From Collaborative Learning to black professors in the UK

A little while ago I participated in a lively discussion on Twitter with other teachers, which began by exchanging arguments on the usefulness and strengths vs weaknesses of the collaborative learning approach (much advocated by EAL professionals). As the discussion developed, it took us to other connected and interconnected areas related to EAL, such as talk to writing approach for developing literacy, the issue of fundamental British values (FBV) and teaching critical literacy.

Rather than comment on the conversation itself, without divulging either identities or specific ideas of individuals involved in the Twitter discussion, I’ve decided to plot here how all of these ideas and issues are interconnected.

Okay. So, first of all, what is collaborative learning? It should not be confused with group work. Much like not all squares are rectangles, not all group work = collaborative learning. Collaborative learning is a type of group work where participating students are not able to actually complete the task in front of them without involving others. Everyone has different information and everyone has to “pitch in” and collaborate. In classes with EAL learners, this means that it forces native English speaking learners to communicate with EAL learners, preventing them from excluding them due to the linguistic barrier.

Collaborative learning is strongly linked to the idea that academic language and academic writing should be taught by the talk-to-writing approach; talk is important in that (amongst many) it can allow learners to see the difference between spoken-like non-academic non-abstract strongly contextualised language and language required for writing decontextualized abstract academic language, which, by KS4, is strongly required by GCSEs in a variety of subjects. My own EAL-friendly lesson plan, created on the basis of insights from Pauline Gibbons’s English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking and Bernard Mohan’s Knowledge Framework, encourages teachers to develop lessons moving along this contextualised speaking to decontextualized/abstract continuum. Gibbons provides an example from a Science lesson, starting with an experiment where children are able to talk about their task by pointing to various objects (using that for any object they point to), then telling other groups about what they had done, then writing about and finally using, in writing, abstract academic language to describe the experiment – this time not using “we” but rather passive voice and nominalisations. Collaborative learning can very easily become a part of this process – and could be incorporated into the speaking part of the talk-to-writing continuum.

The argument against group work is sometimes posed that it can descend into chaos and children talking whatever they want to talk about, not focusing on the task. Indeed. That’s why talk needs to structured and well managed. Collaborative learning prevents the chaos from happening. A quick look at the Collaborative Learning Project, where activities suggested are intended for classrooms with EAL learners, will tell you that all of such activities are structured, both linguistically and in terms of organizing groups of learners. Students learn how to take turns, listen and then make decisions whilst EAL learners’ language is scaffolded, leading them to acquire academic language as they go along. Students benefit from interacting with one another. Neil Mercer, a Cambridge University scholar, who spent his entire career researching talk to writing and the importance of children’s talk for their literacy skills, argues that cognition is not individual and that language and social brain are interconnected – that is, we learn through interaction with others and “more heads than one” is beneficial for our cognition and language learning. He certainly doesn’t just “claim” it; he has done extensive research to prove it! For starters, do listen to his seminar Education, Language and the Social Brain for the Oxford University and read his insightful The Guided Construction of Knowledge and Interthinking, too!

It is also Mercer who discusses three different types of talk (please look here): disputational (lots of disagreement with everyone making their own decisions), cumulative (not much disagreement, but everyone just agrees: uncritical approach) and exploratory talk where interlocutors listen attentively, ask questions, are critical, everyone is encouraged to contribute and there is an atmosphere of shared purpose. The idea behind collaborative learning is, of course, to encourage children to engage in exploratory talk. Structuring language, providing children with different roles and examples of academic language building up their lexis, and having a shared purpose – is all about exploration and being critical. As such, it represents a massive step-up from non-coordinated group work (which, I agree, could descend into disputational talk, so good teaching is required).

