Nearly 5 years ago I embarked upon a Masters degree in Guiding Effective Learning at the then Institute of Education culminating in a research paper entitled Learning Together, Learning Forever (Gratton, 2011). Within this paper I explored the myriad effects of an engagement with a pedagogy designed to facilitate Collaborative Group Learning (CGL) within a History classroom in a North London Secondary School. Central to the narrative were the experiences and perceptions of the thirty Year 8 boys (aged 12-13 years) who experienced CGL over a period of twenty-four weeks. It was the weight of their collective voice that enabled this research to transcend time-bound contexts, becoming something that now, to my great pride, influences the pedagogy of a number of international educators. What follows is a small sample of some of the recorded benefits of engineering and facilitating collaborative group learning.
Collaborative Group Learning: its observed and perceived effects
The study revealed a range of social, cognitive, emotional and academic benefits of actively engaging in CGL. What became clear during the study was a reorientation of learner perceptions of their learning skills and attributes, and of the benefits of learning with others. At the start of the study students perceived the benefits of learning with others to be appropriating knowledge. They described:
‘a wider range of answers…’
‘[we] learn what they know…’
‘[we] better understand knowledge.’
By the end of the study the perceived benefits were much more focused upon learning itself. They described how they:
‘share views and ideas…’
‘[engaged in] learning how to do it and learning to cooperate with others.’
‘[were] helping each other understand things.’
CGL was well received by learners with two thirds stating they would like to continue learning using solely a CGL pedagogy and one third through a mixed CGL-teacher led pedagogy. Twenty-six students found CGL a positive experience, three found it positive with some negative elements and just one student found the experience negative.
Twenty-eight out of thirty students felt they had benefitted from learning collaboratively developing speaking and listening skills:
‘I learnt to share my opinions…and to listen’
‘[it] made me think and share ideas’
‘[in] listening skills, talking skills…I am more confident.’
‘I became more independent and less afraid to discuss’
They had also developed an ability to learn with others:
‘trying to help others around.’
‘I have developed new skills like helping others.’
‘I learnt how [to] understand others and how to help them if they have problems.’
They perceived they gained enhanced academic skills and abilities:
“[it] hugely” ‘improved my essay writing’
‘I have learnt many skills that will help me in not just history but other subjects such as English.’
And above, they perceived that they learnt all skills and attributes which can be associated with a self-directed learning capacity:
‘I became more independent and less afraid to discuss’
‘I have benefitted from independent learning and know how to get high grades and present myself’
‘[I] get better marks and [it] helped me gain new skills for the future…[to be] confident and independent’
‘if I didn’t know the answer I would just give up and not hand in work but now I don’t give up and try my best.’
‘[I] learned to be more independent for myself and not needing a teacher or a group to help me…’
Developing attributes of effective self-directed and autonomous learning
One pupil told me:
‘Definitely I have changed… if someone asks me a question and I don’t know I would go home and find sources. The next day I could tell my friend.’
Through CGL students developed self-regulation, self-management and a capacity for autonomous strategic learning. When asked ‘Do you think you have become more independent and able to direct your own learning?’ twenty-eight students identified that they perceived they had increased in their learning autonomy, in some of the following ways:
‘I began brainstorming ideas for myself’
‘We had to gather our own information; this made me have to be intuitive and resourceful.’
‘I don’t have to rely on the teacher all the time’
‘[I] research something now using a computer’
‘[I] stay on track and help others who are out of track and ask the teacher to help if help is really needed.’
CGL seems to have helped generate, through the pedagogy applied and through the role adopted by the teacher as a facilitator of learning, a shift away from dependence upon the teacher towards interdependence within the group, in turn generating learner independence. Throughout the study I deliberately restrained myself from getting involved in the CGL process beyond planning the activities, making suggestions as to how groups could be learning more effectively, facilitating feedback events or stepping in to push forward the historical thinking. For example, I might say:
“Do you mean corruption? Is there a better word?”
“Can I suggest the use of a Conch.”
Due to the group construct, multiple zones of proximal development converged enabling learners to benefit from intellectual scaffolding, appropriating skills and attributes that helped them not only to learn from each other but also develop autonomy from the teacher. For example, they commented:
‘I do stuff without the teacher telling me’
‘I do my homework and work independently now as before I used to ask classmates for help but now I figure it out myself whether using the internet or my brain’
‘[I am now] choosing how to approach a subject without advice from the teacher’
Requests for guidance or clarification from the teacher fluctuated throughout the study but diminished. When a task was repeated students sought no teacher assistance, supporting Biemiller et al.’s (1998) view on the development of self-regulation. Learner autonomy also took the form of group and individual self-direction within their learning. Individuals were observed planning their own learning with no teacher input, for example:
Group 2, lesson 5, Discussed and negotiated roles, restructuring the Collaborative Project Work (CPW) task to enable more ICT specialists.
