George Lucas Educational Foundation
Collaborative Learning

The Elephant in the Language Classroom

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"Those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." --Charles Darwin

At an impressionable age, I was sent to a boarding school run by ex-servicemen on strict Victorian principles and the rules of cricket. Corporal punishment and bullying were rife, but the cane was a lesser threat if you were a good cricketer and got good exam grades. You could also reduce the bullying hazard by conforming to accepted behaviours such as Elvis Presley impersonations and participation in the swapping of James Bond literature.

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It was a success. I picked up cricket, guitar, and a good number of the banned Ian Fleming books. The cricket instructor, Mr. M, was also the French teacher. He would write vocabulary on the walls as "targets for fielding practice." Teamwork was encouraged, and he would compete against us. Ammunition was coloured blackboard chalk which we threw from a measured distance. Chalk marks were carefully measured and counted. Our French grades were high, and a lifelong love of languages was born.

The Need for Multilinguals

We all know that the key to learning is motivation. Maehr and Meyer and Pintrich have written that it also determines the specific goals toward which learners strive. In the 1960s, language learning was a dry academic exercise confined to textbook exercises. The heady prospect of exciting links with exotic, Gauloise-smoking, wine-growing gastronomes was brushed aside, dismissed as "not needed for the exam." For young minds fuelled by rock'n'roll, the space race, and 007-like international lifestyles, the lack of connection with people in foreign countries was a huge disappointment -- the elephant in our French language classroom.

Today with the abundance of email, social networking platforms, and online language labs, teachers have the tools to provide the global connections we wanted but lacked. But are they being used as effectively as they could be? In recent years, the number of foreign language students has been in decline, with possible serious consequences -- national security issues in the U.S.A. and an annual loss to the U.K. economy to the tune of £48 billion a year, or 3.5 percent of GDP. These trends do not point to a rise of British and American workforces ready for multilingual cross-border trading and diplomacy, nor do they suggest hordes of youths hammering on the doors of language classrooms, burning with the desire to learn new languages and connect with foreign cultures.

Half a century later, at a point in history when the future of the planet could depend on it, are language students now collaborating internationally from their classrooms, or is the elephant still there?

The Rise of Cooperative Learning

A fly on the wall of today's educational institutions will see some changes in methodology. Studies (such as David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson's An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning) have concluded that collaborative and cooperative learning methods improve students' time on tasks and motivation to learn. Language teachers are finding that group activities and conversational pairing have distinct advantages over individualised tasks. Students enjoy interacting with each other, particularly in speaking activities, and opportunities to do so are relished. The prospect of school exchanges, making new social links abroad, and exploring new cultures is another powerful motivator. The pairing of language students with counterparts abroad is the next logical step. Working effectively online with native speakers is a challenging and alluring proposition.

There are compelling reasons to prevent this happening. Assessment is more difficult. The evidence to show individual progression achieved directly from paired or group interactions is hard to quantify. Monitoring, recording, and properly assessing individuals' performances in collaborative tasks is more difficult to achieve than the correction and grading of individual tests.

We therefore see an enforced emphasis on solo performances. This is compounded by summative examinations and qualifications which do not give credit for the ongoing building of relationships with native speakers of the target language.

Yet this is at odds with the required end product of any country's foreign language curriculum -- a workforce with the skills to carve itself a useful place in the global economic jigsaw.

A solution to this must lie in new technology now appearing in classrooms. BYOD policies, 1:1 strategies, and "flipped" classrooms are providing opportunities where students who are linguistically, culturally, and geographically different from each other can connect in a meaningful and constructive manner.

Through such structured online interactions, students will grasp the importance of taking responsibility for their own learning and feel empowered to do so, while respecting the opinions and work of online partners. Detractors may cite security issues, cyber bullying, and the superiority of real face-to-face relationships, but network-based collaboration is indeed deemed to provide more equality than face-to-face group work (as discussed by Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec, among others), and the tools required for building the necessary relationships are now well established, secure and student-friendly.

It is high time the elephant left the foreign language classroom.