, clarification, and evaluation of other’s ideas’ facilitate learning.
Project-based learning is another interesting way to engage students in collaborative learning. Besides being a welcome break from the usual classroom routine, project work also promotes autonomous learning. It provides students’ with the opportunity to think out of the box and devise solutions to real-world problems.
With the dawn of the digital age, several apps and websites have surfaced to help students collaborate on digital platforms inside and outside the classroom. Padlet is great for collaborative brainstorming; Edmodo is a good learning management platform where students can continue classroom discussions, download handouts, and submit assignments. Google Drive lets you edit and share documents and spreadsheets online and is a useful tool for student collaboration.
Easier said than done!
Although collaboration is effective for student learning, we cannot simply put students into groups and pairs and expect them to work productively. Students will only be able to work together if they have learned how to do so. They also need relevant oracy skills to express themselves during the activity. (Littleton and Mercer, 2013)
More often than not, stronger learners take the lead during collaborative tasks and steer the discussion as they deem fit. Weaker learners may shy away from sharing or simply nod in agreement, defeating the purpose of collaborative activity.
How do we work our way around these challenges? It all boils down to effective setup.
Get it right
Setting up the task appropriately is key to the success of collaborative work.
- Discuss objectives: We need to tell students why they are being asked to work together and convince them of the value and benefits of collaborative work for learning.
- Set ground rules: Get the students to put together a set of rules that they need to follow during collaborative activities, e.g. Everyone must share, listening is key, respect everyone’s opinions, agree/disagree politely.
- Establish goals: State a clear aim for each collaborative task and let students know what they need to achieve together within a given time frame.
- Create moderately sized groups: A group of 4-5 students is ideal for active participation.
- Introduce talking points: Give students specific points for discussion and encourage exploratory talk around these points.
- Monitor carefully: Monitoring is key to ensure students are on-task and engaged. It is essential to check that there is a positive learning environment.
Moreover, we as teachers must model what we expect in a collaborative classroom—listening patiently, paraphrasing appropriately, questioning politely, and artfully negotiating. The way we talk to our students has a strong influence on their attitude and conduct during group work.
Encourage exploratory talk in a class where students critically but constructively discuss ideas. Value diversity, build trust, promote open communication, and watch these trickle down to your students during collaborative tasks. More importantly, praise and appreciate students’ efforts at every step of the way to bolster this positive learning environment.
Don’t take our word for it
Lev Vygotsky (1978) stated that cognitive development stems from social interactions within the zone of proximal development (See figure below). In simple terms, two heads are better than one! According to Vygotsky, the Zone of Proximal Development is the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given. This will allow the child to develop higher-order thinking skills that they can then use on their own. Interaction with peers is said to be an effective way of developing skills and strategies, and Vygotsky recommends that teachers use cooperative learning exercises in order that less competent children develop with help from more skilful peers.