Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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7. Learning from Others - Learning in a Social Context

Session Content Outline


Key questions
  • How do people learn in social contexts?
  • How can teachers develop communities of learning?

Learning objectives
  • Assisted performance and the "zone of proximal development" – Teachers will understand how they can identify students' levels of proficiency and readiness for a given task and target assistance accordingly.
  • Strategies for fostering communication – Teachers will understand the importance of language, communication, and interaction in learning. Teachers will consider several specific teaching strategies to foster and guide communication in the classroom, including the role of questioning, group work, managed discourse, and reciprocal teaching.
  • Social contexts and learning communities – Teachers will recognize that when students work collaboratively to assist one another and take on expert roles, their learning is strengthened, reinforced, and refined. Teachers will consider strategies they can use to build learning communities.

Session Outline
  • Learning takes place through our interactions and communication with others.
  • These ideas are based heavily on the work of Russian teacher and psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, whose theory of learning has been developed and put into practice in schools by many other teachers and researchers.
  • While Piaget focused on the individual child's progress through biologically determined learning stages, Vygotsky called attention to the ways in which social environments influence this learning process.
  • Vygotsky proposed the idea that learning and development take place in the interactions children have with peers as well as with teachers and other adults.
  • Teachers can build on the ways children learn from each other by creating a learning environment where there are ample opportunities for student-to-student discussion, collaboration, and feedback.

Vygotsky's Theories of Learning
  • Vygotsky suggested that knowledge is constructed in the midst of our interactions with others and is shaped by the skills and abilities valued in a particular culture.
  • He argued that language is the main tool that promotes thinking, develops reasoning, and supports cultural activities like reading and writing.
  • The teacher or a more expert peer is essential to this learning process.
  • Individual development takes place in the context of activities modeled or assisted by this more skilled person.
  • Contemporary theorists have built on Vygotsky's ideas about learning as a social process and suggested some implications for teaching in the larger context of schools. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz offer the following five principles for effective pedagogy, based on a Vygotskian perspective and emerging from extensive classroom research. Their work suggests the importance of –
    1. having teachers and students produce work together
    2. developing language and literacy across the curriculum
    3. making meaning: connecting school to students' lives
    4. teaching complex thinking
    5. teaching through guided conversation (Dalton, 1998, cited in Tharp, Estrada, Dalton, & Yamauchi, 2000, p. 20)

Strategies for Fostering Productive Interaction in the Classroom

Certain kinds of interactions can assist the learning process. Two ways that teachers can guide and enrich interaction with and among their students are –

  • managing student discussions
  • assisted performance and scaffolding

Developing Learning Communities
  • Vygotsky's theory about how individuals learn from each other is often used to explain the benefits of learning in groups.
  • His ideas about how we learn have led to the development of "learning communities" centered around student-to-student interactions and the exchange of ideas.
  • In a learning community, students learn through carefully structured collaboration as they participate in a shared practice or a group project in a setting that resembles a real-life situation. Learning is always "situated" in a social context because what is learned cannot be separated from how it is learned and used.

Community of Learners Classrooms
  • Work is carried out through a division of labor and through repeated cycles of work – students first research a topic, in order to share their expertise with their classmates and finally perform a consequential task requiring that all students have mastered the content generated by each group.
  • In a community of learners, expertise is "distributed." Each individual contributes to his research group and each group contributes a part to the whole, based upon their knowledge about a specific topic.
  • In learning communities, peers help one another to build knowledge and skills. The teacher is not the only expert or source of assistance.

Teacher and Student Roles in the Interactive Classroom
  • The development of such a classroom learning community is multifaceted. Teachers are charged with –
    1. creating and designing a learning environment that maximizes students' opportunities to interact with each other and other experts
    2. acting as an expert, model, guide, and facilitator of these social interactions.
  • One of the more common misconceptions about the teacher's role in a socially interactive classroom is that the teacher backs away, stands off to the side, and lets students discover for themselves in an almost unplanned fashion.
  • On the contrary, such classrooms are carefully constructed ecosystems in which teachers are very much involved in shaping the learning environment.
  • The learner also takes on more responsibility – as a teacher of her peers, an emerging expert, a group member, and an individual responsible for her own learning and interests.

Collaborative Learning and Group Work
  • Supporting learning as a social process does not require that every classroom focus solely on long-term inquiry projects.
  • Daily tasks that foster more student-to-student collaboration can build on the range of strengths and abilities that exist in a given class.
  • Many research studies have demonstrated that students in cooperative learning groups perform significantly better than those in competitive or individualistic situations in terms of their reasoning, the generation of new ideas and solutions, and how well they transfer what they learn from one situation to another, as well as on traditional test measures.
  • The teacher plays a significant role in helping students learn to work effectively with one another; these are not skills that develop without assistance.
  • Another way to encourage students to depend on one another and to be responsible for group behavior is to have them practice these skills during short exercises and games that require collaboration.
  • Another way to facilitate group work is to assign specific roles to group members that are related to how the work is to be done so there is a clear division of labor.
  • Effective group tasks require students to draw on their individual strengths.
  • David Johnson and Roger Johnson suggest four characteristics of truly cooperative groups:
    1. Members see their work as interdependent in terms of the task, roles, and resources ("we" instead of "me").
    2. Each member is personally and individually accountable to do his or her fair share of the work. (We are assessed individually and as a group).
    3. Members use interpersonal and small group skills needed for successful cooperative efforts.
    4. Members reflect and process as a group how effectively the group is working together (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, p. 89).

Reciprocal Teaching
  • Reciprocal teaching (RT) is a method of group instruction that enables the teacher to fade from a central role and builds in a structure for students to teach their peers.
  • RT is a term used both because it embodies the generic idea that students can learn by taking responsibility for acquiring knowledge and teaching it to others and because it is a specific strategy for teaching reading comprehension.

Conclusion
  • The lens of learning in a social context helps us to think about how, through engagement in purposeful tasks, with expert assistance, and by collaboration with others, the learner is encouraged to operate "as though he were a head taller than himself" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102).

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