Learning should be a social activity

Teaching and learning should be a matter of sharing and allowing students to co-construct their knowledge ⎮5 min read
Learning should be a social activity

It is evident our current school generation requires the ability to learn more continuously than any previous generation. It is now falling to schools to teach students how to work collaboratively; be literate in multiple fields; be creative, critical and flexible; and meet the standards of the curriculum. However, with increasing time pressures, anxiety and the need for a work / study-life balance, how can we successfully teach all these skills and concepts? How do we produce students who are ready to contribute meaningfully to society in the 21st Century? What changes need to be made to our pedagogical approach? 

To gain further insight to these questions, Matt Hardy, Indiana Dellit and myself, who teach at Catholic Boys Schools located in Brisbane, Australia, decided to reflect on our current approach, student development and academic results. We noticed that teachers were very reliant on texts; students were reliant on the teacher; students had limited problem-solving skills; and they were reluctant to attempt challenging questions. To determine how best to tackle this problem we first identified the most desirable qualities we wanted our students to possess when learning. Next, five categories were created that reflected those qualities: self-directed, engaged, critical, resilient and reflective.

But, what model of teaching would allow us to encourage and develop all five areas? Could a collaborative approach be the solution to incorporating 21st Century skills and strategies and enhance the traditional curriculum structure? And what role does the teacher play in ensuring students are ready to enter the world post-school? 

The teacher plays a crucial role in a student’s academic achievement. The teacher’s knowledge, pedagogical approach and pastoral care are influential in students learning and ultimately impacts on their success within the school system. If we can create a system that develops graduates who will contribute to society, where teachers feel empowered and students feel successful, then we will make a difference. We believe the modification that needs to be made to the pedagogical method is for a collaborative approach to be used within the Mathematics classroom. 

We investigated the impact of collaboration as a pedagogical method in three different schools. 

School One: Traditional style of teaching in a single class with one teacher with each unit ending with an EMTR (Extended Mathematical Thinking and Reasoning) task. Collaboration encouraged and supported during EMTR time. 

School Two: Traditional style of teaching in a single class with one teacher. Combining classes for EMTR task - two teachers and two classes working collaboratively. 

School Three: Collaborative classroom that moves from direct instruction to the EMTR task with two teachers and two classes permanently working collaboratively. 

In all the schools it was observed that students, when working collaboratively, gained the confidence to choose the more challenging task. It was also evident that for EMTR tasks to be effective they must be of a high standard and be open-ended. In addition, developing classroom and group work norms was vital to creating a successful collaborative classroom. This method allowed students to understand how to work in groups, increased time devoted to tasks and enabled students to develop and use problem solving strategies to access more challenging tasks. 

It was evident across the schools that teacher ‘buy in’ was crucial. Teachers needed to observe the benefits of working in the space and the positive outcomes this method can have for students. To increase teacher confidence, we recommend professional development / learning teams are formed, to encourage reflection and allow the teachers to develop / incorporate different methods of teaching within that space. 

From the data collected, it was apparent School Three reduced student anxiety, increased self-confidence and improved overall enjoyment of Mathematics. 

By constructing a classroom environment that follows a developed cycle of learning, our students can be taught via direct instruction and gradually moved towards working independently. This teaching method draws on multiple areas of research and combines both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ styles. The collaborative classroom in School Three provided students with the opportunity to discuss ideas, consider the appropriateness of their solutions and discuss different ways to approach problems. The classroom also allowed teachers to observe students construct knowledge, while they interacted with their peers. 

A student who worked in this space justified the benefits of working collaboratively in his statement: 

It gives a deeper understanding of what you know, when you are in a group because they have different sets of knowledge than you do and if you share that ... then [your knowledge] is just getting stronger.”

Teachers also noticed students were less reliant on them and drew instead on their own resources and peers for support. 

It can be observed from our research that a collaborative classroom helped the students construct their knowledge. It allowed students to learn by connecting new concepts and ideas with existing knowledge. This method views learning as an active process, where the learner constructs meaning through active engagement. It prevented the students from just passively receiving information with limited understanding and allowed for more meaningful connections to be made between prior knowledge, new knowledge and the process of learning the material. 

Additionally, our research study demonstrates team teaching in a collaborative space is beneficial to teachers, as it provides the opportunity to co-reflect and engage in professional dialogue about improving classroom practice and procedures with trusted colleagues. Therefore, it is vital teams are constructed with this approach in mind and that teachers are willing to constantly reflect and alter their practice to work with the students to construct knowledge.

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