Ian's Musings

Topic 3: Learning in communities

Learning Communities in Theory

From the start, this was always going to be an interesting topic to me! I am a strong believer in the power of collaborative learning (Smith & MacGregor 1992), and the thought of students coming together to share their varied experiences, germinate new ideas, and bring them to fruition fills me with much excitement! Hence, I didn’t need much convincing to explore the many paths in Hróbjartur Árnason’s mind map (Fig 1), clicking through each link to get new ideas!


Fig. 1. A screen grab of Árnason’s fascinating mind map—a very interesting and intuitive way to display a lecture.


One thing that was mentioned during the webinar that I wasn’t entirely convinced about is that “ALL learning is social” (emphasis added by me). I fully agree that the social context can enhance learning, but I personally feel that learning can also take place individually. Taking problem-based learning as an example, even though it is typically discussed in the context of groups working together, e.g. Hmelo-Silver (2004), it is entirely conceivable that a student would also learn by solving a problem on their own. Yew & Goh (2016), for instance, argue that spending more time on individual study led to better learning outcomes. So while I fully support learning in communities, I believe that we should not forget those who prefer not (or perhaps are not able) to learn collaboratively, for example due to social anxiety.


Learning Communities in Practice

I was then excited to put into practice what we learnt from the lectures in our own PBL groups! Tackling the scenarios that we’d been given offers, to my mind, an interesting opportunity to study how we as educators interact in a collaborative effort to learn, even while we are a part of the experiment! It would be (update: is) challenging to be both in an experiment and observing it at the same time, especially as I am to co-facilitate some of the discussion and will need all my brain juice to do a good job, but I am excited to observe how our team work will progress through the lens of what we are learning in Topic 3.


Fig. 2. A screen grab from the official website (jigsaw.org) promoting the “Jigsaw Classroom” method, an interesting pedagogical approach introduced to us by our team mate.


One of the most impactful things introduced during our group discussion was the “Jigsaw Classroom” method. In this method, students are split into Jigsaw Groups to tackle an issue. This issue is broken down into a few subtopics, each of which is assigned to one student as the designated “expert”. This expert will then do individual study of that topic and meet with other experts (on the same topic) to discuss it. This is where the power of the Jigsaw method lies: students who have taken ownership of that subtopic coming together to discuss what they’ve learnt—can you imagine how great the potential is for enhanced learning!? After this, the various experts will return to their original Jigsaw Groups to share on their respective topics, which will help all members to learn all the aspects of the original issue!

This approach, created by the psychologist Elliot Aronson to combat racial prejudice from decades of segregation in American schools (Sheehy et al. 2016), so excited our group that we all decided to make it the centre of our response to this week’s issue (I think that’s as much as I can share without giving away too many spoilers). We also tried to implement it in our FISH process, producing subtopics, assigning “experts” to be in charge of each subtopic, and bringing everything back together at the end. I think the process went quite well. There are, of course, areas for improvement. For example, I think that we could have spent a little more time discussing within the expert groups discussing different ideas. On the whole, however, this is a technique that I will be looking to use in my classes in future!

Thanks PBL04! =)



Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn?. Educational psychology review16, 235-266.

Sheehy, N., Chapman, A. J., & Conroy, W. A. (Eds.). (2016). Biographical dictionary of psychology. Routledge.

Smith, B. L., & MacGregor, J. T. (1992). What is collaborative learning. SUNY Press.

Yew, E. H., & Goh, K. (2016). Problem-based learning: An overview of its process and impact on learning. Health professions education2(2), 75-79.

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  1. Anna-Lena Carlsson May 9, 2023

    Hi Ian,
    I get excited while reading your blog! How you engage in this topic. Thank you for sharing the sense of commitment you show.
    I agree that Árnason showed a lot of tools (or mentioned them), unfortunately the time slot for all he had planned was too short.
    I also found it fascinating that learning was here understood as social, it became so easy to understand thoughts I already had before about how learning, i.e., change, is not possible without others.
    When you say that learning can take place individually, do you mean without input from other beings at all? Books? Memories from what others have said and done? Don’t you think others are presence in their absence? But I do think I get what you mean: It is not always necessary to do group work, one can solve a problem alone (with traces of others involved in one’s work). Even individual “genius’s” work is based on others thinking – or used as contrast to radical new ways of thinking or doing things. I believe, like Michel Foucault, that it is the discourse that path the way for a Linnaeus (the 1800-century botanist).
    Thank you for your enthusiasm about learning in community in practice! For me, you have been a great contributor to the PBL4-group./Anna-Lena

  2. Mir Riyanul Islam May 18, 2023

    Hi Ian,
    Your thoughts on collaborative learning are very intriguing. Reading your arguments on the statement “All learning is social”, I was provoked with this thought that when a student is studying individually, who is supplying the materials or where are the materials coming from? As I was thinking about this, I came up with an answer that someone in the community or society is creating space for the student to study individually. If I understood the concept of the Jigsaw classroom, it is happening there too. So, I would argue that indeed all learning is social. However, it was a great and thought-provoking read for me, thank you.

  3. Mostafa Yossef June 2, 2023

    Hi Ian,
    If I can take one thing from this course and applied in my teaching method, it would be the “Jigsaw Classroom” method. I can’t deny that I am somehow used to traditional ways of teaching, but thanks to ONL4 :), I had an idea of keeping the students active while motivated to learn!

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