All together now!
Sue Southwood explains why collaborative literacy learning is particularly effective in workplace settings.
'Cognitive apprenticeship' is a method of peer learning. It is used in groups where a learner who is more capable in a particular skill area helps a less capable learner by modelling, mentoring, scaffolding or coaching. This approach is particularly relevant in the workplace where, due to the complexity of scheduling classes around work patterns, different sites and learners' lives, it is rare that there are enough learners to organise them into groups with similar levels of ability.
As part of a Practitioner Fellowship with the NRDC, I have carried out a small-scale study to investigate how adult learners learn collaboratively with peers in workplace literacy programmes. The study involved three sites with two public-sector organisations based in London and included observation, teacher and learner interviews, teacher perspective inventories and learner focus groups.
The research aimed to identify emergent themes and issues in collaborative learning. So far, the evidence has shown that:
- relationships and work roles outside the classroom can impact on how adults learn collaboratively;
- peers can play an important role in helping those who lack confidence, are negative or worried, or have low self-esteem;
- learners can adapt their behaviour to work collaboratively.
Relationships and work roles outside the classroom can impact on how adults learn collaboratively
At one site, evaluation by learners has shown that, for some people, the make-up of the group can be critical. They need to feel part of the group; the quality of the teaching alone will not be enough for them to stay.
We have examples of learners giving up after one class but then returning six months to two years later and then sustaining their attendance. One of our long-established, successful and high-achieving classes is at a site where all the employees are friends as well as workmates. They have good relationships inside and outside the classroom and have worked together for many years.' (Tutor)
When teaching in the workplace, tutors need to be sensitive to the roles that learners have outside the classroom and appreciate the impact this may have inside the classroom. When a learner has a supervisory or managerial role, it may be difficult for them to have their level of literacy exposed. This may be compounded by asking learners to work collaboratively. Where the whole team attended the same class together, learners appeared to be defined by their work role, the class talk revolved around their work outside and, as they were in working hours, the classroom seemed to be an extension of the workplace even though it was held off site.
In contrast, classes held on work premises, but made up of learners from all areas of the business, seemed to help them to be less affected by their work roles. Their fellow-learners were largely unknown to them so their behaviour was more like that of a regular literacy class.
Peers can play an important role in helping those who lack confidence, are negative or worried, or have low self-esteem
This is well illustrated through the case of Bill.
Bill is an apprentice and the newest member of the group. He had originally come to the computer class and was referred by the tutor because of his severe dyslexia. His confidence is low; he makes very few contributions to activities and discussions. When he said that working in a group made him feel he was slower than everyone else, the group tried to encourage him. David's was the most vocal response:
"No, it's different here. It's not like school. That's what you're probably thinking of. I left school with nothing, I didn't even know the alphabet and I've learnt everything as an adult. It was frightening at work and I bluffed for years and years. It stems back from school. I hated writing when I first came but now it's OK."
The tutor is aware of Bill's abilities and his low confidence and includes him by prefacing some questions with his name. She encourages collaborative learning by getting the more capable peers to answer Bill's questions and then builds on their answers.
In one lesson, the tutor gave the learners chopped-up words in bundles and they worked in pairs to make compound words. They had about 60 single words that would make 30 compound words. If they were left with words that didn't fit, they called them out - the pairs helped each other and rearranged the words to make them fit. The tutor helped them, explaining why some didn't work. She says:
"Experimenting with different combinations takes the pressure off as they don't have to spell the words themselves."
She feels the class learn from each other and can take pressure off each other through working together.
"Someone can hold back and allow someone else to take the lead. Discussions in pairs are often more creative than in a large group. It forces independence, they don't look to the teacher all the time but feel safe and use peer support."
Another learner, Pat, thinks that collaborative learning is about being cooperative, working with others, and being open-minded to their suggestions. Asked why she thought the tutor encouraged it, she said:
"It's the right way forward, getting other people's ideas. It builds trust and teamwork and it allows the tutor to get on with other things."
