The level of sophistication in the modern society is continuously increasing as the world pursues globalization goals. Such a bold assertion is grounded on the fact that broad range of socialization, business, and learning opportunities are available to people from diverse backgrounds. This kind of trend has compelled educators to recalibrate their roles in the intellectual and social development of these individuals (Garrison 2011). For the sake of this argument, the reader is urged to reflect on the role education plays in the future of learners regardless of their career choices. It is through this stage that most people develop vital knowledge and skills for survival. When viewed from this lens, the teacher’s role in the classroom goes beyond subject proficiency. He or she must have a clear and practical grasp of ‘pedagogy’: this teaching concept mandates instructors to understand the knowledge acquisition and application process of their students on an individual basis (Freeman, et al. 2014). This implies that the teacher should focus on promoting his/her students’ learning process in the socially diverse environment.
The preceding paragraph presents a challenge that remains unmet in most traditional teaching environments since it demands a shift of focus from the teacher to the students. A student-centered approach to instruction allows the practitioners to evaluate their learners’ thought-processes through engaging them in academic discourse. Such a framework transforms the role of a teacher to that of a nurturer while the students become critical-thinkers (Zhao & Kuh 2004). Fairly speaking, the described teaching approach contradicts the traditional framework which depicts teachers as the only information source while learners assume the role of information processors (memorizing and allocating classroom concepts during tests). Modern teachers must understand that student-centered practice treats the classroom setting as a learning community where each member is responsible for individual and group progress. In such a scenario, all members become both learners and teachers at the same time. Note that the teacher is also included in the learning process as he or she receives and reacts on student perspectives. At this juncture, one can confidently assert that the modern education environment necessitates collaborative learning.
The merits and demerits of a collaborative learning environment have been explored by academicians and professionals from various institutional levels including primary, secondary, and tertiary. There is a conventional agreement among most if not all of these investigators regarding the transformative impact collaboration has on the learning process. According to Hallinger and Heck (2010), this instructional approach improves how students acquire, synthesize, and apply learned knowledge and skills. It also improves the teachers’ ability to evaluate performance inasmuch as it complicates the grading system. In light with the presented argument, this paper presents a reflective exploration of the concepts I have learned with respect to the collaborative learning environment. Personally, I am inspired by a strong belief that collaborative learning has positive influence on the students if applied effectively.
Collaborative learning improves the experiences of both the teachers and the students. This is often the case as all members participate in a social discourse geared towards personal and interpersonal development. Considering the scope of this paper, emphasis will be placed on the students’ need for this learning environment.
The Value of Group Work
A major goal of the collaborative learning concept is the utilization of groups to enhance individual development. Working in groups exposes the students to a broad range of opportunities and challenges that arise due to interpersonal differences. Before delving into the benefits of group work, it appears wise to explore the conventional assumptions made by the advocates of collaborative learning. First, they argue that the learning process is intrinsically active and constructive. This implies that students are not mere information recipients. As a matter of fact, they are expected to use the information to develop new ideas and skills. Such an expectation calls for information synthesis, a critical-thinking process. Goddard, Goddard, Sook Kim and Miller (2015) believe that the learning process should be geared towards the intellectual construction of meaning from an acquired classroom concept. This implies that learners should be allowed to refute and offer alternative explanations during lessons: note that their positions should also be scrutinized by both the teacher and the fellow students. In this case, one cannot deny the idea that the learning process is dynamic and constructive. Second, they claim that learning is a social activity (Kuh 2009). Such a line-of-thought makes perfect sense especially since a collaborative environment facilitates student discussions. Through sharing of ideas, students gain in-depth understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses. The knowledge garnered from such experiences enhances their ability to deal with people – a vital survival tool. Lastly, they agree that learners are diverse. This sentiment is quite true as the classroom setting includes students from diverse economic, social, political, academic, and geographic backgrounds. These differences necessitate a collaborative approach since each student is highly likely to possess a unique perspective with regards to a classroom concept. As a practitioner who believes in the social nature of learning, I included it in my third Math lesson (Appendix C): I engaged the students in story telling activities. Some of the stories we told included Monkey and Cat, Hundreds-Grandfather, Tons-Father, and One-Grandchild. Note that these fables are often used in the classroom to enhance basic arithmetic and communication skills. I also benefited from the group work since it was the first time I was applying the inter-disciplinary teaching (combining Math and Literature in a single lesson).
The Benefits of Group Work
Enhancement of the Learning Process. As mentioned earlier, the collaborative learning environment allows all students to participate in the process. Individuals often participate through expressing their knowledge and ideas alongside those of other members. Note that each member can openly question other viewpoints for the sake of clarity. It is a unique experience that allows students to not only apply their prior knowledge but also develop interest in the process (Prince 2004). From this lens, it is obvious that group works make learning interesting and effective. The generation of multiple perspectives also allows a learner to develop in-depth knowledge of a classroom concept. Most importantly, the process equips learners with vital critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Such benefits are often essential for survival in the modern world. Personally, I have embedded group work at the core of my teaching strategy. Such an inclination influenced my decision to group my students during Day 1 and Day 3 of my Political Science lesson plans: the first day involved group discussions while the latter was a debate. I noticed high enthusiasm in the second group activity; thus, I am in agreement with the notion that group work makes learning interesting.
