Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Significance of Group Activities in Second Language

The Significance of Group Activities in Second Language Pedagogy

Dr.K.N. Anandan

1. Group work takes away a major chunk of classroom time. Is it necessary that we have to ask children work in groups always?
2. Will the individual learner learn anything through group activities?

The questions posed here sprout from lack of proper understanding of what knowledge is and how it is constructed by individuals in a natural way. If we believe that information is equivalent to knowledge we can conveniently transmit the information that is loaded in the textbook to the learners. Probably, we can use a variety of strategies and techniques for doing this. In this mode of teaching and learning the teacher is on the one side (to deliver lessons) and the learners on the other (to receive the lessons). Depending on the efficacy of the techniques used the learners can store the information that is given to them for a considerable period of time. In this state of affairs the role of the teacher can be (and in most cases, is) replicated by the tuition teacher or guide books. Thus ‘feeding in’ of information survives.

Learner as an independent researcher

In the early stages of cognitive psychology Piaget proposed a different conceptualization of knowledge. Till his times the focus was on theorizing about topics such as memory, problem-solving, visual imagery and categorizing in adults, without regard to the manner in which these abilities developed. Piaget rejected this practice. The core insight he gives us is that we cannot understand what knowledge is unless we understand how it is acquired. This is not enough. We can understand how knowledge is acquired only through psychological and historical investigations. For this we have to test our hypotheses by collecting data, not only about the thinking of human infants and children, but also about the historical development of scientific ideas. He believed that the development of knowledge was a biological process, a matter of adaptation by an organism to an environment. This is why he calls his theory of knowledge as genetic epistemology. Following Piaget we do not conceive learning as mere storing in of information. It is a complex cognitive process where each individual constructs knowledge. This is an experiential process by which the learner transforms the available data or information to his or her own knowledge. In the early stages of the evolution of Cognitive psychology, Piaget conceived this as a process of forming schema. This is essentially a discovery procedure, an individual enterprise analogous to the one undertaken by researchers which involves various processes like realizing the problem, collecting and analyzing the data, forming testing and hypotheses, etc.
Jerome Bruner conceives learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".

Fig 1: Piaget

As far as instruction is concerned, the instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialogue (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. For this the Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.
According to Bruner, ‘to instruct someone … is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach a subject not to produce little living libraries in that subject, but rather to get a student think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as a historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting – knowing is a process not a product.
From the individual to the social
Much water has flown under the bridge since Piaget’s conceptualization of knowledge and knowledge learning. Significantly, taking cue from Vygotsky, we realize that knowledge cannot stand independent of the social ambience in which the learner is placed. Vygotsky maintains that the development of an individual cannot be looked at detaching him from his social and material environment. It is with this environment that human beings constantly interact. Furthermore, the environment is not a constant one; it keeps changing. Implicitly, we will have to take into consideration the history of the group or groups of which an individual is becoming a member. We will also have to look into the particular social events the individual has successfully participated in over a certain period of time.

Fig 2: Vygotsky

What does this mean? The formation of individual persons, their identities, values and knowledgeable skills, occurs through their participation in some subset of these activity systems. For example, there are traceable activities such as
activities in which people are involved with family members
activities involving peers and others in school
activities related to work, leisure and so on (see Wells 1999)

Therefore, who a person becomes depends critically on things like the following:
activity systems he or she participates in the support and assistance he or she receives from other members of the relevant communities in appropriating the specific values, knowledge and skills that are enacted in participation (see Lave & Wenger, 1991)

Zone of Proximal Development

What has been discussed above leads us to an important Vygotskyan notion namely, ‘The Zone of Proximal Development - ZPD’. This is the difference between the person’s ability to solve problems on her own, and her ability to solve them with assistance. Schütz (2004) explains that the “actual developmental level refers to all the functions and activities that a child can perform on his own, independently without the help of anyone else. On the other hand, the zone of proximal development includes all the functions and activities that a child or a learner can perform only with the assistance of someone else. Prerequisites to assisting someone to work in their ZPD are empathy and judgment about their needs and capabilities when acting alone. The ZPD comes into being when one person acts as the mediator for another person who is not able to execute a particular action alone. The notion of ZPD can be clarified with the help of a diagram (see Figure 1):

Fig 3: ZPD
The inner circle represents the zone of child’s current achievement. She cannot reach the outer region by herself; it is a zone beyond her reach at present. However, she can reach this region with the help of collaboration with peers or a more knowledgeable person. The difference between the child’s current achievement and what she can achieve by virtue of collaboration with others is termed as ZPD.
Let us try to explain the notion of ZPD with the help of a different diagram.

Potential level
Level that can be reached through further collaboration (X + 1+ 1)
Level that can be reached through collaboration (X + 1)
Current level ( X )

Fig 4: Learning interpreted in terms of ZPD
As represented in Figure 4 a child (say for instance, John) is at present at level X. However, this is not his ultimate level. He has the potential to reach level X+ 1. The area in between X and X+1 is the zone of proximal development. This is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1987). According to Vygotsky, social interaction plays a vital role in the learning process. He emphasizes the role of “shared language” in the development of thought and language, which stands for social interaction.

Pedagogic implication of ZPD

Vygotsky (1962) theorized that two levels determine the learning process; ego-centricity and social interaction. The child’s actual development level is determined by independent problem solving. The next level is determined through problem solving under adult guidance in collaboration with more peers that are capable. It is the teacher’s duty to try to take each child to the level X+1. The teacher does this by giving optimal help (scaffolding) to the children. Perhaps she can give a learner just the cue he needs. This cue provides for the learner a breakthrough he needs. Sometimes the teacher can take the whole class through a series of steps, which help them to solve the problem. Children may differ in their areas of their zones of proximal development. A child with a large zone will have a much greater capacity to be helped by teachers than a child with a narrow zone. However, the teacher still has a duty to help the latter child as well as the former one. Children are to be exposed to social interaction first and it will eventually enable them build their inner resources.
From the discussion presented here it is obvious that children have to undertake a certain task individually as well as in groups. This is why group work becomes an important component of classroom transaction. Each sharing helps the learner to reflect on his own thinking process. For example, what will be the thoughts of a learner when he listens to someone else in the group:
Ah! This is something I didn’t think
That’s a new idea to me,
I thought the same thing but I couldn’t express it well
Each sharing results in the expansion of his ZPD. But the pre-requisite for this is the facilitator’s instructions on what is to be shared and how it is to be done. After the sharing is over, the members of the group can reach at certain consensus. Given this perspective, learning can be redefined as the expansion of ZPD.

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