collaboration, Critical thinking

Field notes: Research on collaborative inquiry in second language learning.

I’m currently in the final portion of a course on collaborative inquiry, and wrapping up a 4 member group collaboration that dug into an inquiry question that evolved to end up here:

What supports will benefit teachers and students in an L2 (second language) learning environment so that students can engage in
collaboration and inquiry?

For my portion of the project, I read 4 articles which ended up spanning an interesting period of development of thought around cooperation, collaboration, project based learning, inquiry, and co-construction in a participatory learning environment. The notes I made are below, and my thoughts and practice as a second language teacher will continue to evolve as a result of this project.

Article 1: Liang, X., Mohan, B. & Early, M. (1998). Issues of cooperative learning in ESL classes: A literature review. TESL Canada Journal / La revue TESL du Canada. 15 (2), 13-23

Focus: This article is a literature review on…

  • cooperative learning in the second language (L2) classroom in relation to L2 acquisition,
  • maintenance of the first language (L1),
  • integration of language and content learning, and
  • L2 learners’ perceptions.

Main ideas:

  • cooperative learning has been widely studied in mainstream education but research on cooperative learning in second language education is less extensive.
  • several studies demonstrated that cooperative learning resulted in a significantly higher level of interaction among students than teacher-led discussions. Students talked more, produced a wider range of language functions (e.g. rhetorical, pedagogical and interpersonal), performed better in listening tasks, were better able to negotiate meaning, and acquired greater overall proficiency.
  • there are several teacher interactional moves which are believed to be important to second language acquisition: ex. confirmation and comprehension checks, and clarification requests. These generated relatively little student interaction. Group work among students produced significantly more interaction to clarify or confirm message content, to check comprehension of spoken communication, etc.
  • students engaged in interaction related to cooperative learning produced more input for each other, practiced natural use of the language, and generated fewer errors when working in small groups.
  • cooperative learning has led to higher proficiency as a result of more frequent L2 use and the use of different language structures in small-group settings.
  • the quality of L2 generated in these interactions has generally been related to basic conversation instead of academic language, and is more task-oriented with simpler interactions.
  • use of L1 to explain tasks and develop skills can help sustain L1 retention for students. L1 is often used as a support to clarify or extend comprehension.
  • most of the research has focused on how the use of L1 can enhance L2 development in cooperative groups, but other issues have surfaced which need exploration:
    • students need an L1 background in academic discourse that is sufficient to allow skills to transfer.
    • where only 2 languages are spoken, L1 use can facilitate L2. In a multilingual and multicultural environment, cooperative groups can be affected by different ethnic groups represented and different L1 groups.
    • in the L2 setting, content and language production are integrated, and the language production becomes the content. Instructors can learn how to structure interaction that allows students to demonstrate a higher level of thought than their L2 proficiency would otherwise indicate.
    • prior knowledge in an L1 environment is key to allow students to draw from experience and transfer it to L2.
    • learners frequently perceive cooperative learning opportunities in L2 as negative. This may be as a result of a cultural background which makes them more familiar with teacher-directed instruction and thus they view it as better.

Supports indicated:

The article does not directly recommend supports to assist students in participating in cooperative learning or collaborative inquiry settings, but reading between the lines, the following can be inferred:

  • developing academic discourse in L2
  • simplifying structure of assignments so that the level of language is accessible but students are able to use higher order thinking
  • provide many opportunities for oral interaction
  • provide frequent opportunities for talking about and using prior knowledge.
  • acknowledge negative feelings or perspectives around group work and cooperative learning and allow students to have input around issues such as group size, project duration, etc.
  • teach skills to help ease frustration and improve group work.

Article 2: Bueno-Alastuey, C. & Martinez de Lizzarondo Larumbe, P. (2017). Collaborative writing in the EFL secondary education classroom: comparing triad, pair and individual work. Huarte de San Juan. Filologia y Didactica de la Lengua. 17, 254-275.

Focus: This article summarized the results of a study carried out in Spain, focused on the writing of students aged 12 and 13 who were beginning language learners, and attempts to replicate and analyze prior research in order to examine students’ accuracy, fluency, and syntactical complexity in writing tasks performed both individually, and in pairs and triads. All students had previous experience with collaborative learning and did not need to be taught the process.

