22 February 2013

Group Learning Environments

The models that we'll be looking at today are 1) Guided Design, 2) Cooperative Learning, 3) Problem-based Learning and 4) Situated Learning or Cognitive Apprenticeships.

Similarities and differences:

One of the main similarities I noticed is that most of the models fall back on or directly rely upon a problem-solving based curriculum. Guided design and cognitive apprenticeships seem to particularly focus on teaching particular methodologies, which can then be used in realistic situations. Problem-based learning also includes teaching the method of solving a problem, but is or, at least, can be more focused on the actual problem than the methodology. Cooperative learning seems to be a very broad group of learning plans that involve teamwork and usually, but not necessarily, problem-solving, often through group discussion and teaching. All of these methods tend toward a constructivist model of learning, meaning that students are supposed to construct their own understandings of the content rather than being told how content fits together. This seems to be naturally true of the problem-solving and analytical focus of all of these models.

Initial reactions:

The Hope - The great advantage to these models centers around the development of two skill sets: decision making and interpersonal communication. These are two skills sets that students will most definitely need in their future jobs and lives in general. Decision making is one of the toughest things to teach students, but by putting them in self-directed learning situations, they must decide how to react, approach material, communicate with others, which sources are appropriate (etc ad infinitum). This may be difficult for students at first, but with appropriate coaching and scaffolding, students should be able to get the hang of it relatively quickly. The second skill set they will be developing will not come as easily. Interpersonal communications that allow for real group learning to happen require a certain level of maturity and mutual respect among group members. This can be harder to achieve. Modeling and reinforcing appropriate interpersonal skills is necessary, as well as the mediation process. Though these skills may be harder to teach, they will be infinitely helpful to students in life. With mastery of these skills, students will be more confident and take more ownership of their actions.

Another advantage is the motivation and interest level of the activities that most of these models call for. It is much more interesting to try to figure out what a culture is like by digging through artifacts and figuring out what they mean or design your own trebuchet than to memorize facts without context. These activities tend to be highly engaging, therefore keeping students on task and in the material.

The Concern - One of the problems I think could be the development of critical thinking skills. Group members provide a certain kind of scaffolding for each other. If there are students in a group who are better at decision making or critical thinking they can provide a model and help for their fellow group members. On the other hand, it may also be true that the students who are better at the processes may dominate, rather than coach or help other students. Weaker students may learn the problem-solving process well, but not necessarily become better critical thinkers. I think that these group projects would need to be supplemented with appropriate individual activities that would illustrate acquisition of critical thinking skills.

The most obvious potential problem is the group dynamic. We come from a culture believing in the power of the rugged individual and many school situations have become highly competitive.That mindset is part of what creates the interpersonal problems and breakdown of group dynamic. Part of the commitment to group work is the commitment to teaching students about how group dynamics work and the interpersonal skills they need to make a successful cooperative learning environment. I think gaining this commitment from the students is much harder than the group work, in and of itself. 

Group work really requires less focus on the self and more focus on a community. Methods like the Jigsaw method try to use a self interested position (you will be graded and have to be the expert) to get students to work well in groups (teaching other students and acting as a group expert). I am not sure if I am convinced that this kind of ultimatum will work, particularly not at the primary or secondary level. The assumption made by all of these models is that the students will be motivated to work toward group success. A practical downside of this is that if you give your students a "group sink or swim" ultimatum, the motivated students might do all of the work, while the under motivated students will ride their coattails or bring the group grade down. The downside of giving individual participation grades within the group is that each student might still be motivated only to do the work for themselves (and their individual high grade), rather than working together to achieve an interactive learning situation. I think it is a complicated balancing act, one that could create hostility in students if not kept in check.

One last issue I have with the majority of the readings, particularly for cognitive apprenticeships and problem-based learning, is that most of them are based on data at the higher education level and more specifically applied engineering and medical schools. These are excellent settings and material types for PBL and cognitive apprenticeships, because students are learning trades in which you gather information, analyze it and then act upon it. Medical school is a trade school, so it is easier to put students into problem-solving or even simulation type situations. This is not as easy in primary and secondary education - not impossible, but not easy. The concerns about transferring problem solving skills to real life are less problematic when the problem students are solving are a simulation for the job they hope to have. When you are trying to get students to pretend to be mathematicians or archaeologists or economists, none of which may be in their future, it is harder to accept that they will be able to extrapolate the skills and be able to apply them generically across curriculum.

For my classroom?

 I would certainly like to try to implement some of these models in the classroom I think group work tends to work best when students are given clearly assigned and clearly defined roles within the group. This way it is clear who is responsible for what and accountability is a cut and dry issue. I also think it makes it easier for students to understand what they need to do to make their group work successful (i.e. complete their role). 

One of the ways that I think helping a class (as a whole) to perform better collaboratively is to make it a part of the classroom culture as a whole. If students are assigned one project as group work, it is different from the normal interaction routines that they experience in the classroom. If the whole nature of the class is to work together in groups (for common disciplinary goals/rewards, for group participation, etc), then a transition into a group project will not be as alien.  Johnson et al. give a great overview of how to create a positive interdependence between group members, promoting this kind of learning community outlook. I think they make clear that only by teaching the appropriate social skills and values will cooperative learning really work.

Possible Web Resources:

Google Drive - Students can share and work collaboratively on documents. 

Google Hangout - Students can have meetings outside of class from their homes or anywhere with an internet connection. The screen sharing capabilities are particularly nice for certain kinds of projects.

Simple Machines or Forumotion - Two free forum hosting sites, which could help students have thoughtful discussions about their group work - more time to think or prepare a researched response, which may lead to new hypotheses or solutions to problems.

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