Educational Learning Theory and Strategies

 Constructivism Theory
Bruner (1996) stated that the basic idea of constructivism is that learners actively construct own understanding by accepting certain experiences and selecting essentials from various sources of knowledge. Naismith et. al (2006) also claimed that constructivism approach is about building new knowledge upon what have been gathered in previous learning. Woolfolk (1993) stated that constructivist learning theory indirectly teaching the students to “learn to learn” as it involves thinking processes in which students need to be able to go beyond the information given, apply their own knowledge, evaluate judgements before generate new ideas out of it. Students are required to actively involve in the learning process to develop their thinking skills through their experiences in schools (Prawat, 1991). Lai (2001) stated that constructivism can be used as a foundation to nurture one’s higher order thinking skills via self-questioning, analysing written document for comprehension and also having collaborative discussions with peers.

Social Constructivist Theory
Social Constructivist Theory, on the other hand, is a theory that states each individual cognitive development is at its best when one constructs the meaning of new knowledge by actively participating in constructing and sharing the knowledge through communication with others (Burningham & Cooper, 1999). These theories believes that peer to peer discussion will help one to actively construct new knowledge and learn by sharing and discussing the materials gathered in a positive social environment (Schwandt, 2003).

Problem Based Learning (PBL)
Teaching critical thinking skills is usually being paired with Problem Based Learning approach as it triggers and provokes learners’ thinking as to reach to a solution to a problem with relation to day-to-day situations (Woolfolk, 1993). Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach teaches students to think critically as it takes real world circumstances which usually involves experiential, inductive learning that requires questioning and thinking that is goal-directed and purposive (Lai, 2011). More often than not, it involves a project that encourages the learners to “learn to learn” which is an important component in constructivist approach (Kuhn, 1999). This inevitably will encourage active learning process including through talking, brainstorming and in-depth investigation of knowledge via numerous collaborative learning experiences.

Collaborative learning
A number of critical thinking researchers recommended that social experiences in a learning process can significantly contribute to one’s cognitive development process which evidently occurred in a collaborative learning approach (Heyman, 2008; Thayer-Bacon, 2008 &Nelson, 1994). This is further supported by Woolfolk (1993) who claimed that collaborative learning is basically based from Piagetian and Vygotsky theory which mutually agree that social interactions highly contribute to one’s cognitive development process.
In a collaborative learning, it is believed that Piaget theory is applied in terms of its instructional aspect in which learner’s cognitive development can be triggered via interactions with another person of a higher developmental stage which is normally the teacher or a more knowledgeable peer (Woolfolk, 1993) whilst Vygotsky belief is identified in terms of one’s zone of proximal development that distinguishes between what an individual can achieved by himself and what can be accomplished via interactions with a more competent peer or adult (Nelson, 1994). Thayer-Bacon (2008) further viewed that social interactions with others in collaborative learning is an important aspect to instil critical thinking skills onto students as they need to constructively contribute and share opinions and at the same time learn to respect other contributions during group discussions.

Collaborative Problem Based Learning (CPBL)
Gokhale (1995) findings stated that students who are actively engaged in a collaborative task demonstrate better Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) as compared to the ones who work individually. This finding is further supported by Vygotsky (1978) who claimed that collaborative learning helps to foster the development of critical thinking skills via discussion, justification of ideas and analysing other’s views. A few research findings have shown that combining collaborative approach on problem solving teaching strategy has actually increase students’ meta-cognitive on solving the problems and thus, improve their higher order thinking skills (Johnson & Chung, 1999; Mergendoller et al., 2000). They further elaborate that the interaction between peers about the problem at hand, brainstorming for solutions and evaluating each other’s views during the process has encouraged more frequent generation of ideas and solution and thus, allow students to think critically and analytically.

Collaborative learning, as defined by Correndo and Alani (2007), is an instructional strategy that consists of students from various proficiency levels work together in a group while helping each other towards achieving one common objective or learning outcome. On the other hand, Problem Based Learning is an instructional pedagogy that uses problem as a learning context to challenge the students to “learn to learn” in order to find solutions to the problem (Duch, Groh & Allen, 2001). Hence, Collaborative Problem Based Learning (CPBL) is a combination of Collaborative Learning and Problem Based Learning which can be concluded as an instructional strategy that provides opportunities for the students to work within small groups and actively participate in various activities including discussions a situation, analysing others’ views and finally collaboratively evaluating possible solution to the problem at hand (An, 2006).

The advantages of CPBL
CPBL encourages students to work together in constructing new knowledge to seek a solution of the problem at hand. Hence, students are given vast opportunities to become critical thinkers by sharing ideas and actively engaging oneself in discussions and be responsible of their own learning as well as others’ (Totten, Sills, Digby, & Russ, 1991). This position is further supported by Johnson and Johnson (1986) who stated that the collaboration on problem solving promotes higher level of thinking as the participants need to analyse others’ opinion before clarifying own opinion. They further claimed that this helps to promote longer knowledge retention as compared to the ones who worked individually to seek knowledge.

