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A Mingling of Minds

A Mingling of Minds: Collaboration and Modeling as Transformational Teaching Techniques

by Carol Eades
Before speaking, Jim glances out the window at a few snowflakes falling to the slightly frozen November ground. Martha gazes from one side of the blackboard to the other, examining the chalky white set of notes that represents two hours of collaboration. After all seven students in my GED class have generated ideas and shared information, a few offer some closing thoughts. 
    
"My grandmother came from Germany. I never gave much thought to how her life might have been. In fact, I never even knew her. I just heard stories about her when I was growing up. She could have had to move around like that," Jim said, with a new feeling of awareness.
     "Yeah. She could have. I work with some people who moved here from India," responded Deborah. "I never thought about that they grew up hundreds and hundreds of miles from here. That must be hard. I wouldn't like that."
     "I work on the floor with a guy from China. Nobody can understand him much. I need to try harder to be friendly even if I don't always know what it is he's saying. I'd like to know what it's like in China since I'll probably never get to go," Martha adds.

A sense of camaraderie pervades our group. Earlier we had read about Ellis Island and about the multicultural nature of our nation. We had brainstormed about why people leave their homelands and emigrate, what hardships they may face in getting to their new destinations, and what awaits them upon arrival. Soon my class of American-born, English-speaking students will write an essay on the challenges confronting a family whose members speak little or no English when they move to the United States. This lesson crossed the disciplines in reading, vocabulary, inferential skill building, geography, history, brainstorming, mapping, and other elements of process writing. This class took place at a large university where all the students were employed. Working in this environment brought them into frequent contact with a diverse, international population.  From the comments they made, I sense that more has taken place than just preparation for essay writing. Perhaps this collaborative process has led to transformation.

Informational vs. Transformational Teaching

As I reflect on this conversation, I cannot help but remember my own education, as a child and young adult. It was quite a few years ago, in a school system where the teachers customarily assumed almost total responsibility for filling students' minds with information. Those teachers mainly recited facts, gave out practice exercises, and tested us. Only rarely was time devoted to discussion, group projects, or student interaction during class. Paulo Freire refers to such a teaching style as the banking concept of education, implying that the teacher is merely making information deposits into the minds of students (Shor & Freire, 1987). I refer to it as informational teaching. Purely informational learning may be thought of as acquiring or producing descriptive knowledge ("know what") that is new to the learner as well as procedural knowledge ("know how"), which indicates how to do something (Holsapple, 1995). In addition, it may include reasoning knowledge ("know why"), which is concerned with understanding what conclusion is valid when a given situation exists. "Know what," "know how," and "know why" are simple ways of thinking about descriptive, procedural, and reasoning knowledge respectively. Research confirms that informational learning approaches often do not affect students' present beliefs and interpretations or provide new ways of using information (Taylor et al., 2000).

Informational teaching focuses on the transfer of information to a learner. By itself, it is not particularly conducive to motivating learners, nor to helping them accomplish the kinds of changes in their lives that I believe are the purpose of adult learning. To me, adult education should be a means for enhancing and honing social cooperation, collaborative techniques, and individual and group responsibility skills that adult students need.

Transformational learning changes the learner. As such, it is crucial for accomplishing these objectives. Transformational learning enhances informational learning by interconnecting with it. It leads "Íto deep and pervasive shifts in the learner's perspective and understanding" (Portnow et al., 1998). Transformational learning involves an alteration in how a person filters information, interprets information, and relates it to previously received information, ultimately changing the way in which the person interacts in the world. In other words, a person's view of the world has been altered so that future assimilation of impressions is different, as are the consequent knowledge-based behaviors. 

Teaching for Transformation

How do you teach for transformation? I have found that instructional activities involving collaboration and modeling are especially useful. Collaboration involves having students work together as a community of learners to share knowledge and to create new knowledge. During collaboration, I frequently pose a question, dilemma, or situation and have students collaborate in search of a solution or answer. I used this method in the earlier classroom vignette described above. I presented a short tale about an immigrant that served as a discussion prompt. It led to the class defining immigration and related terms, tracing immigration routes on a map, discussing the history and significance of immigration, and sharing personal stories.

An Adult Educator's Role in Collaboration

To establish a collaborative climate, it's important to provide:

  • an opportunity for collaboration

  • a model for collaborative activity

  • a community where everyone is valued

  • equal opportunity for every adult student

  • student ownership of views

  • time for ongoing response

  • minimal input that helps students see new possibilities

  • minimal input that helps students see new problems

  • an open gate to new awareness learning by asking open-ended questions

  • a closed gate to negative criticism that goes beyond beneficial learning through diplomatic validation of differences and conflict resolution

  • guidance in appreciation for significance, meaning, and applicability of new learning

  • an opportunity for collaboration with students from other adult education classes or invited guests

  • information for other adult education teachers on adult collaborative endeavors

Another example of the transformational teaching I do involves math. I frequently give math word problems: students discuss the nature of the problem, determine what is being asked in the problem, and decide the best method to use to solve it. Then they may work the problem individually, compare answers, and help each other as needed. We also often compare word problems to real-life situations they encounter. For instance, a math problem involving percentages can easily be transformed into problems about prices of sale items at stores or the return on bank interest rates.

