Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

Written by Gael Luzet, a Clonlara School guest blogger and author of the Collaborative Learning Pocketbook (***Clonlara School does not endorse or recommend any product/service in connection with this author***).

Much has been said recently about the power of learning with others, but how can collaborative learning make a significant difference in the classroom?

Collaborative learning is a planned opportunity for two or more people to work together in an educational context. It is not just about putting pupils in groups, it is about facilitating their team work and providing great outcomes. Historically, collaborative learning has always been at the forefront of effective teaching and learning. Plato in Ancient Greece used to give his students philosophical dilemmas to solve through a dialogical process. Students who collaborate effectively have developed important lifelong learning skills such as:

•    The ability to express their thoughts with clarity
•    The ability to listen to and understand others
•    Awareness  and management of their own emotions and feelings

Collaborative learning tasks tend to be open-ended and require high levels of thinking. They demand a wide range of skills that younger learners may not have acquired yet. It is important to assist them in improving their cooperative skillset. Students learn that the answer does not always have to come from the teacher. In fact, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator, a guide on the side who paves the way for learners to acquire knowledge.

Thorough planning is crucial for the teacher-facilitator who ventures into the collaborative learning world. Set the ground rules for group work, which can be discussed with your class in advance (pupils should take it in turn to speak, make eye contact and encourage everyone to participate, be silent during instructions, etc…). It is useful for the teacher to have a zero noise signal. A whistle, a bell or a hand clap could do the trick. Consider the composition of your groups: should pupils sit in friendship, mixed gender or mixed ability groups? How many pupils should there be per group? How about the roles within each team (a leader, a scribe, a researcher, etc…)?

And last but not least, give careful consideration to unwilling learners, the ones who sit with their arms crossed or a giant bubble gum in their mouth when you speak to the class. Regardless of their reluctance to participate, they have to be included in the task. They need to be placed with the right peers and the teacher has to boost their motivation before group work starts. By and large, children crave acceptance from their peers. Reluctance generally comes from a lack of confidence buried behind a confrontational or indifferent front. When handled properly, collaborative learning helps the unwilling learner to become a more active (and happier) classroom participant.

Strategies for collaborative learning range from the simplest technique to the more complex one; from the small scale paired activity to the full blown group project which stretches over several lessons. Here are four simple strategies to facilitate group learning:

1.    To create mixed groups of pupils, give each member in the class a number from one to four. Ask all the ones, the twos, the threes and the fours to sit together. You now have four heterogeneous groups of learners ready to tackle the collaborative task ahead.
2.    To encourage students to talk to each other, sit them opposite each other in a long line and ask the students on one side to move down a seat every 3 to 5 minutes. This speed dating-style activity works well when the task involves peer questioning or data gathering.
3.    Mind maps and graphic organizers are the perfect partners to classroom collaboration. Enthusiastic pupils sitting together around a large mind map are more likely to discuss, negotiate, evaluate and compromise.
4.    Group activities such as the card game ‘Higher or Lower?’ provide a great opportunity to develop ordering and sequencing skills. Create a set of cards with ideas to rank in order of importance, value, chronology, etc… Ask pupils in pairs (or threes) to reveal each card in turn, and place it higher or lower than the other visible cards on the table.

It is generally accepted that once children understand the value of working together in unity, performance, motivation and outcomes improve.  Of course, children should also be given time to think for themselves and work on their own, but collaborative learning adds another string to their skills bow. A string which is invaluable as it gives them the confidence to interact effectively with the world around them.

Author Bio:  Gael Luzet, Advanced Skills Teacher, teacher trainer and author of the Collaborative Learning Pocketbook

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