Besides, An (2006) also stated that CPBL provides authentic learning experiences as well as nurturing their communication skills while exchanging ideas during the discussions. Hence, CPBL helps to foster self-directed learning skills that could be useful to help students become lifelong learners and critical thinkers (Norman and Schmidt, 1992). Albanese and Mitchell (1993) also proposed that students who undergone CPBL approach performed better than the ones who received traditional approach in learning as they have first hand experience that rewards them with in-depth understanding about the task at hand. This is believed because the students actively constructing their own knowledge via interaction with their peers (Smith & MacGregor, 2001). Vygotsky (1978) also views that teacher is not the only knowledge transmitter that the students can learn from; peer teaching is also one of the ways to encourage active learning.

The limitations of CPBL
Despite of these benefits, CPBL approach also has its fair share of flaws when it is being applied in a traditional classroom. In any group activities, especially in a traditional classroom as it is quite difficult for the teacher to accurately evaluate every student’s contributions to the group, there is always freeloading problems. The freeloading members usually take credits of the work of others and this may cause conflict amongst students (Bower & Richards, 2006).

Bower and Richards (2006) further stated that this may decrease some self-confidence of some students as psychologically, every student need to be acknowledged where credit is due in order for them to further construct their own knowledge in an active manner. They also claimed that it is almost impossible for the teacher to fairly distribute the mark based on every student’s contribution to the group. Hence, this may either cause some students to either frustrated for being credited unfairly and later de-motivated to contribute in the future or worse, become freeloaders and just enjoying the free lunch (Bonwell, 2006).

Other than that, since CPBL activities need the students to collaboratively work towards achieving a goal or solution to a real-life problem, the preparation of these activities are normally take great effort and commitment both from the teacher and students. This is hard to achieve if it were to be done in a traditional classroom due to time and space constraint (Bonwell, 2002). Apart from teaching, Malaysian teachers especially, are burdened with other extra curriculum or out of-school activities that take a lot of their personal time (Rosnani, 2009). Without proper preparation, CPBL that is hoped to encourage students to actively construct their own knowledge and at the same time nurturing their higher order and communication skills may not be turn into an achievable end (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). This is further supported by Smith and MacGregor (2001) who claimed that collaborative learning is a wonderful approach to encourage critical thinking, however, it is also may create dilemmas between student’s process of learning and the coverage of the lesson’s content.

Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL)
Due to the rapid development of Information Technology (IT) in this modern age, these 21st Century students’ way of learning has also changed (An, 2006). Today, one of the ways to support active learning can be materialised in a more fun way through the use of technology tools. Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) is an instructional strategy infused with constructivist approach to teaching and learning using technology to support collaboration in order to create a more conducive and engaging learning ambience (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). They further stated that a technology-rich learning environment is able to increase students’ social interaction, cooperation and collaboration and thus, encourage their knowledge construction. Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, and Turoff (1995) also claimed that CSCL promotes online collaborative learning that may positively encourage students’ towards active learning. This is because students can get information almost effortlessly via online and then discuss with their peers before emerge with a solution to a problem.
CPBL in an online environment
In this era of rapid development of Information Technology (IT), there have been efforts to combine CPBL into CSCL environment (An, 2006). Many research findings have indicated that CPBL in an online environment has been showing positive effects towards students’ knowledge construction as well as social interaction skills.

One of the perks by applying CPBL into an online environment, apart from discussion with the instructor and their peers via online with no restriction to time and place, is that it encourages self-directed learning amongst students as it provides students with vast selections of information needed almost effortlessly (Bonk & King, 1998). This is because it allows the students to learn via Web 2.0 tools as learning aids such as e-mails, online group discussion in the chat rooms, collaborative writing via Wiki, social bookmarking and so forth to happen anytime and anywhere. This unlimited and easy access on information will open ways for the students to adapt to self-directed learning and thus, encourage active knowledge construction to occur.

Besides, this online learning environment allows the role of the teacher as the sole provider of knowledge to transform into the role of facilitator, which aligns perfectly with student-centred approach in PBL (Vrasidas & McIsaac, 2000). Here, students are encouraged to construct their own knowledge with little guidance from the teacher and become an active contributor towards their own learning instead of passively receiving knowledge from anyone else. This approach opens way to cultivate one’s higher order thinking skills (Harasim et al., 1997) as it also promotes positive interaction between the teacher and the students (Relan & Gillani, 1997).

