Saturday, October 9, 2010

Refining Discourses through Collaboration

1. How do we help learners refine their written work through sharing?
2. What is the process of constructing discourses through collaboration?
3. Should we ask the learners to copy down the teacher’s version of targeted discourse?
Traditional classrooms give a lot of importance to the writing skills of learners. The underlying assumption is that skills can be developed through practice which in due course will lead to the mastery of language. However, a major chunk of the writing task assigned to children comprises of
• Writing answers to comprehension questions,
• Writing related to doing de-contextualized exercises involving vocabulary and structural items
• Writing guided compositions (letter writing, developing story from the given outline, etc.)
• Writing copies
It is in a way ‘risk-free’ writing because in most cases there will be only one correct answer. Since the thrust is on practising skills most of what children are expected to write have a direct bearing upon the information given in the textbook. This is supposed to be necessary for avoiding or at least minimizing the possibilities of learners making errors. This being the general situation of writing tasks undertaken by the learners there is no point in sharing ideas with others. Therefore, there is not much scope for refining one’s written work through collaboration.
Since the constructivist classroom envisions a drastic shift from reproducing textual information to constructing free discourses sharing of ideas gains a pivotal role in helping the learners acquire the target language. Since the curriculum expects the learners to construct discourses at all levels of learning we have to have a clear idea about how discourses constructed individually can be refined through group work. In order to facilitate proper sharing in groups the facilitator must know what instruction ns are to be given to the learners. This in turn depends crucially upon three things:
1. the level of the learners
2. the structure of the discourse to be constructed
3. features of the discourse to be targeted
Let us work out a few samples:
1. Conversations: Classes 3 to 5
Any conversation consists of exchanges between the speaker and the hearer. What we mean by an exchange is the pairing of an initiation and a response to this initiation. The minimal structure of a conversation is an exchange. Depending on the mutual relationship of the speaker-hearers and their involvement in the theme of conversation there may be more number of exchanges. The oral narrative presented, the interaction that takes place at the narrative gaps and the complementary reading passage together create the context of the conversation. With these inputs the learners will be emotionally charged to guess or predict the conversation that takes place between the central characters in that particular context; there won’t be any ambiguity regarding the theme of the conversation. Whatever be the exchanges that the learners work out will be relevant to the context and will be probable ones; there is no question of any exchange getting thematically deviant. The predictability of the theme creates a common platform for sharing.
The facilitator gives a set of instructions something like the following:
1. In the first round each member should read out what she has written down as the beginning of the conversation
2. If you have not written down anything you can tell others how the speaker would begin the conversation. This can be even in mother tongue.
3. After all members of the team have read out the beginning of conversation the best idea can be selected as the beginning
4. The members of the team should together decide and how this idea can be presented in a better way; all of you should write it down on a new page in your notebook
5. In the second round all of you should take turn and say what the other speaker says as a response to what the speaker has said.
6. Develop more exchanges in this manner
7. Write the conversation which the group has produced on a chart for presentation
8. You can decide who are to role-play the conversation before the whole class
2. Instructions for refining a Narrative in Group – Stage 3
1. Take turn and read out the event
2. If anyone has not written the event fully, or hasn’t written anything, say what the first event is. This can be even in mother tongue
3. Select the best way of stating the event
4. All of you write the first event in a separate page of your notebook
5. One member can write the event on a chart
6. In the second turn say what the characters are saying
7. Select the best dialogue related to the event and write it
8. Continue in this way till you complete all the events
9. Someone in the group can read aloud the whole narrative for the whole grou
10. Make changes if necessary
11. present the narrative you have written before the whole class
• In class III sometimes the teacher may have to give the instructions in mother tongue whenever necessary
• Display the instructions on a chart so that the whole class can see them
• Make sure that all the learners have understood the instructions
• While monitoring group work ensure that groups are following these instructions

