10 July 2012

Group talk as a way of learning

By Dr ChyeKok Ho

Rote-learning plays a vital role in acquiring skills and knowledge, especially for students reading mathematics and science, history and geography, and subjects where rules, facts and figures have to be memorised. While rote-learning continues to play an important role, it is necessary to teach students generic competencies, and in particular critical thinking skills. As the education system continues to reward rote-learning over creativity and innovation, the shifting of culture from rote-learning to critical thinking is extremely cumbersome. An overwhelming emphasis on examination grades encourages students and teachers to get through the syllabus and memorise key points — rather than taking the time to think and reflect on its contents.

Thinking is the intentional attempt to discover specific connections between doing and the consequences which result in doing. To think critically, students learn to ask the right questions; turn ideas into action; and continue to ask the right questions. Asking the right question is one of the most difficult tasks that confront a rote-learner. Without critical thinking, a rote-learner’s mind is conditioned to search for model answers in real-world situations that are ambiguous and uncertain.

While conversation on a preferred pedagogy continues, a learning intervention known as group talk provides an approach in inspiring students to think. In group talk, students participate in an unrehearsed intellectual journey through a blend of discussion, dialogue, and conversation. Working in groups, the students share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic in the area of study. To impart deeper meanings, they tell stories to connect emotionally and empathically with each other. Issues are deliberated extensively and critically with ideas supported by evidence and logic, and by holding firmly to these views unless persuaded otherwise. As students engage in group talk, they are being transformed by the experience of the shared environment in one situation such that they acquire new experience to participate and share in a different situation. Through regular face-to-face interaction, students develop a common sense of purpose and a desire to share. Importantly, students learn to make sense of practice, to construct a worldview, and to promote a meeting place of various modes of imagining.

While group talk is embedded in university curriculum, the learning in group talk requires strengthening. Mutual trust and respect are essential and necessary conditions in implementing group talk as a way of learning. Group talk should be conducted democratically, especially when engaging in critique on controversial ideas. An open mind is necessary to embrace new ideas and a willingness to recognise and question assumptions from diverse perspectives. Often, participants hear without listening, and lack the patience to listen attentively to what participants say, or have not said, and to defer to others who had few opportunities to talk. The willingness to admit that one’s knowledge and experience are limited and incomplete is required for building mutual trust and respect.

Although my experiences with students on group talk as a way of learning have been inspiring, it is not without challenges. Fear is a significant barrier that deters students from group-talking on wide-ranging issues, and when what they contribute adds depths to the discussion. To save face, students are often quiet because of the fear of being perceived as weak. Students fear that other participants may steal their ideas and take credit for themselves, especially in a learning environment that focuses on assignment grades and examination outcomes.

While rote-learning continues to be relevant, university educators need to group talk so that they teach less and students may learn more. Group talk is most effective when it is conducted democratically while preserving the ethical, political, and religious integrity of the discussion, and the teacher engages the discussion as a learner, a facilitator, and an educator. Group talk is a practical step in the Malaysian adventure to transform rote-learners into critical thinkers.

Recognised for his outstanding achievement in teaching and contribution to student learning experience, Dr ChyeKok Ho is a management educator and researcher at the School of Business and Design, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable atckho@swinburne.edu.my