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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dilemmas of cooperative learning: Chinese students in a Canadian school Liang, Xiaoping


Research in cooperative learning in education generally and second language education in particular has documented the apparently successful and simultaneous achievement of a number of educational goals. For second language learners, these goals include developing the second language (L2), maintaining the first language (L1), and acquiring content knowledge. However, little research has examined the opinions of the learners themselves with regard to cooperative learning together with the process of cooperative interaction. This study explores the opinions and interactions of Chinese immigrant students engaging in cooperative learning in English as a second language (ESL) classes. Drawing on qualitative research and discourse analysis traditions, the study used multiple methods of data collection in a Canadian secondary school ESL program: (1) individual interviews were carried out with 49 Chinese students; (2) 120 hours of observations in natural classroom settings were conducted; and (3) 30 hours of audio taped recordings of Chinese students' interactions during cooperative learning activities were also analyzed. The findings of the study present a complex picture of cooperative learning in the ESL classroom. The Chinese students seemed to be sitting on the horns of cooperative learning dilemmas between cooperation and individualism, between achieving results and sharing understandings of the task, and between using L1 to help with L2 / content learning and developing L2 for academic purposes. Particularly with cooperative learning goals of developing L2, maintaining L1, and acquiring content knowledge, Chinese students had difficult choices to make between developing L2 and maintaining L1, between using L1 for academic language and developing academic language in L2, and between learning content in L1 and learning content in L2. At a detailed level, tensions and dilemmas that Chinese students confronted appear to be intrinsic to the simultaneous pursuit of the three cooperative learning goals claimed for L2 learners. Cummins' (1991b, 1992) bilingual proficiency theory, which offers a possible theoretical model of how these goals are related, needs to address the various conflicts and dilemmas involved in these three cooperative learning goals. While recognizing other contributing factors, this work suggests that cooperative learning dilemmas may arise from conflicts of socially shared values and beliefs, and that discrepancies between Chinese students' home educational culture and their present Canadian secondary school culture add a layer of complexity to the dilemmatic situation of cooperative learning in an ESL context.

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