Group 5, lesson 8, chose as a group to identify the political, social and economic changes within a selection of British colonies, record these on a grid in order to evaluate the impact of the British Empire.
Group 3, lesson 16, requested their assessment books to look at past essays as part of a Collaborative Essay Preparation (CEP) task.
A number of groups agreed to use social media as a means of communication in order for group members to share their research and complete their chosen roles. For example, I heard: “Shall I email it to you so you can use it?”.
Group 4 came to the classroom during lunch to plan the project.
By Lesson 16 twenty-seven students stated that they were now in regular contact with students from their own and other groups in order to aid their learning. Learners also identified that they felt they had gained skills and attributes in areas which can be associated with an increased capacity for self-directed learning, such as:
- using what has been learnt in one subject to help in another;
- trying to get along and work with other people who are not just friends;
- taking risks even when it might result in failure;
- being able to find and use resources to help with learning;
- taking responsibility for their learning;
- listening to and being interested in what others think.
The evidence suggests that the skill strands of effective verbal communication and enhanced attributes associated with effective social learning helped to not only facilitate CGL: due to a continued active application of these skills, they generated a capacity for ongoing self-directed learning. Areglado et al. (1996) consider the development of this capacity as an extremely important facet of a lifelong-lifewide learning capacity, and I tend to agree.
Developing effective verbal communication skills and social-cohesion
‘I have stepped back sometimes to let others speak that don’t speak that much.’
Contributing significantly to the emergence of the above was the development of lower and higher order verbal communication skills. An active engagement with CGL offered opportunities for discourse as discussion, debate and consensus building. Learners were increasingly observed applying skills such as verbal task regulation (Biemiller et al., 1998) and active listening highlighted by eye contact and note taking.
At the start of this study five students (one in Group 1 and Group 4 and three in Group 5), all identified as either EAL or SEN, were observed not to contribute verbally to group discussions. This lack of active engagement in the socio-linguistic processes underpinning collaboration initially prevented these students from being able to fully participate in and benefit from CGL. Yet by lesson 15 four of these students began to contribute to group discussions and consensus building. Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) tasks in particular provided weaker students with opportunities to experience how to communicate within a group while CEP encouraged those unwilling to communicate to do so. These particular students told me:
‘I became more independent and less afraid to discuss’
‘[It] made me talk more and share ideas.’
CGL provided learners with multiple opportunities for talk in and as learning to be taught to students by students, helping build a socio-linguistic foundation for further CGL. Learners were visibly becoming furnished with knowledge of how to undertake constructive and reciprocated dialogue with the more competent tutoring the less skilled.
Mid level communication skills such as turn taking and verbal task regulation were also developed, with Group 3 and Group 1 making significant progress in these areas. The majority of Group 1 were confident communicators, willing and able to communicate. However they were unable to successfully work together as a consensus group due to the poor marshalling of verbal interactions. This was highlighted in lesson 5, where group members argued, spoke across and cut off one another’s contributions resulting in the group failing to reach a consensus. What seemed to be the reason for this miscommunication was the desire of three members to assert their intellectual dominance and opinion over the rest of the group. What this highlights is an overlap between verbal interaction, the social cohesiveness of the group and effective collaborative learning processes. Observing the interactions of other groups led to G1 realising that for effective task completion they needed greater verbal coordination. As one group member commented, ‘It wasted time because we argued a lot’.
As such they decided to elect a leader, a social and verbal marshal. An initial improvement was short-lived as the group returned to a leaderless format in subsequent lessons. The group was acutely aware that their inconsistent verbal processes were holding back their ability to work together collaboratively. One member commented: “We need to rethink how we are working in order to get more information.” So in lesson 26 the group suggested that they only have one voice at a time and to once again nominate a leader to coordinate this. To aid this I proposed the use of a ‘conch’ to facilitate turn taking. This proved successful with the group moving away from argument to regulated discussion and debate, taking it in turns to share their research and then constructively asking clarifying questions. In ensuing lessons the group, having dropped the ‘conch’, they continued to engage in effective group discussion leading to a more fruitful social cohesiveness, enabled by and further enabling effective CGL. What the increased effectiveness of verbal communication seemed to build within this and all groups was enhanced social-cohesion, a safe environment of trust and respect in which to learn. This was observable in lesson 32 through the nature of discourse now being applied. I overheard them say, for example:
‘We need to rethink how we are working in order to get more information.’,
‘I need to fill in these boxes…what did you write in that box’,
‘Anybody miss anything?’.
