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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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College Readiness: Learning Collaboratively

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

"Good Morning! You are seated in groups because you will be working together to find real solutions to real problems. You will have to collaborate with your group members to arrive at a solution. Are you ready?"

No response. Timid nods.

"Ok, your first assignment is to invent a product that fills a real need. Then create a marketing plan for a company that sells this product. Determine the price of your product and your target audience, and design a sales poster and presentation explaining the benefits of the product or reasons your target audience would want to buy this product."

No response. No action.

Preparing Students

The typical first day silence lasted a whole week. Students who were used to being told what to do and what to think, now had to think in ways in which they were not accustomed, and even worse, they had to do it with other students from other schools. They had to collaborate in a manner for which their years of cooperative learning in middle and grade school had not prepared them.

When I worked at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I had the privilege of managing this exciting program which used a multi-disciplinary curriculum sponsored by a grant from the Ford Fund called Ford Partnerships for Advanced Studies (PAS). Ninth grade students were immersed in this inquiry-based curriculum for six weeks during the summer of 2005 on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus. In the process of investigating case studies, and arriving at solutions students had to learn about marketing, production, science, technology, business, reverse engineering, and math, most of which were new subjects to these students. Some basic principals are explained through case studies, but the learning was completely open ended -- true inquiry.

Wisely, the teachers and I anticipated the student lack of preparation for collaboration and decided to spend some time preparing students to function with other students collaboratively, in the inquiry format. The students were taught how to share ideas, brainstorm, feed off other ideas, explore in the box, out of the box, and under the box. In the first week of the program, we discovered that in their home schools not enough effort was placed on actually training students to think and behave collaboratively instead of just cooperatively.

Cooperative learning is different than collaborative learning (Webb, Nemer, & Zuniga, 2003). The subtle difference is that in cooperative learning, roles are assigned to each student and in essence, each student is working independently, together. Collaborative learning is combining the skills and talents of all the students working together at the same time, on the same thing. Different skill sets are required to be successful in cooperative learning and collaboration. Both require an ability to get along with others and being responsible, but in collaboration, students must be able to give and take, adjust, interact, ask questions, think critically, encourage and inspire by contributing all they have -- not just the portion belonging to their particular part or role.

In 1999, twenty cognitive scientists and educational researchers from around the world met concerning collaborative learning and although they could not agree on a single definition of what collaborative learning is, they did agree that it means getting students together in situations that trigger deep learning (Dillenbourg, 1999). Vygotsky, Bandura, and even Piaget, maintained that deep learning is a collaborative endeavor.

The Results

From the first day to the last day, the students in the Ford PAS program went through an amazing transformation. The first week they did not have a clue on how to go about solving a problem collaboratively. Eventually they learned how to do this through working on the solutions to sticky, real-world problems: from finding the lowest cost for manufacturing using the best metals, to determining in which country it would be most advantageous to establish their company based on current economic data.

The final project required the students to develop methods to test for the most suitable plastic for their manufacturing plant.

If you had seen this group of students the first week, you would have now thought they were different a different group entirely. In the final project they immediately attacked the problem, explored the limits of the problem, identified the parameters of success, and went to work finding possible solutions. In each of their groups respectively they researched what kinds of experiments can test plastics and then designed ways to effectively test tensile strength, pliability, chemical resistance, and shear forces. Their ability to collaborate, or in other words, as a group create something unique and wonderful, was amazing.

The Implications

Incoming students in colleges such as MIT, as my son recently found out, are expected to be able to effectively learn in collaboration with their classmates from day one. This means that the secondary and primary schools should give their students the necessary practice in collaboration rather than just cooperative grouping.

Collaborative inquiry means the answer is unknown to the students beforehand, and so they must investigate, explore, discover, synthesize, and create on their own (within a teacher-provided time frame).

Establishing group norms, goals, and standards of performance is something that the teachers can train students to do as a matter of course. Helping students understand and use explicit expectations such as rubrics is crucial for students to succeed. However, the most valuable thing a teacher can do to help students learn collaboration is to let the process run its course. Don't interfere.

The ability to learn independently is prized by universities, but more and more colleges are seeking students that can learn collaboratively. How do you prepare your students to learn collaboratively?

Suggested resources

Dillenbourg, P. "What Do You Mean by Collaborative Learning?" (Collaborative-Learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches, Oxford: Elsevier, 1999)

Webb, N. M., Nemer, K. M., and Zuniga, S. "Short Circuits or Superconductors? Effects of Group Composition on High-Achieving Students' Science Assessment Performance." (American Educational Research Journal 39, 2003)

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