Home & Away: Constructing a Collaborative Learning Group

This article aims to outline how teachers and schools may approach issues which may emerge when the fundamental aspect of Collaborative Group Learning, the Learning Set, is sustained in full across academic year groups and across subject areas. It also seeks to identify factors for consideration when the reconstruction of Learning Sets is required either due to membership change or due to the requirements of Curriculum or academic grade/level (see an earlier discussion of similar issues in this linked article).

Learning Sets (Home)

When applied to an educational context such as a UK secondary school, a student would be placed into an ‘appropriate’ group of 6 based on the following criteria to ensure Principal 3 of heterogeneity is achieved:

  • academic profile
  • any additional learning needs
  • gender
  • reading age
  • socio-economic background
  • socio-cultural background.

A rule that can also be applied, which has been of benefit in my own context, is to consider the prior educational establishment the students attended. Placing students together of different educational backgrounds has added an extra dimension to the heterogeneity principle. It proves to be an easy and effective way of putting together 6 students whom have differing experiences of being taught and learning.

This ‘Home’ Learning Set functions as an academic home group and ideally as a pastoral tutor group, with students remaining a member of this Learning Set throughout their time within that educational establishment. Changes to Learning Set membership should only occur under special circumstances and after all other options have been exhausted.

My ongoing evidence collection highlights that sustained membership within the Learning Set across subjects, especially within the first year and phase (Group-Cooperative Learning Process) is crucial to the effectiveness of the Learning Set as a facilitating structure for learning. It is my  belief that moving students out of their Learning Set within a single subject, when seeking to attain full Collaborative Group Learning across the Curriculum, has a number of unseen and seen negative consequences for the sustainability and effectiveness of that Learning Set; insecure relations, limited social-cohesion, limited indebtedness and a diminished capacity for interdependence.

In Year Starters

When a new student joins an educational establishment as an in year starter their positioning into an existing Learning Set must be carefully considered. Just because a Learning Set has a place, perhaps due to a student moving courses or leaving that establishment, does not mean that they should be automatically joined by the new starter. The criteria outlined above should be considered and an appropriate placement (even if this means moving an existing student between Learning Sets elsewhere) is made. Once placement has been made new starters should be invited in for at least a single transition day. During this day they should spend time with their Learning Set in order to develop the crucial social relationships needed for effective cohesion. Further work should be facilitated by the tutor associated with that Learning Set over the following weeks to help all adapt to the newest member of their group, socially and academically.

Trajectory and Option Class Groups

As students move through academic grades/levels they are likely to experience learning away from their home Learning Set in ever increasing situations. Within Year 8  students may experience alternative groupings within English and Maths and at Year 9 within English, Maths, Science and Languages. As students move into optional courses they will experience more time in new Learning Sets than in their ‘Home’ Learning Set. Once placed into one of these class groups students with a range of differing skills, abilities, backgrounds, attributes and attitudes come together. As such thinking carefully about the reconstruction of a Learning Set as an Away Learning Set within these new classes is vital and must happen if a Collaborative Group Learning Process is sought. The risk is that once learners enter into these personalised, streamed or optional classes that the principles of the Learning Set are forgotten and with it truely Collaborative Learning opportunities all but eliminated.

An optimal approach to Home and Away Learning Sets within subjects at Year 8 and 9 is to design a curriculum that enables the ebb and flow between Away and Home as a learning experience. This offers the ‘best of both worlds’, challenge of the new and security of the familiar, while sharing with a wider network knowledge, understanding and skills.

Constructing the Away Learning Set

The principles that underpin the formation of Learning Sets must be applied to the construction of the Away Learning Sets. It would fall to the class teacher to construct the away Learning Set with guidance from the curriculum or department lead, applying the principles outlined below and most importantly the criteria for heterogeneity highlighted within Principle 3.

Principle 1: a Learning Set of 5-6

This is a fundamental principle of the Learning Set preceding all others. The number of students within the set applies to all students no mater their ability, need, behaviour or trajectory. The number must not exceed 6 or fall below 5 for reasons discussed in previous articles.

Principle 2: a sustained Learning Set

Once constructed the away Learning Set must remain physically together for extended periods of time. Some activities may enable students to move away from the group and work alone but this should not be the favoured form of activity. The risk is that as soon as the individual is allowed to move away from the group they are no longer learning as, with or because of that group thus diminishing the Collaborative Group Learning Process.

Principle 3: a heterogeneous Learning Set (Academic, Social, Gender)

A novice should learn with and from an expert, with each benefitting from this interaction. Inequality in Knowledge, Understanding, Skills and not power should be identified using all data held on each student. This should then be used to help allocate a student to a particular away Learning Set. Knowledge of each student is crucial in making each away Learning Set academically heterogenous. It is also important that when constructing away Learning Sets the heterogeneity is also applied to socio-cultural background, socio-economic background and gender. These three elements encourage greater opportunities for problem solving, consensus building and ‘invisible learning’ such as the development of soft skills and learner attributes.

A note about gender. Seek to balance the group in equal numbers, but if this is not possible then ensure that a group is no less than 2:4 gender biased in ratio to avoid isolation or potentially negative social relations.

Principle 4: behaviour must not determine set

Adhere to the principles above and consider behaviour, if necessary, when shaping a Learning Set, but behaviour should not result in a student being removed from a Learning Set even temporarily. Tackle negative behaviours through other means, especially through the learning Set itself using the members and ‘collective responsibility’ to help the group work together to improve the behaviour of the individual.

I would suggest that when using Away Learning Sets it would be prudent to apply thrice yearly Away Learning Set Reviews allowing for ‘recalibration’. This would be a systematic means of ensuring the effectiveness of the Set as a construct while avoiding the potential disruption or uncoordinated changes.

In summary perpetuating the accurate and effective application of the three principles central to Learning Set construction across subjects and grades/levels is key to the sustainability of the construct itself and the overall effectiveness of Collaborative Group Learning.

Sustainability enables enculturation.

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