3. Narrative for classes 6 and 7
(Instructions 1 to 9 will be the same as given above.)
4. Discuss what images you can include in the narrative.
5. Come to an agreement on how to write it
6. Discuss what the characters see, hear, smell, feel, etc.
7. Come to an agreement on how to write about these
8. discuss how you can connect the mood (happiness, sorrows, anxiety, fear, etc.) of the character to the nature outside
4. Instructions for refining a letter in group – classes 5, 6 and 7
1. In the first round read out how you began the letter
2. Come to an agreement on how to begin the lehtter
3. What did you write in the first part of the letter? read it out to others
4. Select the best idea
5. What did you write next?
6. Once again select the best idea
7. What are the other ideas you want to write? tell others about them
8. Come to a common agreement on the ideas and write them
9. How did you finish the letter? read it out to others
10. Select the best finishing
11. One of you can read the whole letter for others
12. Does the letter appeal to you? If not make necessary changes
13. Check whether you have included the place and date of the letter

4. Instructions for Refining Diary in Groups (classes 5,6 and 7)
5. Read out how you began the diary
6. Did you begin with an event or the character’s self talk on his /her feelings?
7. Come to an agreement in the groups on which beginning will be better
8. what are the events you included in the diary? Discuss in groups whether all these events are necessary
9. Come to an agreement on the events to be included
10. Come to an agreement on the thoughts to be included
11. How would you end the diary? Discuss and come to an agreement

6. Instructions for Refining Poems in groups ( Classes 3, 4 and 5)
1. Take turn and present the best two lines / four lines you have written
2. Make others give suggestions for refining the lines. If there are no suggestions write these lines in the group product
3. If you have any difficulties in presenting these two lines tell your friends about the idea you want to write
4. Collectively decide how this idea can be written in the poem
5. Read out the whole poem and see if line is fitting into the rhythm and tune
6. Come to an agreement on the changes to be made

7. (For poems in classes 6 and 7)
Instructions 1 to 5 will be the same
1. Come to an agreement on what images are to be included (what you see, what you hear, etc.) and how to include them in the poem
2. Come to an agreement on how include some scenic details and emotions in the poem
3. Ensure that the mood of the poet (happiness, anxiety, sorrows, etc. ) has been reflected in the poem
4. Someone can read the whole poem for the whole group
5. Make changes if necessary

8. Profile
1. Sit in groups and discuss what personal details are to be included.
2. Decide on how these details are to be given.
3. What are the contributions to be included and how they are to be incorporated?
4. Those who haven’t written, incorporate it.What are the touching events of his life?
5. What and how these touching events (anecdotes) are to be incorporated?
6. Write your reflections on the person?
7. How will you sequence these ideas?

9. Skit
1. Sit in groups and come to an agreement on which plot related to the theme is to be selected.
2. Discuss in groups and fix the events related to the plot.
3. Come to an agreement in the opening group on where, when and how the events take place and the location of the characters with movements, feeling, mood and costumes. Write them in your note books. One can write them on a chart.
4. Come to an agreement on the dialogue /response be and write it down in your note book .The movements, feeling and the mood of the characters concerned should be written in brackets.
5. Develop sufficient exchanges up to the end of the skit in this manner.
6. Name the skit in negotiation within the group.
7. One member read aloud the whole skit in the group.

Monitoring Group Activities in Second Language Teaching

Group work in the class becomes sheer wasting of time. All what takes place in groups is mere copying. How can we make group activities more effective?
How can we monitor group activities?
The constructivist classroom envisages collaboration among learners for which group work is suggested after children have undertaken an individual task. The role of the teacher is that of a facilitator who gives optimum support to the learners who are engaged in knowledge-making process. Teachers in our own times are familiar with notions such as activity-based learning, learner- centred classroom and experiential pedagogy. Also, they have identified group work as an inevitable classroom process for promoting active learning. Every practising teacher has noticed that what emerges as a product from the group is invariably better than the individual product. But are group activities really productive?

