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Designing Collaborative Learning Contexts: What Works and Questions Risen

Updated on April 6, 2015

“Designing Collaborative Learning Contexts,” written by Annemarie Palinscar and Leslie Herrenkohl, described two processes teachers can incorporate into their classrooms that promote student engagement and collaboration. Although I am inclined to believe that educational psychology literature can be rather pretentious and self-serving, Palinscar and Herrenkohl offered their readers an honest and humble piece of work that aimed to educate us about two methods of reciprocal teaching (RT). The reading offers insight on how one can successfully conduct group activities in the classroom that should result in increased knowledge in the area of study as well as increased efficiency when reading and conducting research.

An aspect of RT that made it prominent to me was its focus on teaching students how to be efficient readers. The frequency in which I have to reread a passage due to my lack of focus the first time is deplorable. It can be time consuming and deters me from reading in general, but I know that the more I practice reading with a purpose, the better I will become at it. Palinscar and Herrenkohl write, “Following the reading of the initial portion of the text, the discussion leader raises the questions about the content of the text…summarizing is used to identify the gist of what has been read and discussed and to prepare the group to proceed to the next segment of text” (Palinscar and Herrenkohl 27). By training students to raise questions about the content that they are reading, they are also learning techniques to maintain their focus as they read. I would incorporate this method of teaching in my lessons as often as possible.

An aspect of RT that I found confusing and in need of clarification was its emphasis on students coming to a consensus when summarizing a passage before moving on. They write, “In contrast, when the students are summarizing or clarifying the text, they are asked to come to agreement regarding issues such as the “big ideas” in the portion of text under discussion and to use the text to support their interpretations” (Palinscar and Herrenkohl 27). Are the students only supposed to come to a shared agreement about the big ideas of the text, or can they agree to disagree? What happens when two students make well-supported but opposing arguments? If the students must always come to a consensus on the reading before moving on, I would not incorporate that element into my classroom, especially as a history teacher, where clashing opinions form the basis of the study. I would allow my students to argue for their interpretation and attempt to convince the other to substitute his position, otherwise known as a debate.

I found the examples of Cognitive Tools and Intellectual Roles (CTIR) most promising for future use in my classroom. The authors define CTRI as:

“Reflecting the emphasis on coordinating theories with evidence, three strategic steps were developed to guide students in developing explanations about scientific phenomena. These steps include: (a) predicting and theorizing, (b) summarizing results, and (c) relating predictions and theories to results. These three steps comprised a set of cognitive tools that were used to support student collaboration by promoting a common focus for their interactions” (Palinscar and Herrenkohl 29).

In order to incorporate this type of CTIR into my classroom, a revision of the three steps to promote cooperative learning and student engagement to reflect the practices of historians when uncovering the past would be necessary. I might revise them to read: (a) making a discovery, (b) conducting extensive research on their discovery, and (c) collaborating with fellow researchers to compare their findings in order to edit their work as well as their classmates work. One of my history professors this semester has assigned us a similar project. I am looking forward to completing it!

One last question that arose during the reading is when the authors write, “Allowing audience members to ask questions of reporters encouraged the student audience members to nominate themselves for participating in the process” (Palinscar and Herrenkohl 30). I believe that when left to their own will, students will take the opportunity to ask questions and engage in the activity. However, some questions that made themselves evident were: what happens when a student does not ask questions? What can a teacher do with his students who refuse to do as they are asked? I am referring to students with sever disciplinary and behavioral issues. Naturally, the proportion of these types of students is low, but the questions remain. Are some people impossible to teach? I like to think that the answer to that particular question is no.

Using the two methods outlined in this essay, I believe that teachers can help to create within their students the belief that the activities that we believe come naturally to us, such as reading, do, in fact, require practice in order to complete them efficiently. Concurrently with reading with a purpose, teachers can also show their students the proper methods of creating a hypothesis or theory and conducting research using the standards that a scientist would, all while promoting collaborative learning.

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