Home > Teaching Thoughts > Collaborative Learning – an Introduction

Collaborative Learning – an Introduction

This article is the first in a series of articles about collaborative practices in the classroom. In this first article, I develop some background and research about collaboration and its importance in the classroom.

What is Collaboration?

Often in educational discussions, the term 21st century skills comes up. When people are talking about 21st century skills, they are usually referring to a set of standards that have been adopted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. A key part of the mission of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is to guide educators and policymakers in making instructional decisions in four key areas (see graphic below).

The yellow section of the rainbow deals with Learning and Innovation Skills. One of the key skills in the Learning and Innovation Skills strand is collaboration.

To be brief, collaboration skills include the ability to work with other people to complete a shared goal. This collaboration can be something as simple as an oral response to a question or an immense project like building a skyscraper or developing video game. When people work collaboratively, the individual contributions of each member are incorporated so that the sum of the finished work is greater than its parts.

Collaborative Learning

Collaboration is one of those key skills that students need to learn how to use in a changing world. The need to connect with other people and work along side them is part of our increasingly flat world. As global citizens, the next generation will need to have a sensitivity to other cultures as well as the ability to collaborate with them. To meet this need, teachers in our schools need to incorporate collaborative learning into their classrooms.

The classic literature about collaborative learning environments was based on research by Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec. In a collaborative learning environment, teachers serve as navigators and guides as students work together to achieve the objectives of the lesson. This view of the teacher as a ‘guide on the side’ instead of a ‘sage on the stage’ empowers students to make connections and meaningful applications in their work. Collaborative learning strategies encourage students’ development of critical thinking skills as well as important social skills.

Since Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec published their initial research in the 1980s, there have been volumes of research pointing to the effectiveness of collaborative learning. A key component of collaborative learning is dual accountability. The students need to be individually accountable, and the groups must be accountable as a whole. In a collaborative learning environment, students must also have the freedom to work out problems on their own.

In 1995, one study published in the Journal of Technology Education sought to discover the effect that collaborative learning had on critical thinking. According to the findings of this small study, students learn critical thinking skills more effectively when they have a chance to work collaboratively. The abilities of the whole group contribute to the learning of each individual. In the study, students learned the factual knowledge equally well individually and in small groups, but the group that worked collaboratively performed better in the critical thinking exercises than the group that worked independently.

Again and again, this has been proven to be an effective means of instruction at all levels of education. Students who are able to bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other learn more effectively.

When teachers incorporate collaborative learning into their instruction, students benefit greatly. This is well-documented. Collaboration helps students develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and social skills that are vital for their current and future development.

For additional study
Dozens of articles describing best practices for collaboration in the classroom.

This self-paced course will help you develop/enhance your collaborative practices in your classroom.

Links to several essays about Johnson and Johnson’s research.

Next article: Collaborative practices in my classroom.

Gokhale, Anuradha. “Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking.” Journal of Technology Education 7.1 (1995): n. pag. JTE Volume 7, Issue 1. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

Johnson, David Wolcott, Roger T. Johnson, and Edythe Johnson Holubec. Circles of learning cooperation in the classroom. Revised ed. Edina (Minn.): Interaction book, 1986. Print.

  1. November 22, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    I can tell you that working collaboratively online with fellow teachers has this effect on my learning!

    • November 22, 2010 at 2:33 pm

      The ability to collaborate with other teachers and classrooms has had a transformative effect on my teaching, as well. I don’t know where I would be right now without the influence of others.

  1. November 15, 2010 at 10:56 pm

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