The Fundamentals of Collaborative Learning
Every teacher should know the fundamental elements of collaborative learning before instituting group learning activities in his classroom. Collaborative learning activities in class could range from the open ended to the very structured and as the facilitator, you must be able to design your group sessions with an eye to your teaching objectives for a particular topic.
The Open End
At one end of the spectrum, you can ask your students a question or give them a problem or an ultimate goal and then leave them to do it their way. Your students would then be free to decide who's part of their group, who gets what duties within the group and how often and when the group will meet. They will decide what material they would need to access and how to go about getting the information they require. They will tell you when they've fulfilled their task and what form the final product will take.
You really can't be too specific when you set the objective for this kind of exercise. You would, of course, give them the overall goal and the deadline and tell them in broad terms what you expect them to deliver at the end of the process. Your focus would be more on the process of the collaboration than the final outcome in this totally student-centred learning process. You would observe and facilitate the students' interaction with their peers and the learning environment and you would encourage them towards self-actualization through the personal and social change that they will undergo during the collaborative process. However, you will not exert any authoritarian control over your students.
In this kind of collaborative activity, your role is limited to that of consultant and advisor when your students need your input. You will help them when they ask and you may offer suggestions which may or may not be incorporated by the group. At the end, it will be your job to assess the final product, again encouraging the group to consider and process your viewpoint. Your assessment, in this case, is likely to be more qualitative than quantitative.
If the activity does what it is supposed to, you will have a group of extremely motivated students who would have appreciated the trust you've invested in them. In the best case scenario, your students will be completely involved in the learning process and will own their task with total responsibility. The outcome of the collaborative learning process will exceed your expectations.
The Other End
At the other end of the spectrum is the highly structured collaborative (or cooperative) activity that you would control at every step.Here, you would set a very specific task and expect a specific result. You would constitute a heterogeneous group of students and tell each the role he or she is to play within the group. You would provide your students with a detailed road-map of the directions they are to take and set deadlines for periodic assessments. Your students would have to comply with your stipulations and deliver to you the end-product as per your specifications.
You would monitor and control each stage of this activity and would probably focus on the end product rather than the process of collaboration. You would teach your students cooperative skills and structure their inter-dependence. You would pay attention to the skills and competencies they develop during the activity and intervene if a conflict within the group threatens to get out of control. Your assessment at the end of the activity is likely to be quantitative.
Both types of group activities described above are examples of Collaborative Learning. Both require students to work together towards an ultimate goal and in both cases the group would have to present its findings to a larger group. In both cases, there will be an assessment of their collaboration and both types of groups would have to go through a process of reflection and self-evaluation.
A teacher will have to decide which side of the spectrum is conducive to the task he is about to set and the group he will be setting it to. It is probably a better idea to begin with the more regulated and gradually progress to a more unstructured group as your students grow into the idea of collaborative learning and develop the competencies and inter-personal skills that they need. While the "preparedness" of your students obviously matters, their age and maturity may also need to be considered.
Practical Tips for the Teacher / Facilitator
When you're setting up collaborative learning activities in your class, you have to keep the following conditions in mind:
- Is this activity something that will alloow students to construct or discover the knowledge you desire on their own and without your having to "give" it to them?
- Is this activity constructed so that students learn actively without absorbing knowledge passively from you?
- Are you creating an atmosphere where students can create their own meaning from the material you want them to learn?
- Are you making an environment that will allow your students to share their knowledge, develop new skills and increase their inter-dependence?
- Are you making your groups small enough so that it becomes mandatory for each student to perform his or her part of the task?
- Are you encouraging communication and conflict resolution skills in your students?
- Is the task something that feels comfortable to the students and is at the same time a challenge?
- How are you going to ensure that the groups are diverse and show respect for all contribution?
- Have you made the necessry research tools accessible to your groups?
- Have you given your groups clear objectives?
- Do you have a rubric to guide your students and yourself through the process?
- Do you have an assessment system that is clear to both yourself and your groups?
- Are you aware of the fact that race and gender stereotypes may be reinforced in groups?
According to all the experts on collaborative learning, all teachers must be ready to create the following conditions in their cooperative activities:
- Groups must be positively inter-dependent
- They must have face to face time to do the job assigned to them
- They must foster interpersonal relations. This will increase their communication skills, their trust in each other, their leadership and motivation capabilities as well as their decision-making and their conflict resolution skills
- Group members must have individual accountability to their part of the overall task
- Groups must go through a process of self-evaluation and criticism
My last advice to teachers who want to incorporate participative group learning activities in their classes is to relax and trust their instincts after they have formed a clear conception of the fundamental elements of collaborative learning.
Nobody knows your class better than you. Play with it. Use Collaborative Learning as another teaching tool and experiment. Try out multiple approaches until you find one that fits you and your students. It may take a few trials with errors, but you'll win and your students will too, in the end.
Bouton & Garth (Ed). Learning in Groups. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 41, Spring 1990
Johnson, johnson and Holubec. Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company, 1990