Learning to Collaborate or Collaborating to Learn

Collaborative Learning has become a bit of a behemoth recently.  It is one of those aspects of teaching and learning that has potential and is ultimately valuable from a holistic education perspective but is often misapplied unintentionally.

The Evidence

The Education Endowment Foundation has this toolkit with links to a range of studies and meta analyses on how effective collaborative learning is.  With a mean effect size of 0.38 across the studies it would suggest there are moderate gains to be made by employing certain strategies and structures but it by no means provides the kind of evidence of impact that would justify the predominance of collaborative learning across my social media feeds for many years.  So why is collaboration so prevalent as being almost a badge of quality for many teachers?

My Collaborative Learning Past

Several years ago I wanted to engage my students in a transactional writing project with a collaborative learning element.  I’d seen a few examples of marketing style projects used to theme this type of nonfiction writing so I planned a Dragons’ Den project where groups of 4 students would take different roles within a marketing organisation to pitch a new product to the Dragons.  One student would be in charge of the speech writing while another student used the persuasive techniques we had been learning about in posters and leaflets. All 4 students would have to work together to ensure they all gave the same message about their product and all students would be expected to use the same persuasive techniques.  I provided model paragraphs and writing frames for each text and set them to work.

It was spectacular in its failure.  The techniques being used were disjointed and weak and each of the individual texts produced were weaker than they would have been if I had taught the skills discreetly.  Not only that but the collaboration had actually made the learning worse.

I reflected on the failures of the project and decided to explicitly teach how to structure and develop an argument in the form of a speech in the next lesson.  I asked those that had taken the role of speech writer in the project to feedback about what they had included in their writing and why. Cue 8 sheepish looks and lots of avoided eye contact.  Apparently 6 of them had only ended up being the speech writer on their team because nobody else wanted to do that amount of writing when they could be doing advertisements instead. None of the group could remember anything about structuring a speech.  They could remember why they had wanted to put an iPad display on their pencil cases but nothing from the models or frames I had provided them with.

I repeated the project in several different guises with a number of different groups over the next few years making changes and “improvements” each time.  At the point where I was explicitly teaching the individual writing formats and how to write them, I dropped the whole project/real world collaboration premise.

Collaboration for Learning

I actually thought I had dropped collaboration from my practice all together until recently when I reflected on things I do often that are effective.  I use pared quizzing, peer assessment, collaborative planning and structured discussion among other things all the time but I hadn’t realised students were collaborating because it didn’t look like a real world application.  Most importantly, the aim of the collaborative task is never “to learn to collaborate”.

Ultimately I am an English Teacher.  My job is to teach students English and prepare them to take qualifications that will improve their life chances.  I want them to be well rounded individuals equipped with the skills for life but ultimately I want them to have the best qualifications possible.  Every single thing I do in my classroom is geared towards that goal. So when we employ collaborative learning strategies in lesson we do it because it drives the learning forward.  Students need teaching how to do certain collaborative tasks (how to take turns in discussions, how to actively listen, how to respect the contributions of others for example) but the focus of the lesson is the curriculum learning not the collaboration.

Since the focus of my lessons is on learning or practicing a particular English language/literature skill, I have a tangible assessment framework against which I can assess the outcomes of the work.  When I see lessons where teachers use the phrase “we are learning to collaborate” I always wonder how they assess that learning. How do they know that their students have learnt to collaborate? It is such an abstract concept that I think I would struggle to write any kind of assessment rubric that effectively and accurately assessed or even described the stages of proficiency towards mastery of collaboration.

Top Tips for Collaborative Learning Success

So how can we ensure that our collaborative learning actually develops learning?

  1. Define the roles clearly.  The biggest mistake I made here was thinking that clearly defining the role of “Speech writer” or “Researcher” would result in better outcomes.  It didn’t. Clearly defining the roles such as Active Listener, Questioner, Note Taker and make it explicit what is expected of each role.
  2. Define the task clearly.  Make it absolutely explicit what you want each role to do in the collaborative task down to what you want their output to look like at the end.  If they don’t know what they are supposed to produce they are essentially playing the game of “guess what’s in my head”.
  3. Keep the timings short.  By short I mean no more than a couple of minutes (and often just 30 seconds) per task before stopping and checking understanding.  The longer students spend discussing a task, the more potential there is for off task behaviour that impacts negatively on learning.  By setting short, sharp time limits you ensure that the learning stays focussed and pacey.
  4. Keep groups small.  I use pairs in about 75% of my collaboration tasks with groups of 4 making up the remaining 25%.  Any larger than 4 and there is too much room for students to “hide” and not achieve as an individual.
  5. Every student takes every role.  This is crucial.  If there is learning value in a role then every student should have a chance to take that role.  So when doing paired quizzing I always switch the roles mid task so both students ask and answer questions.  In this situation I still keep the timings short but reset the time when the roles are switched.

The Bottom Line

Collaboration has become a catch all label used, predominantly in the education technology sector, to cover a multitude of sins where learning is absent.  There is potential for positive impact on outcomes but only when very clear roles, well structured tasks and careful groupings are applied. Ultimately, if the only learning that can be identified in a lesson is “learning to collaborate”, there probably isn’t much actual learning going on.

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