The issues

A critical analysis of the practice that is actually prevailing in our classrooms raises a few pedagogic issues:
Are all children benefited by group work?
Teachers ask children to share their ideas in groups. Isn’t this suggestion very vague? Sharing is intended, of course. But what are the ideas to be shared?
How do we ensure that collaboration takes place in groups? Or in other words, how do we monitor group work?
There are different occasions in the course of classroom transaction where group work is possible. What are they? Can there be a straight jacketed mode for administering the group activity and also for monitoring it for all levels of learners and for all modules of transaction?
How will we make the groups own up the product that has emerged from the group?
If the answer to question (1) is ‘no’ then we have to ask ‘why?’ and identify the causative factors that lead to this situation. It seems that most teachers have not realized the pedagogy of generating synergy in the group. Or perhaps they have misconceived the cognitive dimension of group work. There is also a chance that they take recourse to leading children to group work as if they are doing a mere ritual. What so ever the reason is there is a problem: most teachers create slots for children to work in groups without proper understanding about what constructs are formed in groups and how group work is to be made beneficial to all members of the group.
Let us take a specific case. In the language class children have to construct specific discourses. They do this individually, and then in groups. The usual practice is asking children to select the best individual product (sometimes based on certain indicators). All members will be asked to copy down this. Thus a ‘group product’ emerges without any kind of collaboration among the members. If the selection is not based on clearly spelt out indicators then the ‘weak performers’ alone will be benefited by this. If there are certain criteria for the selection perhaps the student who wrote the discourse may also be benefited. But in either case all members of the group will not have ownership of the ‘group product’ emerging in this manner. How do we tide over this problem? Group ownership can be ensured only if every member of the group contributes his or her idea to the production of the discourse. For this they should get specific instructions regarding what is to be shared in the group. Unless the facilitator has a clear idea about what is to be shared by the members of the group it is not likely that she will be giving proper instructions to the learners for carrying out the group work.

Giving specific instructions

From the discussion given above it follows that the facilitator has to give specific instructions to the learners before they are asked to undertake a group activity. It is obvious that the facilitator cannot go for a single instruction such as: ‘Now sit in groups and share your ideas”. Instead, a cluster of instructions may be necessary. What kind of instructions are to be given depends upon a number of things:
The specific task that is to be carried out transaction module (reading, discourses construction, presentations, editing, production of big books, etc.) in which group activity is to be carried out.
If a specific discourse is expected from the group (whether in the oral form or in the written form) the discourse features that are to be targeted
3. The level of learners (stage I, stage II, stage III, etc.)
Let us work out a few models:
Reading: Classes 3 to 7
The facilitator gives instructions for reading
Read the passage individually
While reading you may do the following:
Put a ‘tick’ mark against sentences that you were able to understand
Put an ‘into’ mark against sentences / words that you were not able to understand
Put a ‘star’ against expressions you liked most
Sit in groups for sharing
Take turn and tell others what you were able to understand
In the second round of sharing tell others what you were not able to understand
In the third round share with others the ideas you liked most and why you liked them
Monitoring collaborative reading: classes 3 to 7
It is not enough that the facilitator gives instructions to the groups. He has to see that learners are following these instructions. He can interact with the groups and find out what point of sharing the group has completed. Also he may have to extend optimum help to those who need it so that hurdles if any are removed. Some amount of authentic interaction will be needed at this point. See the transcript of how the facilitator monitors group work for facilitating collaborative reading:
Facilitator interacts with group 1 to ensure that sharing within the group is taking place
You have you shared with others what you understood, haven’t you? Santhosh, how about you? Jameela, are there any sentences that you were not able to understand? Can anyone help Jameela? Mohan, which sentence do you like most? Why? Mohan says he likes the last sentence. Rajesh, which sentence do you like?
Facilitator moves to another group and interacts with the members in a similar way.
Facilitator elicits parts of the reading passage that the team was not able to understand
It seems all of you have completed sharing. Group I, are there any words or sentences in the passage that you were not able to understand?
Facilitator interacts with the groups to ensure sharing among different groups
Group 1 has a problem with the third sentence. Who can help them?
Facilitator exhibits a chart containing the glossary of the words that children were not able to understand
Provides necessary tips regarding meaning of the words / phrases
Facilitator reads out the passage aloud with proper articulatory features
Extrapolating the Text
Through collaborative Reading learners are enabled to make sense of what they are reading. However, reading activity does not end with this. Once they have comprehended the passage we take them to the next step of reading with the help of a few analytical questions of different types such reflective questions, inferential questions, cause-consequence questions and the like. These are meant for facilitating higher order thinking skills. With the help of these questions the learners will be able to extrapolate the text and go beyond it. Moreover, they will be able to personalize and localize the text. This is essential for helping them internalize or assimilate the text. At this stage of sharing of ideas will be necessary. Let us see how this can be done:
Facilitator exhibits the chariot containing analytical questions
Facilitator gives instructions to groups on what they are expected to do
Now, look at the chart. There are a few questions in it. Sit in groups and discuss each question by taking turn. All of you must speak in the group
Note down the points that emerge through discussion
If possible build up consensus on what you have to write. If you have a point different from that of other members of the team state your point of view
When groups start working the facilitator moves round and ensure that they are following the instructions
Facilitator gives necessary help for consolidating the points
Reading is a cognitive process and is not a mere exercise of pooling information contained in a given text. Learners should get opportunities to reflect on their own reading and share the thought processes they have undergone while reading. This makes reading a process for construction of knowledge and hence a meaningful and productive activity.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Significance of Group Activities in Second Language Pedagogy