Main ideas:

  • most L2 writing pedagogy so far has asked students to create texts individually, limiting pair and group work to brainstorming and/or reviewing activities.
  • based on socio-cognitive theories and communicative learning approaches, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) collaboration has become a common practice worldwide.
  • most collaboration is still oral, but this research reflects increased interest in collaboration through the whole writing process.
  • Collaborative writing has the following benefits:
    • it pushed students to reflect on their language use and to collaborate with each other to solve language-related doubts
    • co-constructed texts tend to result in higher linguistic performance (although most previous studies have focused on adult learners)
  • Goals of this study:
    • to determine whether students’ collaboration in a writing task results in greater written linguistic performance in a secondary education setting, comparing individual, pair and triad work
    • to determine whether texts’ accuracy, fluency and syntactical complexity differ significantly depending on the number of collaborators.
  • This study focused on both process (individual, pair and triad groupings) and product (texts’ accuracy, fluency and syntactical complexity). Thus, the task in this study is viewed as a “learning to write” task rather than “writing to learn”.
  • Theoretical background supporting this model has traced its steps from Krashen in 1985 (who focused on comprehensible input) to Long’s Interaction Hypothesis (1985) which added the need for L2 interactions; to Swain’s comprehensible Output Hypothesis (1993) which incorporated the need for output to improve L2 acquisition; and arriving at Schmidt (2010) who added the components of noticing and focusing on gaps or holes in “interlanguage”, a term referring to the type of language used by an L2 learner as they are acquiring it.
  • Vygotsky considered all human learning to take place through social interaction, and the Zone of Proximal Development can be understood to be novice-expert collaboration.
  • Language acquisition must be understood as both social and cognitive development. When students collaborate in the L2 classroom, the use the language to solve linguistic problems and construct new L2 knowledge and understanding. Collaboration is a means of scaffolding.
  • The main goal of support given by teachers is to develop communicative competence. This has resulted in an emphasis on pair and group work and a combination and integration of form and meaning focused approaches.
  • Collaborative writing provides opportunities to integrate speaking and listening through peer interaction and writing and reading through task completion.
  • Collaboration is defined as a “coordinated effort to complete a task together”. Cooperation is defined as a division of labour.
  • Previous research has found that collaboration improves student work despite task type, individual student proficiency level, or student attitude/motivation.
  • Conclusions and pedagogical implications:
    • collaborative writing and a higher number of participants in the collaborative process benefited students’ written production in terms of accuracy, fluency, and overall syntactical complexity.
    • more technical aspects of syntactical complexity, such as the use of subordinate clauses, were higher in individually produced texts.
    • the study focused on aspects of writing that are important to teachers and those who develop pedagogy, but are not necessarily connected to those valued by or important to students. Other variables that would benefit from additional study include layout, coherence, etc.
    • teachers did not need to generate separate writing tasks for collaborative structures versus individual performances in order for students to realize a benefit from the process.

Article 3: Kessler, Greg. (2013). Collaborative language learning in co-constructed participatory culture. CALICO Journal. 30. 307-322.

Focus: This article is an expansion of an address the author had previously delivered, and examines the “hyper-collaborative participatory culture” of the Internet, as well as exploring its implications for language learning and teaching.

Main ideas:

  • Social media, social networking, and a wide variety of media have created seemingly limitless opportunities to participate in and redefine the culture around us.
  • When we become co-constructors of the content we develop a sense of ownership that may be accompanied by a sense of belonging and obligation.
  • We are likely to devote ourselves to maintaining content and to participate in similar content creation in future opportunities, and to develop communities of users.
  • The amount of information available can be presented in new, complex and compelling ways, such as trends, mapping, data mashups, and text visualization tools which can be used in language learning.
  • New ways of interfacing with technology through touch, speech and gestures also have implications for language learning.
  • Social media use and content creation also involves meta-discussion or reflective discussion which encourages dissenting voices, alternative interpretations, and the incorporation of extensive background knowledge.
  • Perspectives vary on whether these are positive or negative developments and whether distractedness can be an asset or can detract from interaction, but experts generally agree on the need for students to develop critical awareness as they engage in meaningful interactions.
  • It is important for educators to be aware of and manage the “dark side” of participatory culture, including trolling, flaming, and concerns about privacy.
  • Teachers need to better understand the nature of collaboration in general, the importance of managing information, and to use that understanding in instructional design.
  • Students are entering educational environments today with years of experience in collaboratively constructed participatory culture, and have developed a tendency towards self-disclosure through that participation.
  • The paradigm shift in pedagogy will likely mirror that of communication technologies and will be dramatic.
  • Students will be engaged and motivated by a sense of membership and the ability to develop their own voice, validating their identity and contributions. These interactions promote the negotiation of meaning and uptake of corrective feedback.
  • Students need to develop autonomy which includes:
    • the ability to use language to independently contribute personal meanings as a collaborative member of the group
    • the ability to use appropriate strategies for communicating as a collaborative member of a group
    • the willingness to demonstrate these abilities within the group
  • Teachers must learn to design projects that promote participation and the construction of knowledge, such as:
    • group digital storytelling
    • fanfiction
    • simulation and gaming construction
    • shared social mapping projects
    • digital cultural collage
    • video projects
    • wikis about core course content
    • group picture story creation
    • authentic knowledge contributions
    • meme creation
  • Guidelines for teachers in designing authentic practice with technology:
    • allow students to construct their own projects
    • construct tasks and task expectations as a class
    • ask more questions than you provide answers
    • provide tasks across a spectrum of teacher intervention
    • provide necessary learner training for use of digital spaces and tools
    • encourage the use of extant language and technology knowledge and skills
    • observe and monitor student progress as they collaborate but avoid too much control
    • provide input or feedback only as it aids or guides the task or project
    • assure all students have an appropriate role in a project or activity
    • provide students with rubrics and/or checklists
  • Going forward, teachers must prepare for change, living in a perpetual state of beta, and develop a sense of curiosity about the evolution of participatory culture.

