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Two major questions that education faces nowadays are how adequate it is to use group dynamics in class to permit students achieve specific goals and if the efficiency of this technique is acceptable for all the branches of knowledge. Architecture, because of its most important qualities (professional work in teams, practical skills and creativity) appears to be an area in which it is likely that the teamwork technique can demonstrate its most important strengths.
Thomas Kuhn (1996) described knowledge as “intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all”, explaining that the discoveries of sciences or the products of arts to be recognized as it shall be shared between the members of a certain community. What Bruffee (1995) called the social construction of knowledge, has become the base to encourage the use of group work techniques in different levels of education. However there are still many critics to this method, basically referring to the difficulties to manage the classroom and its adequacy to different areas of study. The debate over teamwork in colleges and universities hasn’t delivered a clear answer yet.
This research paper will first explain the virtues and weakness of the “Collaborative Learning” method in order to establish finally its possible application to Architecture Education.
The Strengths of the Method
Since the early 70’s, educators characterized the “traditional approach to Education” (Ventimiglia, 1994) as being “professor centered”, considering that the educative process depended exclusively on the knowledge capacities of the teacher, who decided what kind and what amount of information should be deposited into students minds. This was strongly criticized by Freire (cited by Ventimiglia, 1994), for being passive and not stimulating critical thinking. From then educators have researched new methods capable of improving academic results and preparing students to transform their societies creatively. This is how what Foyle (1995) called “Collaborative learning”, appeared as a possible answer to educational dilemmas.
Collaborative learning, as well as cooperative and active learning are terms used to describe new procedures in education, intended to help students learn by working together (Bruffee, 1995). According to Ventimiglia (1994) collaborative learning is the process in which a community formed by students and teacher establishes common goals and participates as partners in the building of knowledge, following specific steps and accepting precise responsibilities. Group work is therefore one of the various tools involved in the execution of the method, however they should not be considered as synonyms.
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Developing social skills
Based upon John Dewey’s (1963) definition of “associated life”, as all those activities in which success is determined by humans capacity to interact, it’s possible to imagine the importance of group work to promote social skills between students. In fact dealing in a group dynamic, sharing an operative language or making agreements over specific goals is not easy. To be functional, the group must reach a necessary consensus, which in a smaller scale represents what they will have to face in life (Bruffee, 1995). This is becoming more urgent as the increasing degree of specialization in society obliges its members to cooperate more frequently.
In order to reach this goal theoreticians as Ventimiglia (1994) have determined the need to pursue a “socialization” process between the class group. For this, it is necessary that students know each other and build mutual respect, which will turn to be the most important component in the creation of the “learning community”. Lyman, cited by Foyle (1995) defines the new “collaborative classroom” through three main characteristics, trust, communication and the capacity to manage conflicts. At the same time Lyman proposes two major techniques to achieve this goal, first the “identification exercise” designed to break down the original barriers between students who don’t know each other. In this case students make a presentation of themselves to the group giving their names and ages and also through certain specific characteristics (e.g. family size, hobbies, a personal experience etc.) which should be special enough to impress their class. After this exercise Lyman suggest a test in which students should write a specific characteristic of each one of their fellows in order to initiate the process to identify each other.
Stimulating individual capacities
One the most important advantages in this method is to stimulate between students what Kenneth Bruffee (1995) characterized as “sharing our toys”. The process of working in group forces its members to agree on certain common goals and to accept the fact that they will obtain greater individual benefits from doing it. This encourages students to show to their partners their specific skills and abilities in order to permit to the group take advantage of them to fulfill its tasks.
Ventimiglia (1994) describes the fact that in traditional learning students ignore frequently their personal value since they feel that only a small group is “smart”, which inhibits the majority to express themselves. However teachers should play in this case a major role stimulating them to appreciate their individual skills, for this group formation is a primary tool. For example small group works at the beginning of the term, in which the instructor should assign the roles, might help to identify personal abilities and to build mutual respect in class. To obtain this, there should as many specific roles as possible, for example, recorder, reporter, checker or moderator. Depending on the subject students could be divided depending on activities, like writer, drawer and speaker. Other authors as Furtwengler (in Foyle, 1995) believe that group auto evaluation is an important way to stimulate students to perform the best they can in their groups, since they will be assess by their own study partners.