Group work takes away a major chunk of classroom time. Is it necessary that we have to ask children work in groups always?
Will the individual learner learn anything through group activities?
The questions posed here sprout from lack of proper understanding of what knowledge is and how it is constructed by individuals in a natural way. If we believe that information is equivalent to knowledge we can conveniently transmit the information that is loaded in the textbook to the learners. Probably, we can use a variety of strategies and techniques for doing this. In this mode of teaching and learning the teacher is on the one side (to deliver lessons) and the learners on the other (to receive the lessons). Depending on the efficacy of the techniques used the learners can store the information that is given to them for a considerable period of time. In this state of affairs the role of the teacher can be (and in most cases, is) replicated by the tuition teacher or guide books. Thus ‘feeding in’ of information survives.

Learner as an independent researcher

In the early stages of cognitive psychology Piaget proposed a different conceptualization of knowledge. Till his times the focus was on theorizing about topics such as memory, problem-solving, visual imagery and categorizing in adults, without regard to the manner in which these abilities developed. Piaget rejected this practice. The core insight he gives us is that we cannot understand what knowledge is unless we understand how it is acquired. This is not enough. We can understand how knowledge is acquired only through psychological and historical investigations. For this we have to test our hypotheses by collecting data, not only about the thinking of human infants and children, but also about the historical development of scientific ideas. He believed that the development of knowledge was a biological process, a matter of adaptation by an organism to an environment. This is why he calls his theory of knowledge as genetic epistemology. Following Piaget we do not conceive learning as mere storing in of information. It is a complex cognitive process where each individual constructs knowledge. This is an experiential process by which the learner transforms the available data or information to his or her own knowledge. In the early stages of the evolution of Cognitive psychology, Piaget conceived this as a process of forming schema. This is essentially a discovery procedure, an individual enterprise analogous to the one undertaken by researchers which involves various processes like realizing the problem, collecting and analyzing the data, forming testing and hypotheses, etc.
Jerome Bruner conceives learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".

Fig 1: Piaget

As far as instruction is concerned, the instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialogue (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. For this the Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.
According to Bruner, ‘to instruct someone … is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach a subject not to produce little living libraries in that subject, but rather to get a student think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as a historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting – knowing is a process not a product.
From the individual to the social
Much water has flown under the bridge since Piaget’s conceptualization of knowledge and knowledge learning. Significantly, taking cue from Vygotsky, we realize that knowledge cannot stand independent of the social ambience in which the learner is placed. Vygotsky maintains that the development of an individual cannot be looked at detaching him from his social and material environment. It is with this environment that human beings constantly interact. Furthermore, the environment is not a constant one; it keeps changing. Implicitly, we will have to take into consideration the history of the group or groups of which an individual is becoming a member. We will also have to look into the particular social events the individual has successfully participated in over a certain period of time.