I have always found my students to be very receptive to transformational teaching. An almost irresistible sense of personal connectedness to the subject matter occurs and even the more reticent students become engaged and speak up. Collaboration can also help adult students learn how to conduct themselves, negotiate their own positions effectively, productively assist others' attempts to negotiate their positions, and evaluate others' viewpoints. Communication skills are enhanced as students work to avoid vague language; mutual responsibility is developed as students work together in collaborative activities (Tipper & Malone 1995). Critical inquiry and analytic thinking take place as students seek to make sense of positions and arguments. A sense of community is achieved as students endeavor in extensive collaborative work to establish open communication, seek to help each other, learn, and trust each other with their thoughts and feelings. In this way, development of more complex, flexible thinking and multiple perspectives leads to a transformational under standing of the adult student's own life and of the world (Taylor et al., 2000).

Modeling

After engaging in collaborative work, I generally follow with a teaching-by-modeling session. Before class ended on the day of the immigration lesson, I explained that the students would be writing an essay on immigration. I provided them with details about the topic and the nature of the writing. At the next class meeting, I modeled an outline of an essay similar to what they might write, beginning by putting the writing topic on the blackboard. The modeled subject must be adequately different from the topic the students will soon write about not to influence the content of their work, yet similar enough to provide a sound model. I chose the topic, "What Immigrants Leave Behind in their Homeland," because students would be writing instead on challenges confronting an immigrant family after moving to America. The general topic of immigration remained intact, but the view was different in the model essay.

Next, I had students spend a few minutes drafting a short list of what immigrants might leave behind. Students voluntarily came to the board and briefly wrote some of their ideas: family, friends, home, familiar environment, job, and money or treasured possessions. Then we discussed and practiced how we might put some of these ideas into sentences. Students wrote some representative sentences on the board. We discussed how these sentences could best be worked into paragraphs and outlined the shape an essay might take using the ideas we had generated. As a last step, we practiced writing one good strong paragraph on the board. The students then indicated that they felt prepared to begin writing on their own. Modeling not only serves as a living demonstration and example but can also ease anxieties that some students may have when initially attempting an academic task.

Figure 1. 
A Lesson Using Collaboration and Modeling

Present a brief vignette about a father, mother, and three children who are forced to leave their war-torn homeland and flee to America. Ask students, "What will each of these immigrants lives be like during the first year here?"

Phase 1: Collaboration

  • Preview vocabulary used in lesson

  • Preview historical context of immigration

  • Read about Ellis Island

  • Discussion of reading

  • Map immigration routes in an atlas

  • Look at related items of interest on the Internet

  • General discussion: why people emigrate; what awaits them in a new land

  • Share personal anecdotes

Phase 2: Modeling

  • Introduction to topic and writing assignment

  • Model writing similar to forthcoming independent writing:

  • Prewrite on what immigrants leave behind in their homeland 

  • Brainstorm from prewriting

  • Turn ideas into sentences

  • Outline an essay

  • Draft a paragraph

Phase 3: Independent Essay Writing

  • Prewrite

  • Map

  • Outline

  • Write the draft

  • Finalize the essay

Putting it Together

Educators can do much to provide a setting conducive to transformational learning by establishing a collaborative climate and providing learners with the opportunity to do so. For some instructors, this will mean suppressing old teaching habits: that all, or most, of the instruction is solely teacher-based. It may not be easy initially to yield some control and permit true collaboration to flourish. Providing an initial model for a collaborative activity is useful, particularly in classes in which it has not yet been used.

Instructors can imaginatively implement collaboration and model teaching techniques in many different ways. A diagram of collaboration and modeling for my lesson on immigration appears in Figure 1. Giving students a similar diagram can help them visualize the direction of the collaboration and modeling session. Students can ascertain at any given time the phase of learning taking place, and note at a glance where the instruction process is leading. An instruction diagram can provide evidence of a planned process and may very well serve to stave off those "Where is this going?" looks  from students.

Conclusion

Collaboration provides an environment for transformational learning and increases the opportunity for immediate as well as future meaning, benefit, and impact. It is a natural precursor to modeling. In turn, modeling helps students progress toward independent performance and usually yields outcomes that are closer to desired educational expectations.

Collaboration and modeling are integrated teaching techniques that can enable students to help each other. When I use collaborative methods, I typically spend less time teaching students individually, allowing more time for all of my students. Adult students are not the only benefactors in this transformational learning process. Instructors have just as much to gain from engaging in transformational teaching. I have come to new awareness and deepened my own ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing as a result of stepping beyond the limiting boundaries of informational teaching. I have lost any tendency to make dogmatic prior assumptions about what my students may or may not know, while gaining a greater ability to communicate with them. I am more willing to let my students think for themselves and teach each other. Rather than having all the answers myself, my students and I find answers together. That makes me a better teacher and my students better learners.

References

Holsapple, C. (1995). "Knowledge management in decision making and decision support." Knowledge and Policy, Vol. 8, No.  1, 5-22.

Portnow, K., Popp, N., Broderick, M., et al. (1998). "NCSALL's research findings: Transformational learning in adulthood." Focus on Basics, 2 (D).

Shor, I., & Freire, P. (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. New York: Bergin & Garvey.

Taylor, K., Marienau, C.,  & Fiddler, M. (2000). Developing Adult Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tipper, M., &  Malone, M. (1995). "Conflicting demands in writing response groups."  The Writing Instructor, (Summer). 

About the Author

Carol Eades has taught in a college writing center, conducted writing workshops, and taught in a GED program as well as in other adult education programs. She is now an editor for a national professional organization and has been teaching college writing, reading, and academic success for five years. She is a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction, with a focus on English, adult literacy, and developmental learning in college.