Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Cooperation, collaboration and accountability: can technology help foster all three?

In recent classes here at Warwick we have taken a look at tools with significant potential for online collaboration, e.g. Google Drive/Google Docs, Titanpad, Padlet.

All are great tools, offering many opportunities for learners (or teachers) to work together on the same product - but today I'd like to take something of a step back and look instead at what we mean by effective group work, the reasons for our promoting it as educators, and the ways in which we can foster it, sometimes with technology's help.

Group Dynamics
Within the confines of the classroom, group work is socially situated: for example, the teacher and the students have certain roles and expectations of each other. Both teacher-student and student-student relationships have to be mediated. The extent to which students feel at ease in the teacher's and each other's company may well depend on "ground rules" being established at the beginning of their journey together, and the teacher's success in establishing a genuine rapport with his/her students.

Many would therefore argue that a jointly constructed and highly visible "learning contract" established at the outset is essential to effective classroom management! However, Dörnyei and Murphey ("Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom", Cambridge University Press 2003) go somewhat further, arguing that there are four distinct stages in a  group's life:
  • Group formation - during which norms are discussed and established: the teacher should show a genuine positive regard for their students, but students should commit to helping each other learn, too;
  • "The rugged transition" - the greater openness of which may lead to conflict, but may yet lead to greater mutual respect if negotiated well;
  • "Performing" - at which point trust is sufficient for decisions to be taken about the division of labour;
  • "Dissolution" - a managed close-down, which allows for retrospective reflection and saying goodbye.
The key idea here seems a powerful one: classroom management problems can be minimized or avoided if teachers take great care to ensure that stages in this process are not missed out or ended prematurely. Without trust, group work is unlikely to be fruitful. I think the whole of this book is well worth reading and plan to buy a copy!

Fostering cooperation
Can a collaborative orientation or teamwork skills be taught? There's no question that employers value these things, and it's an interesting question to consider, since what we are talking about is "pro-social" attitudes and behaviours society deems desirable in our students, rather than factual knowledge. Since no man is an island, the way we behave has roots deep in social psychology, and is often norm-referenced.

Teachers may not be psychologists, but they are very much in the business of dealing with people. Thus David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson ("Learning Together & Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning", Prentice-Hall 1975: something of a classic text!) argue teachers can and should do much to foster cooperative learning, something they claim is proven to achieve superior learning outcomes. Their book is a fascinating read, but for the purposes of this post I'd like to focus on what they specifically say about task design.

To begin with, tasks can be designed in such a way that students' goal attainments are positively correlated, i.e. when one student succeeds, everyone succeeds (Deutsch, 1949). A criteria-referenced evaluation system, it is argued, should be used within cooperative learning situations. A typical pedagogical task that works well this way in the language classroom would be a "jigsaw" activity, where each team member possesses certain information that the others need for the group to succeed.

However, student roles within the group may also be assigned to ensure interdependence. Johnson & Johnson  (1975:51) suggest "summarizer-checker", "researcher-runner", "recorder", "encourager", and "observer" as possible generic roles that can be applied to collaborative tasks. Dörnyei & Murphey (2003: 114) suggest something similar, distinguishing between a large number of "task" and "group maintenance" roles as they do so. In the context of team problem-solving, other models such as Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" ( may also usefully be suggested to students.

Ensuring accountability
I have only limited experience of teaching languages at secondary school level, but would definitely - with the benefit of hindsight - endorse Dörnyei and Murphey's approach in such contexts. Trust needs to be built before effective group work can occur. This may call for patience, but fortunately some teachers are good at this and are able to manage classes of teenagers well.

In higher education learners are adults, so immaturity is not something I would expect to see in class. However, here too it's important to get things going on the right foot, and I'll take on board Dörnyei and Murphey's advice about particularly taking into account the affective side to learning in the early days of a group's existence. I also like  Johnson & Johnson's idea of building interdependence into pedagogical tasks and project work.

And yet - accountability can still be an issue. Maybe not in class, but certainly in summative assessment situations where students are expected to support each other outside of lessons. Some students may be poor at time management or have jobs over and above their studies which may lead to the same outcome. For them to admit to their peers that they are in trouble is face-threatening, and confronting someone who is not "pulling their weight" likewise. This can place the integrity of the assessment process in jeopardy.

