Evaluating Collaborative Approach to Learning

Introduction

Learning is a complex and versatile process of gaining knowledge. Being a fundamental element of education, the concept and process of learning inspired development of divergent perspectives on how to secure its lasting progress and achieve utmost efficiency and results. When developing an objective and rational analysis of major issues and challenges, encountered by education in a period of perpetual social transformation, it is essential to determine and assess principal approaches to the process of learning. The key objective of this research paper is to define general criteria for the concept and process of learning, recognize prevailing learning techniques and methods, consider their main advantages and disadvantages and finally, invent an optimal solution suggesting the most compatible approach.  The main idea of the paper is that in order to plan for and facilitate the most effectual learning programs, students need to be offered a range of options, incorporating a variety of divergent integrated strategies. The paper summarizes information about general theories of learning, investigates key factors that affect the learning process and distinguishes between such contrasting techniques as traditional rote learning, based on the principles of individualistic learning, as opposed to collaborative, or cooperative, method of learning.

Investigating divergent approaches and methods of learning

Defined as an acquisition of new knowledge, skills and capabilities, the process of learning commonly occurs within the context of the improvement of a student’s performance. When approaching the learning process from this perspective, it proves significant to begin with recognizing and assessing the students’ individual circumstances, such as needs, expectations, possible apprehensions and other decisive conditions. Hence, in order to maximize and accelerate the process of learning, it is crucial to define its purpose and main objectives, which will consequently form the basis for further curriculum development and implementation. Such understanding of the learning process helps teachers predict and reduce major difficulties that may be encountered in classrooms. It also contributes to the teachers’ capability of motivating students to learn.  According to Doctor Lee Shulman (1986), such teachers’ interpretation of the concept of learning process is referred to as pedagogical content knowledge. Thus, one of the central features of pedagogical content knowledge is teacher’s ability to comprehend how students perceive different approaches to learning, decide which learning methods and techniques are the most suitable and subsequently, taking into consideration the students’ versatile learning styles, develop an appropriate teaching model.

A learning style is a certain set of emotional, cognitive, psychological and characteristic components that generally serve as substantial indicators of how students perceive, respond to and interact with the learning environment (Keefe 1979). The idea of importance of recognizing various learning styles and considering them in the process of designing a learning model has been widely disputed. However, most contemporary scholars "agree that learning styles exist and acknowledge the significant effect that learning styles have on the learning process" (Vincent & Ross 2001). They also tend to come to a common conclusion that close matching of learning activities with the learning styles preferred by students is crucial to effective learning (Gordon 2004).

The oldest cognitive learning styles models are Field Dependent / Field Independent Model suggested by Herman A. Witkin (1974) and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment (Soles & Moller 2001). According to the model suggested by Witkin, the learners are divided into the categories of Field Dependent and Field Independent learners. The first category is represented by those learners who are people-oriented, prefer collaborative work and are externally motivated. The second category of learners is characterized by prevailing intrinsic motivation, high degree of competitiveness and an impersonal attitude towards learning. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is an instrument that employs four dimensions, classifying the learners from the perspective of two extreme opposites within the dimension. The particular types of these extreme opposites may be illustrated by the following examples: extraverts (who prefer to work things out) vs. introverts (who preferably think things out); sensors (who tend to focus on details) vs. intuitors (focusing on concepts); thinkers (people who make conclusions primarily based on logic) vs. feelers (those relying on feelings); and judgers (who pragmatically choose to finish what they start) vs. perceivers (who always search for more).

The method of classifying learning styles models that is generally approved by todays educators is an ‘Onion’ Model of Individual Difference, introduced by Curry in 1983 (Sternberg et al. 2011, p.11). This model subdivides learning styles into four major layers of categories: Personality Models (focusing on the impact produced by personality on one’s ability to obtain and integrate information), Information Processing Models (that focus on the processes of acquiring, sorting, storing and utilizing information), Social Interaction Models (concerned with the interaction between peer learners in the learning process) and Instructional Preference Models (focusing on the most obvious learners’ traits, such as emotional, environmental, or sociological preferences). Each of the layers suggested by Curry Model focuses on various aspects of the learner’s intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics.

Traditionally, the process of learning in classrooms worldwide is conducted through rote learning. This learning technique presupposes delivering information to the minds of students through regular repetition, presuming that the teacher possesses all knowledge and executes the learning process. Advocates of rote learning argue that it can be effectively utilized by students when laying foundation for further deeper understanding of information.

Collaborative learning, as opposed to no collaborative learning predicts a positive academic classroom community (Zhang et al. 2005). First fundamental research concerned with children’s work and productivity in group was carried out by Child Welfare Research Station at the University of Iowa and was directed and guided by Kurt Lewin. A series of experiments, conducted in 1938 to investigate children’s capability of collaborative group work and learning provided educators with a very interesting insight. According to the results, children who worked in groups, which were led autocratically, were lacking initiative and motivation and their behaviour was often discontented and aggressive. In democratically led groups the situation was entirely opposite. Children were responsive and stimulated by the challenging, yet favourable and encouraging environment (Stage et al. 1998).

