Update on “Collaborative Learning”

Last week, I wrote about a potential strategy for making group-work more effective. A Boston-based research team has found reason to think that “intermittent” collaboration might yield better results than constant (or absent) collaboration.collaborative learning

Although I’m excited to see these results, my article concluded with two concerns:

First: the research was done with college students. It might not apply to younger learners.

Second: the participants weren’t exactly collaborating. They were (or were not) looking at each others’ answers after they solved problems.

They did not do what typically happens in schools, where students work on problems and projects together all at the same time.

So, again: this research might not (or, might) apply in our classrooms.

(I should be clear: the researchers don’t claim to be studying collaboration. Their research field is “collective intelligence.” The most obvious place to apply their research is in what teachers call “collaboration.”)

Thoughtful Update for Concern #1…

When I have questions about a study, I try to ask the researchers for their thoughts. In this case, I reached out to Dr. Jesse Shore with my two concerns.

His answers struck me as particularly helpful, and so I’m sharing them with you. (I’m rewording passages from his email, but with his permission drawing substantially on them.)

First, Dr. Shore explains why intermittent “collaboration” helps:

The results depend on (1) people trying more diverse solutions when they are not seeing others’ solutions [ACW: that’s how working alone helps]

and (2) learning from the solutions of others when they do see them [ACW: that’s how “collaborating” helps].

Intermittent collaboration makes time for both benefits.

For this reason, Dr. Shore suspects that this strategy would work well with younger students. There’s no obvious reason why 3rd graders (for example) wouldn’t “try more diverse solutions when not seeing others’ solutions,” nor why they wouldn’t “learn from others’ solutions when they see them.”

Such hypotheses need testing, but that’s a plausible set of presumptions with which to start.

…and Concern #2

Dr. Shore shares my concern about applying “collective intelligence” research directly to “collaboration.” After all, collaboration includes at least two other key variables.

The “free rider” problem. When groups work together, some people can just sit back and let others do all the work.

Interpersonal relationships. In groups, some people like each other and work well together; others just don’t. Or, a student might adopt another student’s strategy not because it works well, but because that student is popular.

Despite these other variables, Dr. Shore writes, “my guess is that intermittent interaction would still be best.”

After all–as I think about his summary–it seems clear that intermittent collaboration would interrupt the “free-rider” problem. I can’t let you do all the work if I have to work by myself at times.

The Big Picture

First: Dr. Shore offers us good reasons to think that “intermittent” interaction would indeed benefit typical kinds of school collaboration.

Its benefits, most likely, help students of all ages. And it might help with (and certainly wouldn’t exacerbate) the additional complexities of full-on collaboration.

Second: this strikes me as an excellent example of the philosophy that teachers shouldn’t just “do this thing,” but instead should “think this way.”

In this case: when we see research about “collaboration,” we should not simply enact its guidance. Instead, we should contemplate the specific ways it does, and does not, fit exactly with what we do.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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