Nick Bentley-Lead Practitioner
Follow him on Twitter: @MrBentleyTweets
“What the child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.” Vygotsky (1986)
I remember the first time I used collaborative learning in my English classroom; during my PGCE year I separated my class into groups to create short role-plays to summarise the five acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It all seemed to be going swimmingly until the Act 5 group took to the stage, and inexplicably turned the joyful comedy of the wedding scene into a violent, gruesome bloodbath. I was rather worried about what my subject mentor would think when he spoke to me afterwards. Thankfully, he was pleased with the creativity and comedy that they were able to unpack in a rather different way within the lesson! It supported us to explore the genre of comedy in a fresh way, and I remain very pleased that it happened.
Although I am not entirely sure if this is the kind of learning he had in mind, if we put to one side his gendered use of language, Vygotsky (1986: 188) has outlined a really interesting point about the benefits of collaborative approaches to education. So, I would like to use this post to share five ways of using collaborative learning in the classroom which, though some teachers may be aware of, will hopefully be meaningful for others.
Despite the unexpected twist I experienced during the Midsummer lesson, drama can be a valuable way of encouraging learners to collaborate. Whilst many drama practitioners advocate teaching the subject by focusing on the creation of polished pieces of theatre, Bolton (1986: 22) has instead outlined how drama can be used as a learning medium emphasising “interaction with the objective world at a feeling/thinking level,” naming it ‘Process Drama’. Process Drama allows students to work in groups to explore topics from across the curriculum through drama. Examples of this might include learners creating still images to represent key words and tricky concepts, role-play to act as scientists, mathematicians or journalists and performances to explore poetry, foreign language material and historical texts.
Radhakrishna and Ewing (2015:85) have suggested that think-pair-share conversations might “keep students prepared [and] to get more involved in class discussion and participation.” A helpful way of facilitating this increased participation can be structured conversations, which ensure that all students within a class care able to share their points of view, or approaches to completing a task, without one dominating. It can involve sentence starters, time-limited conversations, or even a “speed dating” approach; ensuring that the interactions learners have with each other are clearly structured, can be a wonderful way to improve the quality of their conversations.
Roles and Responsibilities
A common concern with group work is that students might be passive in their learning, and allow others to do all of the work without making any contributions. Allocating roles and responsibilities to each student within a group can be a helpful way of avoiding this potential pitfall of cooperation in classrooms. Roles and responsibilities can have all kinds of different names – directors, leaders, champions, or even mini-madams to name but a few – but it really can support effective differentiation in the classroom, by ensuring that the learners are each given areas of focus which meet their particular capabilities, interests and needs.
In line with Vygotsky’s theory of a Zone of Proximal Development, wherein effective cooperation can mean learners are stretched to reach new understandings, Wells (2000: 58) argues that “dialogue [serves as] a form of collaborative meaning-making in which both individual and collective understandings are enhanced.” So, swapping groups during the lesson can be a helpful way of students sharing and presenting different levels of challenging information to their peers, alternating between differentiated and mixed attainment groups, and developing learners’ social and communication skills across the lesson.
Helpful for developing a positive buzz or atmosphere around the classroom, offering learners the opportunity to participate in a carousel is a fun way to embed collaborative learning. Students work in groups to complete a task at different stations in the room, before swapping to another station, rotating around the whole classroom until all students have worked on all activities. I like to play carousel music to signal to the students that it is time to move around the room, although I appreciate that not everyone would enjoy this approach!
These various forms of collaborative learning can facilitate effective differentiation, social learning and improved communication skills. As Vygotsky suggests, however, an integral point is that by working together, they can stretch their skills into new areas of achievement. Undeterred by my students’ rewriting of Midsummer as a grisly tragedy, I have thoroughly enjoyed embedding collaborative learning in my lessons. Whilst I am sure that many will be familiar with some of the approaches I have described, I hope that some of these strategies can be helpful, interesting and enjoyable for practitioners helping their students learn new skills and synthesise new knowledge.
Bolton, G. (1986). Selected Writings on drama in education. Essex: Longman Group Limited
Radhakrishna, R. and Ewing, J. (2012) “TPS (Think Pair Share) as an Active Learning Strategy”. NACTA Journal
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. London: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Wells, G. (2000). Dialogic inquiry in Education: building on the legacy of Vygotsky. In C.D. Lee and P. Smagorinsky (eds) Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press