Some of the benefits of collaborative learning environment are that it greatly contributes to fostering workforce skills, encourages problem-solving skills and increases retention and success. Collaborative learning practices are also highly beneficial for teachers. When incorporating advanced teaching methods, models and techniques, teachers acquire new professional skills and energize their teaching. Applying collaborative learning models in classrooms helps teachers receive an alternative insight into the learning process their students undergo. It also causes subsequent alterations in teacher-student relationships from teacher-centred to student-centred, resulting in the necessity to modify teaching practices, procedures and policies, which would support more effective and meaningful educational experiences.

Credaro (2001), points out that, due to modern societal changes, it is crucial to take into consideration the fact that the now available amounts of information generate a growing need for complex analytical skills necessary to access this information in a meaningful and efficient manner. Thus, contemporary educational perspective demands a shift in paradigm from functional literacy, which includes writing and reading skills, to an information literacy focus. Snyder (1999) goes on to suggest that the current “age of information” produced a new valid economical approach according to which knowledge is treated as a marketable commodity. As a consequence, he comes to a conclusion that it is imperative to ensure that school students are capable of undertaking an appropriate access to data and exploiting this data to fulfill their needs. Hence, it is important to teach and equip students in the most appropriate, advanced and proficient manner. Although traditional educational instruction, delivered by the teacher in a mentoring style, remains fundamental when introducing the principles of access to the information, the majority of contemporary educators argue that it is significant to develop and imply a more integrated approach to pursue information literacy. According to Cedaro (2001), the necessary type of instruction is most efficiently delivered by means of collaboration both amongst students working in groups and between students and their teachers.

Lincoln (1987, p.16) argues in favour of the need for collaborative and shared decision-making practices. He states that implementation of such changes in educational process will result in the subsequent improvement of learning outcomes. However, according to Hirose (1992), every innovation entails certain risks. Thus, it is possible that certain elements of traditional educational system, accustomed to rote learning and teacher-centred learning models, may resist the proposed transition to collaborative learning techniques. Moreover, such factors as culture and mentality of the students in classroom, their perception of alternative learning techniques, a lack of holistic approach, absence of the necessary repercussion and cooperation, and even the process of change itself present potential barriers to obtaining successful results from the implementation of collaborative learning model, which is innovative and advanced in its nature. However, Nonaka (1988) denotes that conformity of such divergent elements and barriers generates a so-called “creative conflict”, which secures further evolution of innovative concepts. The ensuing disagreement and dissent anticipate further discussion, which, according to Lashway (1998) is one of the fundamental features to adequate group dynamics. Other key features presume that successful group discussions should concentrate on seeking common understanding, attentive listening and objective evaluation of the viewpoints of other members of the group and suspending judgments.

When attempting to formulate and implement a new, advanced, beneficial and effective learning model to be applied for the students of different backgrounds, with different expectations and varying goals, it is important to critically review prevailing approaches, assumptions and strategies. It is vital to restructure and improve the framework of traditional organization of educational system. According to Hough & Pane (1997, p.192), the preference should be given to forming learning communities rather than preserve institutions, the core function of which is sheer dispensing of information.

There are different methods for teacher to foster and establish positive interaction within a group of students and secure successful collaborative learning experience. Speck (2003) states that teachers can establish certain norms of behaviour when training their students to work in groups and forming those groups. Collaborative learning projects presuppose that students work in groups in order to produce some common academic product, such as paper, or a model. These projects help develop students’ problem-solving skills, train their critical and analytical thinking, teach them how to work in groups, reach common consensus and cultivate constructive socialization skills. 

When forming groups for collaborative learning activities, teachers should take into consideration such important factors as group size, gender issues, possible cultural differences, writing, speaking and listening abilities. Furthermore, students should be specifically trained in order to be able to form an effective group. It is important for teachers to promote the students’ leadership skills and conflict resolution abilities (Dodge & Kendall 2004).

Conclusion

It is important to understand that when deciding on a most suitable technique to be used in classroom, a teacher should take into consideration that the students’ learning styles are of a flexible nature and thus should be specifically adjusted for different learning situations. In order to design the most appropriate and beneficial learning model for students, a teacher should take into consideration previous educational experiences as well as various possible alternatives. Teachers’ decisions should be driven by thorough pedagogical content knowledge and aimed at creating a positive and effective learning environment. Taking into consideration principal approaches to the concept of learning, it is evident that each of them has both advantages and disadvantages. However, the synthesis of collaborative and individualistic learning strategies could become a rich framework for incorporating a variety of divergent integrated learning strategies. Thus, the combination of traditional and innovative methods appears to be the most tolerant and intelligent approach to be implemented by contemporary educators.