Chapter 4 Learning and Teaching
4.2 Learning Communities
The following is from a discussion among four students on the design of a questionnaire for collecting the opinions of Wan Chai residents about the redevelopment of the district. It was the first time they were given a free hand in completing a task and the teacher gave them only a brief outline of what had to be done. The dialogue below shows the power of peer interaction in facilitating learning.
S1: “How to design our questionnaires?”
S2: “Follow the hypotheses”.
S1: “What are our hypotheses?”
S2: “… such as ‘Wan Chai Market is important to the residents of Wan Chai’…”
S1: “Jot down some notes about the hypotheses.”
S2: “OK. I think it is better to combine hypothesis 1 and hypothesis 2 which we have set before into one.”
S1: “Yes, of course. I think the questionnaires should be as simple as possible.”
S3: “Yes, otherwise we’ll waste the time of the interviewees.”
S1: “I think we should use multiple-choice questions to make it easier to answer. For Question 2, I think the options should be the different proposals on how the Wan Chai Market could be redeveloped.”
S2: “I think the second question should be about the economic benefits brought by the redevelopment of the Wan Chai Market. As suggested by S4 and S1, we should give the interviewees a list of suggestions proposed, such as those by the government.”
S4: “The government? Or should it be the developer who proposed to change the Market into a commercial building? Some members of the Wanchai District Council suggested that it should be retained as a tourist attraction.”
S2: “Any more?”
S1: “Some suggested that it might be used to promote traditional Chinese culture.”
To build a successful learning community among students, the teacher must create a climate in which students can work with a sense of security and self confidence. Each student should be given the optimum opportunity to talk and the tasks undertaken should involve every member of the community. A spirit of cooperation and mutual respect among students is needed, and positive peer relationships are crucial.
A number of factors influence the success of a learning community. The first concern is the size and composition of student groupings. Teachers often use groups of between four and six students. However, some research findings show that at senior secondary level, the ideal group size is two, three or at the most four students. Larger groups may inhibit learning if students have to wait for a long time to give their views, or if some students dominate discussions leaving others as peripheral non-participants. The composition of groups in terms of ability is another important issue. High-ability students appear to perform well, irrespective of the type of group
in which they are placed, but when students of low ability are all put together in the same group, their learning may be jeopardised since none of the members may understand the task or have the skills or knowledge to offer the required explanation. Given this, mixed ability grouping seems at times to be the best choice.
With improved access to information technology (IT) for learning, students can use IT to build up a learning community with their teachers and classmates through, for example, e-mail, web-based instant messages and web journals. A convenient tool is the bulletin board at the Hong Kong Education City to which all Hong Kong teachers and students can gain access. As mentioned in Paragraph 4.6.4, the use of IT can remove barriers imposed on learning by time and space.
A learning community beyond school premises
The building of a learning community should not be confined to within the school premises.
St. Catherine’s School for Girls at Kwun Tong has established a learning community among its Geography teachers and students and those from other schools. For the past few years, local field camps and field trips, as well as an overseas field trip had been organized by students with teachers acting as advisors. Mixed grouping was introduced to allow students and teachers from different schools to interact and share their experience with one another.
The students made substantial gain in subject knowledge and understanding, interpersonal and social skills and, most important of all, self-esteem and confidence. Teachers also reported that they had learned much from other teachers, as well as from the students.
The learning process in a learning community can appear to be slow when compared with direct teaching strategies because students make mistakes or become lost at times. They may need support and intervention from teachers before they can make breakthrough in their learning. In the long run, however, they become better learners, and they will have developed self-directed learning skills that those who received direct instruction will not possess. Students must take responsibility for their own learning and teachers have to provide time for them to build up their self-motivation, self-regulation and self-reflection. It is also essential to ensure that other teachers share the same ideology and are willing to cooperate. Only one teacher practising the strategy in one class is likely to end up in failure.