Forget the traditional classroom scenario that sees the teacher at the board imparting facts or explaining ideas while students sit passively at their desks. If you really want your learners not only to acquire knowledge but also the skills necessary to make good use of that knowledge in the outside world, then collaborative learning is the way forward.
Collaborative learning builds on two keys premises; firstly, that we learn by doing; secondly, that we learn best when we learn together, with peer-instruction allowing students to check each other’s understanding and address any misconceptions. This of course is central to acquiring good language skills, not only because language is an inherently social act but also because misunderstandings only make themselves known in actual use of language.
Language teachers will be most familiar with collaborative learning as pair and group work activities in which students put into practice the grammar and vocabulary they have been studying. But it can encompass a much wider range of activities, such as project work and collaborative tasks. Let’s look at some examples that work well with secondary school age students and higher.
Websearch and Present
If your students have access to computers, you can set them to work in pairs or small groups researching topics relevant to upcoming lessons (or indeed, topics they themselves propose). The proviso is that only English-language websites can be consulted. In deciding which topics to choose, a good place to start is the coursebook, ideally one that has been designed with young adults in mind, such as Next Move.
Once students have finished their research, they feedback their findings to class in short presentations. Your students will no doubt be used to using the internet for research already, and you might want to force them to be more resourceful by prohibiting Wikipedia, but the activity works well in stimulating lots of realistic communication, besides which the skills of looking up data and making presentations are both likely to be called upon in the real world.
Let’s get truly hands-on for the next one. Put your students into small groups and give each group the same set of materials: some card, the insides of some old kitchen paper rolls, lots of straws, some elastic bands, some string, some sellotape, some scissors… and a small weighty object of some kind (a copy to each group of the same small book, for example, or even the smallest ring of a home dumbbell set). The task – or rather, the challenge – is to build as high a tower as possible to support the weight. The team that builds the highest successful tower wins.
The whole activity necessitates full cooperation and, naturally, students have to plan their towers, allocate tasks, and carry out the building process entirely in English. This entails lots of imperatives and the language of instruction and suggestion, so you might wish to input some useful phrases and grammatical structures first.
In this activity, based on the TV programme, groups of students have to pitch a business idea either to the rest of the class or to an outside panel of judges (for which you can call upon the help of fellow staff). You might give everyone free rein in what they come up with, or you might stipulate the theme. This could be anything from a dream adventure holiday to a machine that makes student life easier. Either way, the collaboration involved in coming up with an idea, developing a pitch and then presenting the idea engages students’ creativity (and salesmanship) and provides the opportunity to use lots of language of explanation and description.
Interviews and surveys
Collaborative learning implies an understanding that everyone in the class is a resource – both teacher and students – and can contribute to a successful outcome of the task at hand, which is the philosophy that underpins our Next Move series of coursebooks. But it’s worth remembering that the other staff at your school are just as much a resource as well. If they are happy to get involved, a very effective project that can be done with minimal set-up is to have pairs or groups of students write and conduct simple interviews or questionnaires with the other teachers. This could be part of a project to find out how people spend their free time, or why they chose to come and live and work in the particular country where you are based, or to find out which football teams are most popular in your school and why. The list is endless. Beyond the many benefits this activity shares with those above, it also gives students the opportunity to hear a range of voices in a natural setting and interact with a range of speakers beyond just you.
FCE, CAE-style collaborative tasks
Key to success in the Speaking Paper of the Cambridge FCE and CAE exams is the ability to use English to complete a collaborative task with another candidate. As well as practicing the exam task during lessons, any kind of collaborate learning in class will help equip your students with the skills and language they need for this element of exam success.
Collaborative learning enhances a range of skills not restricted only to language skills, but also to high-level thinking skills, effective planning and decision-making, self-management and group-management, leadership skills, and depending on the task, as we have seen, presentation skills, all of which are essential for success in the modern world. As with CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), collaborative learning allows students to explore different subject areas through English, so choosing a course such as Next Move, that already incorporates cross-curricula material, is ideal for the teacher who wants to make it a regular part of their class. You can find out more about Next Move here, and more about collaborative learning here. In the meantime, happy working together!
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