There is another reason to use collaborative learning with learners struggling with English literacy. However good a teacher, however articulate he or she is, they will never be able to provide enough input. EAL learners differ from native English language speaking children – whilst English as a first language users would’ve normally received up to 5 years of exposure to the English language at home from their parents before joining their first school, EAL learners, being bilingual, will speak their own mother tongue at home (naturally!), but not necessarily English. NALDIC’s Working Paper 5: The Distinctiveness of EAL explains this quite clearly and refers to other bilingualism research in the field. Therefore, school needs to provide children with more opportunities to speak and listen. However amazing a teacher, they will not be able to provide the same kind of exposure – not with 20+ children in a class. Providing structured opportunities for talk for children and allowing them to benefit from their social brain is imperative. Collaborative learning is the way to go! It allows for listening, meaningful collaboration and talk whilst teaching academic language – teaching content at the same time.

I have heard the argument that group work is a waste of time that teachers do not have as it can result in students chatting. Again, collaborative learning is not group work. Corkboard Connections explains this rather well (although it uses the term co-operative rather than collaborative). Unstructured group work is not collaborative learning! Indeed, unstructured group work will often result in other children excluding EAL learners – but collaborative learning prevents this from happening: teaching social skills, academic language skills, content and utilizing talk to writing all at the same time!

There are those who, in fear of chatting, arguing against any forms of group work (including collaborative learning), would rather put the teacher on the pedestal and have them do the talking only. Let’s remember that talking only is not exactly a scientific and efficient approach to teaching. Consider the fact that, much like different subjects have different literacies (language is used differently across domains), so do different social groups. Children in many homes will never have been exposed to formal academic language at all. Many children simply do not have any books at home, and the language they are used to does not reflect in any way the language of school. Your English speaking children might actually be completely alien to the language you naturally use in class as their own vernacular of English is completely different and their English mother tongue development had a different trajectory to yours – do not assume common linguistic ground! Shirley Ann Heath’s Ways with words, although describing American context a few decades ago, is still relevant and a fantastic piece of research focusing on this precise issue: different literacies in different communities. If that’s true for different English native speaking classes, it is even more true for migrant children. Long story short – use structured talk in your class, and structure your students’ talk – as the school might be the only place when they are exposed and taught academic English language.

It is also a serious mistake to withdraw EAL children from the curriculum entirely. Thomas and Collier have conducted ample research into various approaches to teaching ESL (they’re North-America-based) learners. According to them, the gap between native English speaking children and ESL learners can only be successfully closed if students’ academic, linguistic, social and cognitive skills are met at the same time. At schools, we do not have the time to just teach students language whilst putting social, academic and cognitive aspects on hold. (Please read their A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-term Academic Achievement.) Collaborative learning is one of the ways of addressing all these areas at the same time.

Of course, don’t just believe that one solution will fix it all! Nothing will, and it’s a mixture of approaches that should be considered. Too often EAL learners (or any other group of learners, for that matter) are linked to pre-defined strategies as if they were robots on whom the same thing works at all times! Not so! I would urge you not to believe in magical strategies that are sometimes advertised that will work on all EAL learners. EAL learners come from a variety of background and a careful balance of approaches and strategies is required.

Collaborative learning neatly links to addressing issues such as racial equality and social cohesion and community work. There are a number of schools where institutional racism is still rife – for instance where despite ample research into the benefits of bilingualism, where the use of L1 is discouraged, where emergent bilingual learners are put into bottom sets simply on the basis of their language ability and where schools suggest that only English should be spoken by students and their parents at home! The current mood, with the government insisting on teaching fundamental British values (FBV), seemingly suggesting that British values are somehow superior to non-British ones, does not help matters at all. Please read Michael Rosen’s strong critique of the idea of FBV in his Guardian article.