Arousing critical thinking
“Collaborative learning” is defined as a new “student-centered” approach in education, since it attempts to establish a more democratic and horizontal relationship between the one who teaches and those who are taught. According to Bruffee (1995) from the moment in which teachers abandon their leading position in the classroom, groups are invited to build their knowledge using doubt as their universal tool towards what is supposed to be “known”. From that point of view it is necessary to encourage the development of students judgment and permitting them to arrive to the same goal through different ways and by those means “challenge” pre-established practices. This leads into what Ventimiglia (1994) has characterized as the capacity to get involved and transform the world in a creative and innovative way.
Ventimiglia (1994) indicates three steps in order to achieve this goal: involvement in the learning process, discussion over the different topics and challenge of what has been learned. Involvement is the fact to permit students and instructor to introduce topics to the course. Frederick (in Foyle 1995) suggests teachers to establish basic topics but letting students modify them through brainstorming, this makes teachers “guides and not guivers”. Discussion suggests Frederick should be done through, debate over dichotomous issues, and questions which should incite students to express their own ideas. Finally instructors should stimulate challenge in the classroom, favoring a learning process in which students integrate information to discover knowledge by themselves. This interactive method will then result in the process, that Yates (in Foyle, 1995) called “attaching meaning” to Education.
THE WEAKNESS OF THE METHOD
Despite the commonly agreed advantages of “Collaborative learning” there are still some barriers to its use in higher education.
In this sense, Kinnick’s opinion (1995) is that the method presents major classroom management difficulties. The lack of authority in the classroom apparently favors multiple disciplinary problems in some students who supposedly let their behavioral problems flow freely. Those are classified as not integrating to groups effectively (lost attitude), not fulfilling their duties inside the group (lazy comportment) or trying to impose their opinions to their partners (dictatorial behavior). Kinnick emphasizes the fact that some students might need precise, direct steps to follow, while “collaborative learning” expects exactly the opposite. In her opinion just the most extrovert students have the chance to express themselves, leaving the rest of the class in silence and “running wild”.
All these can be related to the logical fear to what Ventimiglia (1994) calls “the unknown”. In her opinion transforming the traditional method based on results or “product-oriented education” to the “student centered” process is really tough, not just for teachers but especially for students who might not understand or even accept their new responsibilities.
The need of continual training
Funtwengler (in Foyle 1995) enumerates what he considers the main obstacles to “Collaborative Learning” technique. First the author emphasizes a generally poor feedback during classes since higher education system is less restrictive for teachers than school. Secondly he notes generally reduced encouragement of methodological training and discussion over educational strategies among university teachers.
Even the supporters of the method as Ventimiglia (1994) have pointed out the consequence of harder and more complicate work for teachers practicing this method since they have to spend more time, learning the technique, preparing courses and supervising student activities.
In this sense Magney (1997) points out that experience interchange and continual training might help dealing with this challenges. At last what appears to be the main point to overcome these obstacles is what Foyle (1995) has called the designing and practice of “Collaborative Learning” strategies. These should be prepared based on specific course characteristics (size, study major, diversity, cultural background) to outline a method to reach “Collaborative Learning” goals.
Collaborative learning applicability
Even if many of the theoretical supporters of the method, as Foyle (1995), state its validity in all branches of knowledge and for any kind of education level, practice seems to point out different results. John Magney (1997) found through a survey of teachers their preference to use the method for practical work, as workshops and laboratories. As a matter of fact, this seems logical since a group is capable to engage into more complicated subjects than individuals could afford. That’s why “collaborative learning” appears to be more efficient in those subjects that require a great amount of work, especially if many different activities or steps (for example research, discuss, analyze, write and present) are involved.