Development of Vital Individual Abilities. At this point, it serves to reflect on the prior depiction of the learning environment as a social institution. This kind of perspective is quite justified given the fact that the process involves human interactions. Such an environment is quite necessary for the development of both basic and unique skills such as effective communication, self-expression, decision-making, problem-solving, conflict resolution, time management, specialization, and leadership among others. In my view, the skills gained from collaborative learning surpass the knowledge obtained by far. Broadbent and Poon (2015) support such a bold supposition by opining that organizational skills supersede academic performance in the career world. Unfortunately, my novice status in the field of education has limited my experience of this developmental process. None of the three Political Science lessons I conducted had intense interpersonal interactions. This sentiment is based on two observations I made during Day 1. First, I encountered groups where only one or two students were partaking in the assignment. Second, I restricted my movement in the classroom. Perhaps, failure to move around was the reason some students were inactive. Such an experience has enhanced my understanding of the need for an encouraging atmosphere for group participation. For this reason, I strongly believe that encouragement could positively influence on the outcomes of my second Math Lesson (Appendix B). Note that the lesson includes a collaborative session where the students play the Abacus game: poor cooperation in such an assignment can impede the development of critical thinking skills.
Planning is a crucial phase in any practical environment. I agree with the golden adage ‘proper prior planning prevents poor performance’. This saying is useful for teachers intending to facilitate collaborative learning in their strategies. It allows one to resolve potential learning challenges proactively. It also gives the instructor an opportunity to capitalize on the positive aspects of collaborative learning. As a rule, this stage focuses mainly on defining both the students’ and the teachers’ roles in the environment. The challenge here is to set expectations for both while upholding their flexibility as both learners and teachers. This section details how planning should be done prior to the implementation of collaborative learning.
Ground Rules for Group Work
As the title suggests, ground rules define how students must behave in the learning environment. Normally, these norms are usually defined by the instructors for the learners to follow. However, such a practice utterly disregards the democratic nature of collaborative learning. A practitioner should allow his or her students to define their rules (Liao, Huang, Cheng, & Huang 2015). The instructor should only guide them on the type of areas to cover. Such an argument was presented by Sung, Chang, and Liu (2016) upon finding that students were more likely to adhere to their own rules than those set by the institutional authority. Note that the trend is highly attributed to their psychological development process. In the wake of such a realization, one cannot help but affirm the idea that students should develop their own ground rules. A democratic teacher might as well create contracts based on ground rules then allow students to choose and agree to the most suitable one. This way, the instructor is assured that order will be maintained during group activities.
As far as the meaning of order is concerned, emphasis is placed on democratic, mature, and intellectual discourse. This implies that the rules should explore various areas including member attentiveness, participation opportunities, discussion scope/quality, supporting material/evidence, responsibilities, time management, conflict resolution, and confidentiality among others (Capar & Tarim 2015). The goal of such a technique is to ensure full classroom participation in high-quality intellectual discussions. When reflecting on this fact, I cannot help but acknowledge my failure with respect to the three-day practical experience I had in my third module. As mentioned, there was little student participation during the group activities (especially in Day 1). I believe that such was the case as the students had limited knowledge of what was expected from them during the group activities. Below are some of the basic ground rules in most group activities in the education setup:
- Pay attention
- No interruptions. Wait for your turn.
- Only critique ideas, not group members
- Support your ideas/opinions with relevant evidence
- Do not generalize opinions
- Maintain confidentiality
- Everyone must participate
Apparently, an application of the ground rules in collaborative learning resolves embedded group challenges that often result in unproductivity.
A Teacher’s Role in Classroom Dialogue
By now, it is obvious that a collaborative learning approach facilitates the formation of a learning community where members are engaged in intellectual discourse. Such a view is quite vital since the roles of both the students and teachers are determined by the value they are adding to the group at any moment. For instance, a student becomes the teacher – and vice-versa – when he or she is expressing his/her position regarding a discussion topic (Othman & Musa 2014). Note that each member has an equal opportunity to teach or get taught by the rest of the group. In this sense, the only consistent role assumed by the teacher is that of a facilitator. As a facilitator, the teacher holds a broad range of responsibilities. Such is often the case as he/she sets the direction of the group activities and the learning process at large. Here are some of the basic responsibilities of the teacher in collaborative classroom discussions:
Establish Expectations for both Individuals and Groups. This role is quite challenging especially since an instructor can unconsciously jeopardize the learning process by setting expectations that are either too high or too low. For this reason, DeLoizer and Rhodes (2017) propose a set of guidelines for teachers. First, the instructor should always lead by example. Note that leading does not involve offering solutions during group activities. Tempelaar, Rienties, and Giesbers (2015) believe that students’ creativity is usually minimal when the teacher has given an answer to a problem. They fail to explore alternative solutions since they affirm the teachers’ knowledge and authority. Such a scenario should be avoided in the collaborative learning environment as it seeks critical thinking, creativity, and decision-making. Second, the teacher should ensure that all students are within his/her view when conducting their group activities. This move acts as a reminder of the need to adhere to the ground rules. Most importantly, the teacher must set a clear and thorough set of instructions with respect to the concepts discussed by the students (Tempelaar, Rientes, & Giesbers 2015). This concept is deeply embedded in my teaching strategy. At this point, the reader is urged to consider my Environmental Science Lesson Plan ‘Sweet Home’ (Appendix D). Note that I have clearly defined the assignment’s aim as well as how the student performance will be assessed. However, I have noted that my assessment approach – in the same – is lacking. Such criticism inspired by the broad influence collaborative learning has on students. Perhaps, I should assess other factors including cooperativeness, individual contribution, and communication skills.