Given the obvious risks here, I would like to suggest two possible ways forward, as I believe the benefits of group or project work can be significant!

Idea one: you assess the product, learners assess the process
If teachers find themselves placed in the position of having to assess a team presentation, they face an obvious issue. The quality of the end-product can be assessed, but the individual contributions to the team performance are invisible. Did all team members fulfill their obligations to each other? Did anyone go above and beyond the call of duty? These things are not visible to the teacher: and simply awarding a mark in recognition of the end product attaches value only to results, not to co-operation.

Possible solutions to this dilemma have been suggested. For example, in a recent post, US teachers Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters recommend not only having students assess each other's team contributions, but also allow those who do extra work on behalf of someone else to earn their points in recognition of the fact.

As a possible refinement of this idea, I would like to suggest that groups working collaboratively on projects outside of class should do two extra things to earn their grades: record the initial division of labour, and upon receiving a team mark in respect of the end product, record a meeting in which the marks are divided according to individual contributions. Marks can be awarded upon receipt of the recordings and a summary e-mail from the group leader (with other group members copied in). 10 minutes for either meeting should hopefully suffice - if there are disagreements, it demonstrates a lack of cooperation and the teacher can respond accordingly.

Since smartphones are becoming increasingly commonplace in countries such as those I've worked in, it's likely every team should have access to a recording device, and a good virtual learning environment should permit students to submit recordings as a pre-condition to receiving individual marks. It's not a bad idea, surely? I wouldn't mind talking to experts on testing and assessment about this idea in greater depth - but I think it has potential and would also get students talking in English more.

However, I also think Dörnyei and Murphey's advice about trust-building has to be taken on board: no student should be forced to work on a high-stakes project with another student they do not trust. I think rushing straight to the division of labour without forming cohesive groups first is a big mistake which unfortunately gets made all too often (and not only in language classes) as teachers feel they simply lack time.

If the issue is one of social isolation or awkwardness more than anything else, teachers can address this through a series of steps that may include: ensuring constructive group mates, arranging resources and assigning roles that guarantee interdependence, and - above all - pre-training in collaborative skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1975:169). Teachers have to model social behaviour as well as ask for it: besides being good pedagogy, it can reduce inequalities between students.

Idea two: you're only as strong as your weakest link
But what about the "lazy" student, who lets others do all the work but shares in the benefits? Many teachers may be concerned about such characters!

Within the classroom, Johnson and Johnson (1975:168) suggest there shouldn't be a problem: cooperation by its very nature demands commitment and involvement. I suspect that's fine so far as the majority of students are concerned, but not all. Students with special needs or behavioural problems can't be dealt with according to a "one size fits all philosophy".

However, if a student is simply being awkward, a "zero tolerance" approach maybe isn't the best way to go about dealing with them as it may escalate, rather than defuse the situation. Johnson and Johnson have a number of useful suggestions:

1) Ask the group to discuss the issue with the student: perhaps they can find a way to facilitate increased contributions from him/her.

2) Take the student aside and ask about the situation: find out their perceptions, then seek to address them.

3) Relax and let the group deal with the student in its own way and in its own time: it can pay not to intervene too soon if the group appears able to handle it! Plus they'll learn valuable life skills in the process.

4) Present a skills lesson on problem solving such a situation - to make sure that the students have the skills they need to deal with such people constructively.

I rather like the last of these suggestions: there is a place for teaching life skills in ELT! However, where assessment is concerned, Johnson & Johnson (1975:168) have an interesting suggestion: average the scores of the lowest member(s) of the group! If all students are doing exactly the same thing, this can work…it will motivate the group members to tutor the weaker students, and thereby resolve any problems with commitment and involvement in the learning tasks.

Collaborative tasks can bring many benefits: in educational terms, the focus shifts from the "end product" to the "process" of collaboration - meaning that students pay much greater attention to the cooperative strategies and soft skills they need to employ when working as part of a team, any time, anywhere. As the quote at the top of this post says, if you want to go fast, work alone; but if you want to go far, go together.

However, team work can only happen where trust, commitment and accountability are present. Whether in class or working collaboratively outside the classroom, learners need to see that "hitch-hiking" is dangerous. I hope some of the ideas outlined here may be useful to other teachers out there interested in this fascinating topic.

1 comment:

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