Most importantly, Althaus, (1996) viewed that CPBL in an online environment allows computer mediated communication that gives an ample time for the students to analyse, reflect the content of the discussion, find extra information needed via online and evaluate others’ opinions before providing a thoughtful response. The discussion via online also allows the students to do self reflection at their own convenient time as they can print out the discussion due to its permanence discourse, as opposed to face to face discussion (Bonk & King, 1998).

Bower and Richards (2006) stated that one of the limitations of using PBL in a traditional classroom is that the collaborative discussion in a traditional classroom often results in off-task behaviour amongst students. In contrast, many research findings have proven that students emit less off-task behaviour in an online discussion and they tend to focus and intently solving the problem at hand (Angeli et al., 2003; Bonk et al., 1998; Bonk & King, 1998; Bonk et al., 2004).

In fact, many psychological studies have indicated that collaborative discussion via online shows more participation from the students than the face to face discussions (Bonk & King, 1998; Chong, 1998; Cooney, 1998). This situation is especially true for the students who have shy personality or lack of self confidence to talk publicly. Leasure et al. (2000) proposed that this could be due to the comfortable and “safe” social learning environment that the online ambience provides for these students. Here, it can be said that CPBL in an online environment is a potential learning approach to promote positive changes in cultivating critical thinking as well as to encourage one’s social interaction with others.

2.8 Language learning issues in Malaysia
In moving towards fulfilling Vision 2020, education system in Malaysia is undergoing a few changes as to produce holistic individuals who are competent physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually (Education Reform in Malaysia Report, 2012). Along with the changes introduced, Ministry of Education (MOE) has decided to integrate the teaching of critical thinking skills within the syllabuses of the subjects taught in schools including English subject. The changes is hoped to produce lifelong learners who are able to think critically and analytically over a given situation. Sadly, however, the outcome of our education system has proven a contrasting result in which most of Malaysian students and university undergraduates are said to be deficient in terms critical thinking skills and display poor communication abilities especially when it is done in English (Normazidah, Koo & Hazita, 2012).

A study by Koo (2008) revealed that this is due to the fact that Malaysians schools in general, placed a high value of importance on national examination. This has indirectly caused the English teachers to concentrate on the teaching of grammar, reading a passage and writing skills rather than focusing on the communicative aspect of the language itself, let alone to mould students’ critical thinking ability while learning the language (Normazidah, Koo & Hazita, 2012). This is further supported by Amigapathy (2002) findings on his analysis of KBSM syllabus which indicated that the content of current syllabus requires the students to learn too many grammatical components which later are to be tested in examinations. Here, it can be seen that the teaching of English is mainly focused on the mechanical aspect of the language without making any connection with how it should be used in real life communicative events. He further documented that in order to fulfil the demands of the society to produce students with good grades in examinations, English teachers in Malaysia often resorted to teacher-centred approach in teaching the language by providing chalk-and-talk drilling method of past year papers, hand outs and countless paper exercises. This eventually will inevitably produce learners who know about the language but do not know how to use it in real life situations (Amigapathy, 2002), display limited critical ability in analysing and responding to an academic passage (Ahmad Mazli Muhammad, 2007) as students are only exposed to surface approach to reading (Noorizah Mohd Noor, 2006). Here, it can be concluded that there is a mismatch between the policy made with the actual practise of teaching and learning of English in Malaysia which make it quite difficult to produce learners as critical thinkers with acceptable level of English proficiency.

This situation is reported leads to a greater problem when the students make the transition from secondary school to university as the students will face problems to move away from school spoon-feeding learning culture (Normazidah, Koo & Hazita, 2012). Research studies have indicated that most Malaysian students are not prepared to meet the academic demand that requires them to have both language literacy as well as critical literacy ability in order to fulfil the academic reading and academic writing tasks imposed on them at university (Rosniah Mustaffa, 2006; Krishnakumari, Paul-Evanson, & Selvanayagam, 2010).

Hence, it is safe to say that the time has come for Malaysian teachers to treat the students as the focal point of language learning by making a slight changes in teaching the language and at the same time, whenever possible, providing a conducive environment of learning. As CPBL is geared towards cultivating one’s critical thinking ability (An, 2006; Totten, Sills, Digby, & Russ, 1991) and critical thinking skills is viewed as crucial part in the acquisition of language skills (Elder & Paul, 2006; Shaharom Abdullah, 2004; Moore, 1995), it only seems appropriate to adapt CPBL approach in the teaching and learning of English in Malaysian classrooms. Besides, language learning can also be mediated via technology tools because as mentioned earlier, CPBL in an online environment brings tremendous advantages and benefits to the students in terms of critical thinking and language learning as it involves numerous opportunities for social interactions amongst the students and educator.

Technology, language learning and critical thinking
Technology has also been proven useful in the teaching of language and development of one’s critical thinking at time and space convenient to both the teacher and students (Cheong & Cheung, 2008). For instance, the discussions in the discussion board 

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