Develop and Utilize a Grouping Plan. As a facilitator, the teacher is expected to create an environment where all members benefit from individual strengths and differences. Intense focus should be placed on personal attributes, performance, gender, and age. In short, each member ought to offer a strategic value in each group (Lewallen, et al. 2015). For instance, students from minority ethnic backgrounds should be represented in at least each group. Such an approach promotes the learning process as each learner gains from multiple perspectives. Likewise, those with leadership skills can be shared among groups to boost individual participation. The plan can also be devised in such a way that the members are regularly reshuffled to promote knowledge and skill transfer across the entire classroom.
Positive Features of the Collaborative Learning Approach
The Snowball Concept
The ‘snowball’ concept is deeply ingrained in the collaborative learning approach. This framework assumed that knowledge expands in the same way a snowball expands as it roles – through attracting particles. In its view, knowledge becomes rich and full as it gathers new perspectives. The snowball method encourages knowledge synthesis and critical analysis in the learning process (Hung, Young, & Lin 2015). It also explains why teachers tend to assume the learner’s role during collaborative learning. As a rule, this method requires the students to learn in small groups: a maximum of 6 members (Tempelaar, Rientes, & Giesbers 2015). The groups are then assigned different themes so that each member can incorporate his or her knowledge until all alternatives have been explored. Note that this process should simulate the formation of a snowball: once a member integrates an opinion/idea, he/she passes the paper containing the assigned theme to the member sitting adjacent to him/her. When reflecting on this method, I cannot help but notice the flaw in my prior teaching approach. I utilized the KWL (Know, Want, and Learn) sheet to assess the students’ knowledge before and after the lesson. Note that I received a negative response from this activity since some could not complete it. Perhaps, the snowball method would allow the learners to express themselves effectively since it focuses on what one knows at the moment (whether in the beginning or the end of the lesson). This is not to imply that the KWL assessment technique is dysfunctional. Such an argument would disregard the fact the ‘want’ column facilitates self-assessment, thus improving the students’ perspectives.
Clearly, collaborative learning is a process in which learners are grouped to enhance their experience, skills, and knowledge through information synthesis. This model transforms the role of the teacher as well as that of the student. My previous experiences as a teacher have quite demonstrated the need for a robust collaborative system. My inability to foster participation in the social science class (Day 1) has presented a challenge. It demonstrated the need to explore and apply collaborative learning techniques and theories in my future teaching practice. I presume that such an approach might enhance my ability to meet the needs of the students. Either way, I cannot disregard the fact that some aspects of this approach are embedded in my practice as a teacher. My performance in the Grade II Mathematics class is quite illustrious (Appendix A). I encouraged student participation through various activities including oral recollection of learned concepts and group games (Round Robin, LUDO, and Snake & Ladder). Such games play a pivotal role in the development of a learner’s critical thinking skills. For this reason, I intend to apply the knowledge garnered from this assignment to improve my approach to collaborative learning in future lessons.
The learning environment is continuously becoming diverse as the society pursues globalization. This trend has a colossal impact on the education process since teachers are now forced to apply effective strategies to adapt to the highly dynamic and transformative classroom environment. Fortunately, the collaborative learning approach offers a unique solution to this challenge. This student-centered framework requires teachers to augment the role of students so they can equally participate in their personal and interpersonal development. As mentioned earlier, both the teachers and the students share their experiences as learners and instructors. Such an approach improves the students’ performance in various areas including personal skills, knowledge acquisition, and interpersonal skills. This kind of progress is attributed to the fact that learners gain from the interpersonal differences with respect to worldviews, intellect, and skills. Personally, I am a huge supporter of collaborative learning. However, when conducting this investigation, I realized that my earlier approach to instruction was somehow flawed inasmuch as it applied some aspects of collaboration. As noted, a significant number of my students were dormant during the entire instruction period (3 days). Their reaction proved that my collaborative learning strategy needed some polishing. I can improve my approach by strategically grouping my students, allowing them to set ground rules, and applying more creative forms of instruction. Most importantly, I will improve the way I interact with the students. The idea that I can also be a learner is quite impressive; hence, my future lessons will involve more listening and facilitating than teaching.
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