Learning Sciences – What’s Good for You is Good for Me and Us Too!

Yeah, basically, you are one body.

– Participant 3, What Motivates Me? A Qualitative Perspective on Student Collaboration in Small Groups.

… collaboration can strengthen student-to-student relationships that encourage engagement leading to increased achievement in the course. Additionally, collaboration contributes to topic understanding and interpersonal skills development that assist students outside the classroom…

– ­The Effects of Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) on Student Achievement and Engagement

Around the world, learning happens in communities, in classrooms, in group settings. Some have accepted this as the natural state of affairs and may not have questioned it. Some may have concluded that learners have to organise themselves in groups because usually, the teacher-student ratio will be heavily lopsided. Technology hopes to reorganise and individualise mass learning.

Apart from the curriculum, learning in a classroom teaches many other things. For one, it teaches students that they are part of a community and that their actions can affect others. They learn that there are norms in communities and tangible (detention perhaps?) or non-tangible (social disapprobation) sanctions which apply when behaviour strays from these norms. Students get inspired in classrooms by peers who are more disciplined, able to perform better or are worthy of admiration for some other reason. This helps them improve because they have seen what can be. They may learn that organisation enables.

They learn that in communities, they lose some control over outcomes. They understand that some of them are introverts and others extroverts. They may begin to gain the implicit understanding that interests can be classified as self and mutual and over time they may begin to grasp the concept of enlightened self-interest. They learn for the first time of status, how it is gained, kept and the benefits it brings. They learn that status is by nature a prize won through subtle competition which could be intense. Not everyone agrees with the status a community confers – consider for example, popular representations of the American High School experience. Students may also learn that renegotiation is a tedious process.

Apart from social challenges for some, learning in a classroom might also mean that some might feel they are not supported as much as they would like. There could be distractions in the form of fun-loving friends.

Technology hopes to supercharge learning by removing the negatives – no possibility of being ostracised or having to accept some place in a hierarchy coupled with individualised learning at one’s own time. There are a few questions which this poses. We can consider three.

First, can software replace human teachers? Second, despite the challenges and now that learning could become hyper personal and individualised, is there still a place for the good, old classroom? Third, if there were no more constraints of space, time and manpower, would a student-teacher ratio of 1-1 be better than any other ratio?

To answer the question of whether software can replace human teachers, we have to consider what it means to teach. If teaching is merely the transmission of content, being entirely in charge is a great thing. Getting content from software which can be paused, rewound and there being no possibility of being judged (by software) might seem appealing to some students.

Teaching however is not merely transmission of content. Teaching is complete when learning and not telling or showing, is complete. All trained teachers would have experienced students understanding something completely different from what they were trying to teach – the taught curriculum and the learnt curriculum can be different. From time to time, students have to be asked what they have understood so that misconceptions can be surfaced and remediated.

Can’t software fulfil the same purpose by including mini-tests at appropriate junctures in a lesson? Sure. When a student gets it wrong, if a software is able to tell exactly why the student got it wrong and choose a teaching action specific to that student’s need or learning gap at that specific point in time, software can fulfil the same purpose.

The second question whether classrooms are still relevant can be answered briefly. To the extent that the purpose of education is to prepare students to be members of a community, classrooms are relevant.

The third question of the ideal teacher-student ratio, can be answered by reference to our own experiences. Why would anyone say no to a situation where one can interact, struggle and progress together with others while being able to learn efficiently and effectively from and with others? While many would prefer to learn with peers because we are by nature community forming, some would wonder if they can get sufficient personal attention to cater to their specific needs when in a group.

Small group teaching has been the answer for a very long time at the highest levels. As to how small is small, the answer depends on the needs and goals of the individuals in a group. According to Mills and Alexander (2013) who wrote a toolkit for university professors teaching small group classes, small group learning is any teaching situation in which dialogue and communication within the group are integral to learning. Small groups empower students with voice. They will feel heard and over time become confident to use their voice in larger group settings.

Mills and Alexander (2013) explain that small group teaching has a long history which can be traced to Socrates and his philosophical discussions with his students and in more modern times to the German research seminars of the 1700s. They cite John Dewey, “one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers and psychologists of education” who would argue that the small group serves as an ideal context within which individuals can focus their attentions both on individual success and also on the success of the collective through democratic participation.

They add that the flexible and reflexive nature of small group teaching means teachers can tailor their approach to instruction in order to meet the individual needs of students and that the high level of interactivity in small group teaching means that teachers can provide formative (or ongoing) assessment of progress to students so they can make just-in-time adjustments to their learning process.

Also as stated in Mills and Alexander (2013), in a small group setting, teachers would be able to contextualise student contributions, adapt resources for more individualised learning and use the prior knowledge and experience of individual students to benefit others in the group. Adaptation of lessons can be done according to mood and need.

Apart from facilitating mastery of subject matter content and skills, small-group teaching also imbues students with life skills. In the most recent edition of The International Academic Forum’s Journal of Education: Studies in Education, two researchers from Malaysia published their qualitative study (they interviewed students) on how students find working in small groups.

Specifically, they wanted to know how students saw their self-interest interacting with the interest of the group. Being part of a community means to make progress one has to find a way to reconcile self-interest with the interest of others.

These were some of the responses.

One participant said, when the members do a lot more of the good work, I can’t help it I want to step it up. This shows how in a small group, students get inspired by peers and transform to become better members of a community.  Another said, in a small group, self-interest can morph into mutual interest because students can get to know peers personally tooWhereas if it’s in a bigger groupyou can feel left out sometimes. Yet another participant said, Smaller groups, tend to have better dynamics, lesser personalities to deal with and more connection in the group and so members form more of a group identity with its attendant notion of responsibility towards the collective.

In small groups, you can be you and I can be me. At the same time, we can be us.

The Brain Dojo


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