Fig 2: Vygotsky

What does this mean? The formation of individual persons, their identities, values and knowledgeable skills, occurs through their participation in some subset of these activity systems. For example, there are traceable activities such as
activities in which people are involved with family members
activities involving peers and others in school
activities related to work, leisure and so on (see Wells 1999)

Therefore, who a person becomes depends critically on things like the following:
activity systems he or she participates in the support and assistance he or she receives from other members of the relevant communities in appropriating the specific values, knowledge and skills that are enacted in participation (see Lave & Wenger, 1991)

Zone of Proximal Development

What has been discussed above leads us to an important Vygotskyan notion namely, ‘The Zone of Proximal Development - ZPD’. This is the difference between the person’s ability to solve problems on her own, and her ability to solve them with assistance. Sch├╝tz (2004) explains that the “actual developmental level refers to all the functions and activities that a child can perform on his own, independently without the help of anyone else. On the other hand, the zone of proximal development includes all the functions and activities that a child or a learner can perform only with the assistance of someone else. Prerequisites to assisting someone to work in their ZPD are empathy and judgment about their needs and capabilities when acting alone. The ZPD comes into being when one person acts as the mediator for another person who is not able to execute a particular action alone. The notion of ZPD can be clarified with the help of a diagram (see Figure 1):

Fig 3: ZPD
The inner circle represents the zone of child’s current achievement. She cannot reach the outer region by herself; it is a zone beyond her reach at present. However, she can reach this region with the help of collaboration with peers or a more knowledgeable person. The difference between the child’s current achievement and what she can achieve by virtue of collaboration with others is termed as ZPD.
Let us try to explain the notion of ZPD with the help of a different diagram.

Potential level
Level that can be reached through further collaboration (X + 1+ 1)
Level that can be reached through collaboration (X + 1)
Current level ( X )

Fig 4: Learning interpreted in terms of ZPD

As represented in Figure 4 a child (say for instance, John) is at present at level X. However, this is not his ultimate level. He has the potential to reach level X+ 1. The area in between X and X+1 is the zone of proximal development. This is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1987). According to Vygotsky, social interaction plays a vital role in the learning process. He emphasizes the role of “shared language” in the development of thought and language, which stands for social interaction.

Pedagogic implication of ZPD

Vygotsky (1962) theorized that two levels determine the learning process; ego-centricity and social interaction. The child’s actual development level is determined by independent problem solving. The next level is determined through problem solving under adult guidance in collaboration with more peers that are capable. It is the teacher’s duty to try to take each child to the level X+1. The teacher does this by giving optimal help (scaffolding) to the children. Perhaps she can give a learner just the cue he needs. This cue provides for the learner a breakthrough he needs. Sometimes the teacher can take the whole class through a series of steps, which help them to solve the problem. Children may differ in their areas of their zones of proximal development. A child with a large zone will have a much greater capacity to be helped by teachers than a child with a narrow zone. However, the teacher still has a duty to help the latter child as well as the former one. Children are to be exposed to social interaction first and it will eventually enable them build their inner resources.
From the discussion presented here it is obvious that children have to undertake a certain task individually as well as in groups. This is why group work becomes an important component of classroom transaction. Each sharing helps the learner to reflect on his own thinking process. For example, what will be the thoughts of a learner when he listens to someone else in the group:
Ah! This is something I didn’t think
That’s a new idea to me,
I thought the same thing but I couldn’t express it well
Each sharing results in the expansion of his ZPD. But the pre-requisite for this is the facilitator’s instructions on what is to be shared and how it is to be done. After the sharing is over, the members of the group can reach at certain consensus. Given this perspective, learning can be redefined as the expansion of ZPD.