Group learning for engagement: Facilitating dialogue

Students want more than to be just tolerated. They want to contribute to an enriched learning environment for themselves, their peers and perhaps even their teachers. Changes in the classroom may be the last frontiers of change, and while frontiers can be risky, they are also exciting places to be in an internationalising and interconnecting world (Asmar, 2005, p. 307).


As with ‘most human behaviour’, what students do together in their group learning activities takes place in the contexts of each of their individual relationships (Reis et al., 2000, p. 844). Their interactions in those activities shape the onward development of those relationships. Even within structured and directed formal learning activities, the ‘interaction processes between co-nationals, host-nationals and multi-national students do not “automatically” lead to a cross-cultural learning climate’ (Rienties & Nolan, 2014, p. 177). Here, as elsewhere, ‘left alone, diversity may exist, but inclusion may not’ (Winkle-Wagner & Locks, 2014, p. 4).

This chapter explores how group learning activities might provide opportunities to be more inclusive and develop a mutually supportive intercultural learning climate. We use ‘group work’ in this chapter to refer to any learning activity within the academic curriculum, from lectures and seminars to projects, laboratory work or field trips, face-to-face or online, in which globally diverse learners are interacting together as a structured part of their mainstream, disciplinary studies. We explore alternative, optional interaction activities within со- and extra-curricular contexts in Chapter 7.

We argue here for a focus upon process and interaction performance within learning activities, whether they take place in physical or virtual environments, locally or across the ‘eduscapes’ of globally networked learning environments (Bcgin-Caouctte, 2013). There is particular value in intercultural relationship-f ocussed learning activities which engage students in dialoguing to generate ‘new knowledge, grounded in the experiences of students and teachers alike' (Nikolakaki, 2012, p. 26. Emphasis added). The focus of this chapter is group learning activities, the spaces in which dialogue is possible. However, the opening section explores students’ individual engagement with the texts which might relate to those activities. ‘Text’ is used here to include traditional written sources, and materials accessed online, and in audio, visual, ‘video’ and virtual-reality formats.

Critical literacies and self-authorship

A central question for higher education is how students are enabled ‘not to separate reading the word and reading the world, reading the text and reading the context’ (Freire, 1985, p. 20). Critical literacy of this kind becomes particularly challenging when globally diverse learners encounter and interpret texts from alternative socio-cultural contexts. Critical literacy has also become more necessary for learners as social media, and perhaps mass media, immerse them in worlds where truths and fictions are hard to distinguish. Where critical literacy might once have been thought of as ‘an attitude towards history’ (Shor, 1999, p. 2), in a multicultural, globalising and interconnected world, it is perhaps better envisaged as ‘an attitude towards histories and presents’.

Critical, or ‘emancipatory’ (Freire & Macedo, 1987), literacy is about approaching and producing text with a critical and reflexive stance, analysing and relating it to own and others’ experiences and perspectives. Curriculum design might involve rooting out colonialism and other biases in the selection of curriculum content. Critical literacy is about students learning how to interrogate any text against the context in which it is created and promulgated. This may often be a communal, dialogic process within a formal learning activity as set out in subsequent sections, but it is also sometimes a solitary one. The ‘attitude’ required is one which pushes students to constantly ask themselves what biases they bring to the text, and what biases a text might hold, what agendas it might serve, and whose perspectives it might represent, misrepresent or fail to acknowledge at all. It is about students coming to know that facts ‘do not speak for themselves’ (Bhabha, 2006, p. 29) and engage with all texts accordingly. There are, again, echoes with border pedagogy, through which students develop:

...the knowledge and social relations that enable them to critically read not only how cultural texts are regulated by various discursive codes, but also how such texts express and represent different ideological interests.

(Giroux, 2005, p. 108)

We refer to the combination of these abilities with the abilities to locate diverse- sources of information as critical literacies. They constitute one of the fundamentals of global literacy. Critical literacies enable students to make meaning rather than absorb it. This is an empowering process. It enables students to establish an authentic relationship with their learning, and ultimately to become active agents in their choice of texts, as well as in their interpretations. We discuss dialogic approaches further with regard to group ‘performing’ below, but note here that critical literacy also supposes a dialogic relationship between the learner and the text and the world. Dialoguing with text, like dialoguing with their peers, is a process through which students are ‘authoring’ themselves (Fasset & Warren, 2007, p. 53).

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