In cases where the groups began from a position of strength in both their verbal communication skills and social-cohesiveness, as in the case of G4 and G5, higher order communication skills could be developed. Both groups developed an effective application of discourse sequences such as initiation, response, feedback (discussed by Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975) and spotlighting, performance and evaluation (discussed by Rampton and Harris, 2009, p.13) as a means of regulating group discourse. This could be seen throughout lessons where members of G4 undertook logical marshalling (Jaques and Salmon, 2007, p.19), presenting their knowledge and views, while others visibly listened and then questioned the opinion leading to debate and ultimately consensus building.
Learners, particularly those in G1, 4 and 5, shared their sense that they had developed a sophisticated array of communication skills due to an active engagement with CGL. They commented on the following aspects:
‘Listen[ing] to what others think’
‘Breaking up step by step to solve the problem and communicate it with my group.’
‘Listening, debating… talking skills’
‘Communication skill, structuring my talk…listening skills’.
What the above suggests is that actively engaging in CGL helps develop verbal interaction skills, simultaneously enabling more capable communicators to develop sophisticated modes of dialogue and those with weaker communication skills to develop confidence, leading to active involvement. A vital skill for lifelong-lifewide learning is verbal communication and both observations and student voices suggested that through exposure to structured discourse such as discussion, debate and particularly consensus building, facilitated through an engagement with CGL, such skills can be developed.
Developing effective interdependence
‘I could learn and give at the same time’
For CGL to be fully effective learners need to ‘learn the craft of interdependence’ (Bruffee, 1993, p.1). As a skill, interdependence requires a number of attributes to be developed, including effective verbal communication skills, for its successful application. The evidence suggests that an active engagement with CGL can facilitate individuals developing the cognitive and social tools needed for and the ability to apply interdependent learning, leading to a sustained capacity for CGL. Feedback from students suggests that they began to work with each other interdependently rather than dependently, in particular sharing knowledge derived from independent research. For example, two students commented:
‘I only knew two reasons for the essay. When we all started talking and writing down other people’s research I found two more and I was really relieved because it was hard at home but when other people helped it was much easier.’
‘Everyone had different research so everyone learnt something new or gained more information about each point.’
On helping each other structure essays they said:
‘[I] learnt and heard other student ideas’
‘I could use the better “essay writers” in my group and ask how to structure my essay’.
The emerging evidence suggested that CGL scaffolded the very attributes and skills needed to make effective CGL work. As the study progressed, so did the development of communication, interaction and social skills such as intersubjectivity (Ding and Flynn, 2000), all of which helped generate interdependence. With this came an increase in observable interdependence, a facet of which was an increase in reciprocal teaching between students and student-student tutoring. The heterogeneous construct of the groups enabled the more competent to tutor the novice, while the nature of the CGL activities allowed learners to move freely between the role of novice and more able. Examples of this interdependence could be seen in lesson 8 with G1 dividing up the resources, studying them with a chosen focus and then sharing what each member found, helping the group gain a wider picture. In lesson 15, members of G4 shared their research with the group, the reasons they believed caused the end of the British Empire and their understanding of the subject matter. I overheard the following comments:
‘I don’t get that’
‘I’ll explain that in a sec’.
By lesson 32 all groups could be seen engaging in interdependence, circulating sources, extracting and sharing information, and building a solution to the problem together. The effectiveness of this interdependence correlated with the level of communication being used by individuals and patterns of verbal interaction applied by the group: thus the most effective and swiftest application of interdependence was seen in G4 and G5 which had high levels of group cohesion born from positive verbal interactions. This seems to support Bruffee’s (1993) assertion that effective interdependence is ‘social maturity integrated with intellectual maturity’ (p.2).
Increased social-cohesion was displayed through observational evidence and more powerfully through learners’ perceptions of the skills they felt they developed through CGL. In interview, they said for example:
‘I learned that people that don’t talk a lot have the best ideas or really good ideas to help you.’
‘[It’s helpful to] take a role and use it effectively to help the group’
‘Spreading the task to everyone …will make everything much easier.’
‘[I improved in] working together with people that I thought I couldn’t work with’
‘[Now I] take into account and admit that I could be wrong sometimes.’
‘I learnt that I should be more open to helping those around me.’
‘[It was] sharing skills which led to my essay being better.’
‘[It was better] not jumping to conclusions’
‘[We were] taking and sharing responsibility’
‘[We learnt to] give structured and constructive criticism’
‘[We learnt to] logically lead the group towards a positive outcome.’
If you are interested in finding out more about this research study feel free to contact me;