Vygotsky argued that all cognitive development happens through social interactions. We are exposed to new tools for thinking, new strategies to succeed in completing a task, and new ideas through social interaction. What we first experience socially, we then internalize and it forms a model for our internal thinking.
Vygotsky states: ‘What the child is able to do in collaboration today, he will do independently tomorrow’, (Thinking and Speaking 1934/87).
Furthermore, through talking through problems we enhance our understanding. Atkins argues that as learners become more adept at talking their way through problems, their outer speech develops, and so does their inner speech, giving greater powers of self-direction (Atkins). To explore Vygotsky’s ideas further, see Peter E Doolittle’s article, Understanding Co-operative Learning through Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. You can also go to our Vygotsky Lives Knowledge Bank, or to the Talk for Learning Knowledge Bank for a general introduction.
Extensive research has shown that co-operative group work leads to improved academic performance for all participants, including the most able, (see Atkins and Slavin). Other benefits of cooperative group work include development of communication, social and teamwork skills, and freeing up time for more teacher contact with individual students (Critchley). Above all they tend to be motivating, enjoyable and students tend to show a preference for working in this way.
Most of the work on collaborative and co-operative learning is concerned with developing classroom practices that promote effective collaborative talk. There is a distinction between collaborative and co-operative learning pedagogies. Whilst co-operative learning refers to children working together and helping one another in their individual learning, collaboration refers to working together on a project or task that has a shared goal. As Atkins comments, in a co-operative learning project you may hear, ‘ Can you pass me the ruler’, in a collaborative project, ‘Lets try it like this’. Distinct teaching strategies apply to each.
Co-operative teaching strategies usually involve group work tasks where the entire group is responsible for the learning of all the students within the group. This means that students have an incentive to help each other to learn. Slavin suggests that two critical elements of designing good co-operative group work tasks are: individual accountability for your own work, and group goals. So, for example, in the STL – Student Team Learning Technique – students work in a team to learn something which is then ‘tested’ in individual quizzes at the end of the learning. Team success can only be achieved if all the members of the team learn the objectives being taught. Slavin’s article, What Makes Group Work Work?, also reviews lots of other good co-operative learning strategies and ideas to try out.
Collaborative learning tasks involve creating something that requires everyone in the group’s involvement. The design of the task is very important. In Atkins’ excellent article, Why Collaboration Works, he gives detailed instructions on how to design tasks that will stimulate good collaborative learning. He illustrates that tasks, must not be ‘decomposable’ – that is, possible for one person to lead the task and others to coast – must require the contribution or ‘voice’ of all members – such that there is interdependence; and lastly must not be ‘right answer’ tasks – rather, require higher order thinking. In this article, Atkins also discusses other factors that will support collaborative group work, such as modeling collaborative skills, classroom and seating structure and grouping models.
The philosophy for children ‘Community of Enquiry’ teaching model is a discursive model of co-operative group work. Through listening and reasoning together, students develop their enquiry and their thinking and understanding of their topic. The model places importance on the process of reasoning together – that students learn to listen carefully, respect each others views, and creatively build on each other’s contributions, thus making meaning together. For more information, see our Philosophy for Children Knowledge Bank.
For a clear guide to conducting co-operative/collaborative group work with useful do’s and don’t tips for teachers, see Bullet Proof, Peter Critchley. For a wealth of classroom activities based on collaborative learning and in particular for a focus on strategies to use with EAL students in mixed ability settings, see The Collaborative Learning Project, (www.collaborativelearning.org). The Arctic Stories project pack by Sue Lyle is underlined in design by collaborative learning principles and most activities involve collaborative group work. See her article about the pack, Planning Classroom Activities for Critical Thinking. In Creative Investigations in Science, Rosemary Feasey discusses collaboration in the science classroom. An excellent resource for collaborative group work based on thinking skills principles is LogoVisual Thinking. For a discussion of how LogoVisual Thinking is used see Brin Best’s article of the same name. And for a general discussion of different talk for learning pedagogies, see Speaking into Meaning, Sue Lyle.