THE METHOD APPLIED TO ARCHITECTURE
Architecture education intends to develop in students a certain number of major skills, which are supposed to permit them to engage lately in a successful professional life. For example the School of Architecture of Yale University (on line:
http://www.yale.edu/Architec) focuses its program on three major objectives: to stimulate sensitivity, to develop creative thinking and to help students acquire individual capabilities to engage in professional practice. The School of Architecture and Planning of University of Buffalo (on line: http://www.ap.buffalo.edu/) intends to prepare students for two major goals, to place the practice of Architecture in relation to social and cultural frameworks and to develop critical thinking toward current practice. From this specific approaches to architecture education it can established how the virtues of “collaborative learning” method match with architect’s major skills, which have been stated as the ability to join multidisciplinary teams, creativity and capacity to engage in practical and continuously changing problems.
Developing Social Skills: Professionals have affirmed the importance and benefit of developing teamwork capacities in real life practice. Experiences such as the one described for the construction of Coleman Federal Correction Complex (Galey, Pogrzeba and Reinerman, 1996) in which engineers, designers, contractor and the owner agreed to manage the project through a “partnering strategy” shows the need and benefits of collaborative work in the job site very accurately. Indubitably this is also a very good example of what Bruffee (1995) called “sharing our toys”. In fact Dill (1997) when defining the major challenges of the profession insisted on the student’s capacity to be prepared for professional practice in which the relation with clients, engineers and industrial designers should be daily.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute (on line: http://www.arch.vt.edu/) defines architecture studies as an interdisciplinary degree, which opens students minds to a wide universe of study fields. Dill (1997) called Architecture the “holistic art par excellence” since it appears to be closely related with many specialties. This is not just true for building but for planning, designing and researching. However it is generally agreed that the career should not become a huge mosaic of disciplines (Dill 1997) composed of drawing, mathematics, structures, history, psychology, sociology and ecology, but to remain specialized in “creating human environment” as Yale University Department of Architecture has established. All this permits to demonstrate the necessity of architecture studies to develop social skills in students in order to permit them to interact with other specialists whom they will need to accomplish their main professional purposes. Therefore the “collaborative learning” method appears as an appropriate instrument to achieve this goal.
Stimulating individual capacities: The School of Architecture of the MIT (on line: http://architecture.mit.edu) emphasizes the fact that architecture education should “open diverse paths” to students in a varied number of fields, from design to teaching, planning, real estate, arts or communications. This is basically the same position held by other Schools of Architecture, like in the University of Syracuse (on line: http://soa.syr.edu) which highlights the importance to allow students the discovery of a “personal expression” through which they will be able to realize their personalities and offer a better work to society.
Dill (1997) lists five major fields in which architects are required to work in their professional life, design, planning, project communication, construction and project management. In his opinion architecture education should specialize students, since college, in one of this areas in order to permit them integrate into the “real world practice”. For this, schools have to discover student’s personal skills and then develop individual abilities. In the same article the author states that students should get involved on preparing and managing long projects to test their ability for future professional work. Then it becomes evident how this matches with “collaborative learning” method.
Arousing Critical Thinking: Architecture Design has been characterized by the Department of Architecture of Harvard University (on line: http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/depts/archdept.html) as the capacity to synthesize a broad body of knowledge to be followed by the “skillful manipulation of the form” in order to solve design challenges. It emphasizes as well the importance of a “creative and always renewing approach” which must promote among students the capacity to engage and enjoy “lifelong learning”. Besides architects are expected in the new coming “global village”, to be able to “deal with clients and projects virtually in every corner of the globe” as the MIT declares it in its Mission Statement. These qualities are closely related to the arousing of critical thinking that “collaborative learning” intends to promote. Architecture cannot be tided up by pre-elaborated procedures or answers since creativity its one of its major attributes.
As it has been stated group work techniques had appeared as an alternative to traditional education to encourage the development of group discipline, creative thinking and high student involvement in the study of complex subjects. All these are valuable qualities in the learning process of Architecture. Even though the method is apparently full of obstacles, those should be seen as challenges, which can be overcome through training and experience. In fact the effectiveness of collaborative learning in architecture higher education shall result from the appropriate design of the learning process in order to stimulate future professional skills with adequate methods and techniques.
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