Pat said she liked it because she got to know the other members of the class. She felt it built trust and she got other people's ideas and views. She said that it helped you see there were different ways to do things and that, when she said something out loud, it 'sunk in'. Pat felt that if her answer was different from her partner's, she could have another look at it. The supportive environment of the class enabled Pat to build her confidence, reflect on her contributions and work towards becoming an independent learner.
In the UK, half of those with poor basic skills are in employment and many would not access traditional educational provision. Offering opportunities for workplace learning at times and locations to suit employees can be a major motivation for people to take the first step to improve their skills. Workplace colleagues can play a critical role in supporting the teacher to create a climate that is conducive to learning.
Employees with dyslexia may be particularly vulnerable, especially if their problem is not disclosed at work. Their coping skills may break down as the workplace changes, leading to stress and anxiety. Providing opportunities for them to come together means they can use the support of peers in their journey towards independent learning and adopt better strategies to cope with their dyslexia outside the classroom.
Paul, a learner with dyslexia, thinks that collaborative learning means bouncing ideas off each other. He says it makes him feel confident as everyone in the class finds the activities challenging. Outside the classroom, Paul's dyslexia makes him feel slow and inadequate. He says that the more his confidence grows in the classroom, the more he feels he can contribute. He recently completed a routine writing task at work independently - for the first time in 20 years.
Learners can adapt their behaviour to work collaboratively
Jenny has lost her job due to health problems and has 12 weeks to be redeployed within the company. During this time, she is applying for jobs and taking courses in IT and Report Writing. She has a lively sense of humour which she uses to break the ice, get her point across and to hide her concerns about her work. When asked her reasons for joining the course she says:
"It's a good thing to do, you can never learn too much."
Jenny believes that you don't necessarily have to speak when part of the whole group but, in pairs or small groups, you have to contribute.
When the group break into pairs and are asked to brainstorm their ideas for a report, the tutor asks Manny and Jenny to work together. Jenny is lively, talkative and more confident orally than Manny although their written ability level is similar. Jenny moves to sit closer to Manny and takes the lead in the task. Manny is reticent; Jenny appears to notice this immediately, stops directing and starts to help Manny to cooperate with the task. She leans towards him and tries to build on his comments instead of making her own points. She appears to make a conscious attempt to work at Manny's slower pace. Immediately they disagree but they are able to discuss their points and reach a compromise.
When asked about the strengths of having learners work together in pairs or in small groups, the tutor says:
"Learners do not always think at the pace of a large group; small groups give them more time to grasp points themselves without holding up lots of other people. It is important to remember that most of these are people who have failed in traditional forms of education. Collaborative learning allows them to work and learn at their own speed but not in an isolated way."
In the large group all Jenny's contributions were either amusing comments or inviting or directing behaviours. When working collaboratively with Manny, a serious and contemplative learner, she slowed down and was more focused on the task.
Tutors' philosophy and leadership style
The tutors knew the varying levels of ability in the group and used this knowledge skilfully to facilitate learning and promote a collaborative approach. All the tutors showed a dominant nurturing profile on their Teaching Perspective Inventories and shared a belief in building trust and confidence among learners to create a climate conducive to learning.
"Discussions are often more creative than in a large group. It forces independence; they don't look to the teacher all the time but feel safe and use peer support."
"I think the tutor should be clear about the purpose of both the lesson and the tasks. I try to build up positive experiences in reading, writing and oral skills and create a safe environment to ask questions. I take them through an ordered structured path."
"I might set up pairs and use only one dictionary to force them to work together, or one handout between two, otherwise some will still work alone. Sometimes I give them specific roles in a pair or small group e.g. reading, listening or writing."
This article is drawn from 'Collaborative Literacy Learning in UK Workplace Learning Sites' by Sue Southwood (NRDC and NIACE) and Karen Evans (NRDC and Institute of Education, University of London.)