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Why Should Students Collaborate?
Author: Peter Skillen, Manager of Professional Learning for Social Media with the YMCA of Greater Toronto | November 9th, 2011

Road SignWe hear it all the time now. Students must collaborate. It is a 21st century skill! Well, hold on. Why this huge rush towards this goal now? It has always been important. The rush towards this holy grail of collaboration or connected learning is partially a result of the affordances of Web 2.0 technologies and greater access to personal computing devices. Tools shape behaviour.

Not that it’s a bad thing. I personally have been an advocate of collaboration for some time now.

But when constructs become popularized – as this one has – their meaning can often become faded. This is known as ‘semantic drift’.

It is important not to lose the deeper meanings of ‘collaboration’. I encourage you to coach your colleagues to think deeply about the term when you hear it. Applaud their consideration of it and use some appreciative inquiry strategies to evoke their understanding of it.

So What is Collaboration?

The word ‘collaborate’ is derived from the Latin collaborare – to labour together. Students, when collaborating, are actively engaged in discussing their individual and collective work. They may be working on the same task, parts of the same task or they might be engaged in a super-ordinate goal of interest to all. It is not merely a social phenomenon – it is also a cognitive one. Learning is a social process. Collaboration may accommodate deeper learning by:

* making thinking visible
* scaffolding
* using the synergy of group dynamics

Make Thinking Visible

In making thinking visible, collaboration affords us opportunities to learn that don’t exist otherwise. Knowledge can be made explicit through; conversation, modeling, shared writing tasks, or co-creation of a constructive project. Find ways to scaffold your students’ conversations or activities so that their thinking is revealed.


Collaboration may provide scaffolding that may reduce the cognitive load. A ‘cognitive partner’ is able to share the load of a task more complex than one might be able to handle alone. Lauren Resnick (1987 p13) draws a comparison of individual cognition at school versus shared cognition outside school. She indicates that for the most part school learning and performance are individual. Most work is comprised of individual assignments. A student succeeds or fails individually. Outside school, on the other hand, much activity is socially shared. The ‘system’ of individuals either fails or succeeds. For example, in the case of manoeuvring a large vessel she maintains that “no individual in the system can pilot a ship alone”.

Synergy of Group Dynamics

Collaboration may lead to insights that might not occur without the benefits of the discussions and interactions. With respect to collective problem solving, Schoenfeld (Collins et al, 1989) says “Groups are not just convenient way to accumulate the individual knowledge of their members. They give rise synergistically to insights and solutions that would not come about without them.” Collaboration, therefore, may lead to a ‘whole’ that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Build Thoughtful Environments with Blogs, Wikis, FaceBook, Twitter, Nings, and…

There are countless Web 2.0 tools today that are social in nature. It is our task to leverage them for learning. There are many more personal devices available from laptops to tablets to smart phones. The trick is to get students to use them intentionally to bootstrap ALL classroom members to a higher level of understanding both the content and processes of learning.

We could have students publicly write their goals, thoughts, plans, frustrations, and reflections as they go through all phases of a classroom project. Each student can be responsible for writing their own thoughts (blog, wiki) as well as engaging in written conversation with other group members. Build scaffolding in for both the initial writings and also to encourage and support substantive conversations among the students. Kids often need support to know how best to ‘help’ their classmates. It’s not enough to be social. Cognitive contributions are also necessary.

Also, co-creation spaces abound and are not limited to the written word. Consider co-creation opportunities including mash-ups, drawing, video co-creation, presentations (Google suite or Prezi), & social sharing sites.

Final Word

So the next time you hear someone say that their students collaborated on a project, coach them by digging more deeply. Ask about the nature of that collaboration. What did the collaboration look like in the classroom? How did the students interact with one another to raise everyone’s learning? What roles did technologies play in enhancing deep social and cognitive collaboration?

By coaching your colleagues in this way, you will have modeled true collaboration.

Peter is currently Manager of Professional Learning for Social Media with the YMCA of Greater Toronto after 40 years teaching students & teachers. Peter serves on the Board of Directors of iEARN-Canada, The Educational Computing Organization of Ontario, and is global ambassador with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). He teaches online with the Ontario Teachers' Federation, is a Community Leader with the Powerful Learning Practice and co-founder of Minds On Media.

Website -peterskillen.org

Blog -The Construction Zone

Twitter - @peterskillen

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