The benefits of collaborative learning are clearly outlined in educational discourse, including: increased achievements, widening knowledge, improvement in teamwork skills and deeper critical thinking (Barkley et al., 2014; McGlynn & Kelly, 2018; Novotny et al., 1991; Wilson et al., 2018). Loes et al. (2018), however, suggest that there are contrastingly few studies that focus on collaborative learning within further and higher education; while in my experience, as a teacher within custodial education, there is even less research exploring collaborative learning within custodial education.
Prison literature within England and Wales strongly suggests that education plays a key role in improving the employability chances of prisoners upon release and in turn reduces reoffending (Coates, 2016; MoJ, 2022). Yet, the estimated cost of reoffending is £15 billion per annum (House of Commons, 2022). If custodial education in England and Wales is a governmental priority when considering methods to reduce reoffending, then why is there such limited educational research exploring teaching practice and effective learning methods within a custodial setting?
‘If custodial education in England and Wales is a governmental priority when considering methods to reduce reoffending, then why is there such limited educational research exploring teaching practice and effective learning methods within a custodial setting?’
We know that education allows a prisoner to gain self-confidence, improve behaviour and strengthen skills before release (House of Commons, 2022), and I believe collaborative learning would provide an effective form of teaching within a custodial setting. This teaching method encourages small group work to instigate learning which could lead to a rich classroom experience (Barkley et al., 2014; Loes et al., 2018).
However, there is a juxtaposition between the classroom and the wider prison environment. Prisons in England and Wales are built for safety and security which results in a reduced focus on education and even less focus on classroom practice (MoJ, 2021). If collaborative learning is managed effectively, however, it encourages prisoners to build upon desirable employment skills while giving them a voice within a system that represses collaboration (Cotes, 2016; House of Commons, 2022). But, if a teacher does not have a good understanding of the group dynamics before initiating collaborative learning, then the learning and supportive culture could break down (Weinberger & Shonfeld, 2020). In my experiences, prisoners actively participate in teamwork activities and embrace collaborative learning within the custodial classroom leading to an engaging classroom environment.
I join others in arguing that there needs to be a culture shift within prisons where education is placed at the heart of the prison regime, as highlighted by Cotes’s (2016) review for the Ministry of Justice, Unlocking Potential. In order for this to happen, prison governors must promote custodial education and create an ethos where education is an operational priority. Educational researchers need to focus on the delivery of prison education and consider methods of making it effective within a repressive system. Collaborative learning is one way to do this.
Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques (2nd ed). Wiley & Sons.
Cotes, S. (2016). Unlocking potential: A review of prison education. Ministry of Justice. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/524013/education-review-report.pdf
House of Commons (2022). Education Committee 1st report. Not just another brick in the wall: Why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity (Volume 1). https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmselect/cmeduc/56/report.html
Loes, C. N., Culver, K. C, & Trolian, T. L. (2018). How collaborative learning enhances students’ openness to diversity. Null, 89(6), 935–960. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2018.1442638
McGlynn, K., & Kelly, J. (2018). Science for All: Managing group work. Science Scope, 41(6), 26–30.
Ministry of Justice [MoJ]. (2021). Prisons strategy white paper. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prisons-strategy-white-paper
Ministry of Justice [MoJ]. (2022). Prisons strategy white paper: Response to consultation questions. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1082220/prisons-strategy-white-paper-govt-response.pdf
Novotny, A. S., Seifert, R. G., & Werner, D. R. (1991). Collective learning: A pro-social teaching strategy for prison education. The strategy and methodology of group performance in the prison classroom. Journal of Correctional Education, 42(2), 80–85. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41970870
Weinberger, Y., & Shonfeld, M. (2020). Students’ willingness to practice collaborative learning. Teaching Education, 31(2), 127–143. https://doi.org/10.1080/10476210.2018.1508280
Wilson, K., Brickman, P., & Brame, C. (2018). Group work. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.17-12-0258