Article 4: Lin, M, Preston, A., Kharrufa, A. & Kong, Z. (2016). Making L2 learners’ reasoning skills visible: The potential of computer supported collaborative learning environments. Thinking Skills and Creativity. 22, 303-322.

Focus: This article explores the use of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Environments as multimodal spaces for promoting critical thinking for L2 education from the perspectives of technology, thinking skills and interaction. It focuses on the use of specific technologies and seeks to provide empirical interactional evidence to demonstrate L2 learner talk through group work through capturing “thinking-in-action” video interactions. The setting is a higher education institute in China, and the learners are learning English.

Main ideas:

  • Traditional L2 instruction has focused more on language skills and memorization and less on critical thinking.
  • The lack of language skills or vocabulary has been a longstanding objection by teachers against the incorporation of higher order thinking in a second language environment.
  • Students also cite a lack of language skills and vocabulary as obstacles which prevent them from taking an active part in discussions.
  • This article seeks to separate potential issues of language deficiency and issues of cognitive overload in the conceptualization and representation of ideas.
  • Using Jewell’s taxonomy, the aspects of critical thinking seen as important to this study are :
    • the extent to which technology fosters explicit construction of arguments,
    • considerations of supporting the evidence and deepening students’ enquiry and understanding through community of inquiry,
    • establishing enquiry and understanding as the superordinate goals of reasoning
  • The ability to participate in discussions may be a factor of task complexity (cognitive factors), task conditions (interactional factors) and task difficulty (learner factors).
  • Research suggests that computer mediated communication can alleviate constraints on working memory when performing cognitively complex language learning tasks involving face to face interactions.
  • Integration of technology in L2 learning needs to focus on supporting natural, face to face style communication. This article focuses on the use of a digital table top which allows students to use a common focal point for discussing content, using words like “here”, “there” and others used for common directions, as well as incorporating gestures to support communication.
  • The structure of the activity in this study incorporated distinct grouping and sequencing stages. Students generated categories and reorganized information to align with new perspectives which developed through the discussion. Students used arrow-shaped sticky notes which encouraged them to focus on causal relationships, reasons or consequences. The video transcripts show a number of examples of how the visual representation of an arrow led students to re-examine previous interpretations and decisions.
  • The scope of this article does not include a focus on teacher observation and assessment, which is an area needing exploration.
  • The authors suggest that the work presented here connects well to other work on co-located collaborative writing which matured from a scaffolding mechanism for planning, and cite the need for a specific follow up involving a focus on teacher and peer assessment.
  • Implications for student support include:
    • intentional project design that supports critical thinking and higher order cognitive functions through the choice of technology and use of visual cues, gestures, and extant language to help students make the transitions necessary to articulate their thinking
    • learning environments need to support and encourage making critical thinking visible
    • students need to be taught the vocabulary of critical thinking to help articulate their thinking
    • teachers must include instruction using specific terminology to make targeted critical thinking skills explicit.
    • technology should be used to support the integration and teaching of critical thinking and reasoning skills in the L2 classroom.
    • the use of technology should be viewed as part of a broader ecology of the L2 classroom where peers, teacher and technology come together.

Image credit:

Question mark in Esbjerg” by alexanderdrachmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

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