What the literature suggests: The Potential Benefits of Collaborative Group Learning

When learning is defined as,

any process that in living organisms leads to a permanent capacity change not solely due to biological maturation or ageing

(Illeris, 2007, p.3)

the facilitation of learning becomes concerned with the engineering of these processes. If the most effective learning results from an active process of engagement with learning (Ireson, 2008, p.6) in order to achieve premeditated goals (Resnich, 1987) then what can activate this process? Illeris (2007) suggests that this active process is stimulated by the interactions between three dimensions of learning, content, incentive and environment, a theory supported by Claxton (1999), Watkins et al. (2002) and Ireson (2008). When such an interaction process is placed within a social context, such as the classroom, a further tri-directional relationship is activated between rules, tools and community, all of which shapes the activation, direction and nature of learning (Engestrom, 1987, 2009). At the heart of this paradigm is an acceptance of the enabling role of social factors, a central tenet of constructivist, social- constructivist and particularly social-constructionist philosophies championed by Piaget (1923), Vygotsky (1978) and Burr (1999). Learning as a social process is explored throughout the literature relating to effective learning (see Lave and Wenger, 1991; Watkins, 2005), cooperative learning (Johnson and Johnson, 1999) and collaborative learning. A valid interpretation therefore is that if we are to engineer effective learning processes and opportunities we must consider and exploit the social nature of learning. Of the various attempts to socialise classroom learning, such as Dialogic Teaching and Learning (Lefstein, 2010), Think>Pair>Share (Lyman, 1981), AfL (see Black et al., 2004) and pair work (Watkins et al., 2007), the most beneficial seems to be those seeking to engineer and facilitate cooperation-collaboration between learners.

The literature relating to strategies associated with cooperation-collaboration, suggests varying cognitive, social, psychological and societal benefits. Ding and Flynn (2000) highlight the relationship between an individual’s engagement with collaborative learning processes and the development of some of their more general cognitive skills, in particular, ‘intersubjectivity, planning, communication and inhibition.(p.3). Panitz (2011) furthers this, citing 67 benefits of collaboration including, improved learning and achievement, improved skills, improved engagement and responsibility and improved relationships. Bruffee (1993) believes that collaborative learning processes encourage learner autonomy through a development of ‘the craft of interdependence.’ (p.1). The development of this attribute promotes a shift from cognitive self-interest to mutual interest, the development of positive learning and social relationships between students and an increased openness to being influenced by and influencing others (Johnson and Johnson, 2008, p.12). Evidence also suggests that due to the way in which collaboration requires the use of dialogue, in problem solving and social mediation (Vygotsky, 1978; Mercer, 2002), verbal task regulation is stimulated (Biemiller et al., 1998, p.204), effective learning encouraged (Alexander, 2006, p.9; Kutnick, 2010, p.192) and personal identities developed (Bakhtin, 1981; Renshaw, 2004, p.1), helping to form socially adept individuals. As such, a learner could become increasingly more able to control their learning practices, attributes of a self-directed and effective lifelong-lifewide learner.

The literature suggests that many of the benefits of learning collaboratively results from an individual’s positive interaction with their peers: a learning group. As a result of seeding and harvesting the learning environment with and for knowledge and skills, learners activate cognitive processes of appropriation (Bakhtin, 1981; Leont’ev, 1981). Subsequently this enables each learner to become a ‘stronger individual in his or her own right’ (Johnson and Johnson, 1999, p.81). The theory underpinning this links to interdependence, learning with and because of others, and to notions of social indebtedness, reciprocation stimulated by sharing; with gifts making friends and friends offering gifts (Sahlins, 1974). Despite the evidence suggesting that collaboration could be a panacea, what was not being offered in the literature was the clear means of how to move from general theory and context specific examples, to my own classroom practice. This led me to pursue more specifically a theory of and the principles and practices of collaborative learning.

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