In some teachers’ opinions, they (teachers) are the only source of (content) knowledge and the only thing that children can (and, from this viewpoint, should) do is submit to them being the font of knowledge. With the number of EAL learners in the UK by now, this represents an extremely white curriculum-based stance, and I find it very damaging and dangerous. It assumes some type of all-knowingness – and reveals very unhelpful colour-blindness, for that matter – and an idea that some “right kind of knowledge” can be passed on to all learners, regardless of their diverse needs and cultural and racial backgrounds. I could agree that teachers are the source of subject knowledge in many cases, but I can’t see how that might extend to the knowledge that would reflect the diverse realities of their students. Too often is it white middle class knowledge. I myself am Polish, but I certainly do not pretend to have insight into all cultures. We need to learn from our students and listen to them, their parents and their communities.

I am embedding here a video made by UCL, called Why is my curriculum white? about the concerns with the white curriculum in England. :

We need to teach critical literacy and get students’ input into the white curriculum. As having the responsibility to educate our students so that they become responsible, critically-thinking citizens, we need to get them to critique the status quo white model of the curriculum. Our curriculum has been influenced by Ed Hirsch, and it is precisely that that we should teach students to question.

Ed Hirsch is a Yale University professor, who argues that all American – in his case – students need to have what he calls Cultural Literacy, that is a core knowledge that students in the US should possess to become fully-rounded citizens; his examples of such knowledge include knowledge of Alaska, Alamo and the Founding Fathers. This ideology was picked up by Nick Gibbs and Michael Gove, who have expressed admiration for it, and the think tank Civitas has begun translating it into the English education context. You can read more about this in this Guardian article.

So what’s the problem with this ideology, really? It’s a hegemonic ideology, produced by the white class for the white class. It ignores the contexts and backgrounds in which working class and bilingual and migrant students come to our schools. It does not take into consideration other religions and beliefs linked to race and gender. It prioritises and advantages a certain type of knowledge (white middle class knowledge) over others, maintaining the status quo. If you do not conform to this type of knowledge, you are disadvantaged. It does not encourage students to look critically at society, but insists on schools reproducing a prescribed type of citizen. We simply cannot ignore the backgrounds and beliefs that students bring with them to schools and funnel everyone into the pipeline. Doing so, I find, runs the risk of alienating significant portions of our society, and at the very least increases the chance of disengagement from education by those uncomfortable with the white middle class status quo. Since this ideology is so widely spread in the US, could it be responsible, at least partially, for the massive drop-out rates amongst students there?

Now, this is in turn linked to the scarcity of children books in the UK that would feature black characters and the incredibly low number of black professors in the UK, just two of many issues at stake. Back in 2013, Guardian reported the shocking number of 85 black professors… out of 18,510… and in 2015, the number of female black professors was reported as… 17. Richard Garner (The Guardian) comments that this shows that racial inequality “is rife” (follow the last link) in UK’s higher education.

Nathan E Richards has made a film called Absent from the Academy about the absence of black professors from UK higher education. You can watch it below:

And children’s books? Malorie Blackman, in an Independent article, says that children’s literature does not reflect the diversity of children in the UK and calls children’s books “too white”. In yet another article, this time for The Guardian, she says that the new history curriculum (the article is from 2013) was focusing on Britain too much, and was risking BME and ethnic minority children switching off from education. And this way we are now back to her criticizing Hirsch’s ideology as advocated by Michael Gove and the government.

There are, of course, those who will say, “but we do teach Nigerian poems and literature from other countries!” Let me just remind you that, with a completely white curriculum mind-set, it is perfectly possible to teach a poem from other cultures in a completely white way, at the same time slapping on white perception, and ignoring any contributions children from African backgrounds might actually bring.

Oh, and by the way: if your school has a larger population of bilingual students from backgrounds other than white English, how many of them are represented on the parents’ council? Do they have a voice? I have yet to work at a school where such proportional representation would actually take place.

So there you have it. This is how collaborative learning is linked to the status of other races within the higher education in the UK, the status of white vs black characters in children’s books, Hirsch’s pedagogy, critical literacy, FBV, and bilingualism. It’s all interconnected and be warned not to think that language and issues of race are somehow separate entities!

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