When students learn through collaboration, they aren’t limited to just a paper and pencil assessment of their ability. Instead, they are inspired to show their knowledge in creative mediums by partnering up with classmates to co-produce assignments at their own pace.
Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.
— Henry Ford
What is Collaborative Learning?
Collaborative learning is a term that appears more and more frequently in educational circles. An update of the perennial emphasis on teamwork from the business world, it also replaces the commercial word synergy — which frankly makes many people roll their eyes because of its overuse/abuse — but the thrust is the same: students need to learn to work in groups, and when they do, the results they produce are often substantially more in-depth, insightful, and elaborate than they would have been had the students been working individually.
Generally, however, the emphasis in teacher training is on how to teach individual students. While there is attention to group dynamics and teams, ed schools spend the bulk of their instruction on individual student learning. As a result, teachers need to learn and practice techniques geared towards creating successful student collaborations. Two of the most fundamental principles are these: to make a group lesson successful, everyone must participate; and multiple learning styles must be put to use: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.
To be clear, collaborative learning is not the same thing as the group projects we may remember from our own school days. Those assignments were typically organized so that students could divide up the roles and each work on their own sections individually. When it was time to combine the material and present a unified product, it was generally obvious that the different pieces came from different students; while each might be an expert on his or her subtopic, students did not usually learn about each other’s work, so there was no deeper learning made possible by working in a group.
Collaborative learning, by contrast, is designed to take advantage of the combined talents of the group by offering students an opportunity to explore something together. They share their insights, observations, and questions. They share the creation of the end product. And most importantly, they share the actual learning experience, learning from each other as much as from the materials they consult.
Research highlights multiple benefits
The goal, according to Amy Stoios, The Grayson School’s Director of Education, is to get students enthusiastic about and eager to pursue a topic or project. Once students are engaged with the material, that’s when genuine learning is achieved.
“True learning — when students retain and can apply the information they are taught — occurs in an environment that engages and excites students, when their emotions come into play,” Stoios says. “Emotions are triggered when we experience a memorable event; it’s those emotions that go into our long-term memory and, when prompted, the material attached to the emotion can be easily accessed with deeper understanding later.”
Over the years, Stoios has witnessed what research shows to be the proven benefits of group instruction that promotes learning that sticks, both as an elementary school teacher employing collaborative learning techniques in her classrooms, and today in her graduate-level classes in which she teaches that effective collaboration improves performance and communication skills.
With gifted students, though, this approach can have an extra layer of complexity, since they sometimes prefer to work alone, usually because of a less-than-positive experience working in a group. Individually, gifted kids may be accustomed to producing great results, some at astonishing speed; in mixed-ability classrooms, prior experience may have taught them that their level of advanced thinking and capability generally results in their having to do “more than their share” of the work. So how do you spark interest in group participation if your students would prefer to work solo on projects?
To further complicate matters, sometimes gifted students have an “entity mindset,” commonly called a “fixed mindset,” which leads them to believe that any initial struggle with new concepts is a cue to turn away, and they decide, “I’m no good at this,” rather than rising to the challenge.
That attitude is precisely why a collaborative learning environment is ideal for gifted kids who need more practice working through difficult tasks, unfolding shared ideas, and thinking creatively to solve a problem. And that’s why, at Grayson, students learn that failure is an integral part of learning that will in fact make them smarter.
“By teaching students that failures are actually successes, and opportunities to learn and grow further, they are motivated to keep going,” Stoios says. Eventually, even shy kids join in on group projects as they observe classmates making mistakes that require working together to correct.
Collaborative learning in practice
Take Grayson’s Mission to Mars project, for example, “launched” last year in the spring. This collaborative unit involved the entire study body, readying them for the kinds of group work that fuels teaching in their classrooms throughout the year.
In Mission to Mars, students had a wide array of tasks: they built and programmed robots, collected soil samples, and even used mindfulness techniques to manage their heart rates. Because they rotated through roles — for example, every student helped build the space station, every student worked in mission control, etc. — everyone had times when they did spectacularly well and times when they struggled. However, every student had participated in every part of the project, so they felt ownership and a deep sense of engagement and commitment to the success of the project and the simulations.
Grayson students even had very concrete data to show them how the biological benefits of how successful teamwork impacted their bodies. During the mission, anything could go wrong on any given day: a robot might not work, or a camera might be pointed in the wrong direction. Because of the medical station’s heart rate monitoring program, students could see their heart rates going up when they were stressed about a problem, and then could see how asking for help from a colleague and working together as a team brought their heart rates back down. This immediate biofeedback loop offered them insight into how their choice to bear a stressful situation alone versus problem-solving together could make a real difference — and not just in the results of the particular simulation, but also in their own health and wellness. By the end of the project, they knew a little more about how to collaborate with classmates to achieve a common goal, because they began to understand their own strengths and to recognize opportunities to leverage them to support the team.
This kind of success is what collaborative learning is all about: a group of students working hands-on together to solve a problem, and getting excited about learning. And, in these small groups of four or five (and even in pairs), not only are the students getting revved up to about learning, but, as Stoios explains, they are growing their cognitive, social, and motivational abilities.
Collaborative learning offers opportunities for longer-term, hands-on explorations during which students can “dive deep,” as gifted children are wont to do. “When kids move at their own pace in an environment that engages and excites them, they learn to dig deep to achieve a greater understanding of a topic,” Stoios says. “The more time spent empowering students to do the work, the better they learn and retain the information.”
Stoios goes on to explain that collaborative learning can generate surprising moments of self-discovery in students. For example, a typically shy student may step up to take a leadership role in a project which touches on an area of particular personal interest. Or a student comes forward because he or she enjoys the public speaking aspect of the project, then taking on the role of delivering results or making the group’s presentations. Listening, sharing, taking turns, and remaining patient are all immensely valuable social skills developed in group learning where students encounter first-hand the way different approaches can build on and strengthen ideas.
In a shared learning environment, students are motivated to understand an entire concept, not just the small part they are required to fulfill. “You get more ‘look, this is how we do it,’ from the kids,” says Stoios. “A student teaches a classmate and shares their point of view.” They become active participants and learn that their contribution is important, no matter how tiny a detail it might be.
Collaborative learning doesn’t only come in the form of intense, week-long projects, though combining this learning approach with the best practice of project-based learning yields great results at Grayson. There are countless little opportunities for students to work together built in across the curriculum, at all levels. “You can see this kind of learning in every class here,” Stoios says. “Every day, the students have an opportunity to experience collaborative learning.”
Smaller projects, like the classic “egg drop” experiment run last year, take only a day or two to complete. In the “egg drop,” the goal is to package an egg so it won’t break — when dropped from the top of a stairwell. Working in pairs, students were given a variety of different materials— such as felt, bubble wrap, and cardboard — they could use to construct a padded cover for the egg. Once a team had built their wrapper, they dropped their eggs and observed and analyzed their results. In the end, as is typical, a few eggs broke during the fall, and a few didn’t. Any group with broken eggs re-engineered their wrapper until they finally developed an egg wrap that could survive impact.
But it’s not only math and science class in which collaborative learning enhances education. In music, students can work together to discover how each string on a guitar makes a different pitch. Or in writing class, they can co-write a script for a play. How the students present their projects is their choice: make a guitar? Create a PowerPoint presentation? Put on a play?
Ultimately, collaborative learning groups students with strong abilities in one area with others who may lack that same strength but excel in another arena. And the growth mindset, which embraces the benefits of an iterative “fail, analyze, redesign, and try again” method, encourages students to keep trying. Students learn to cooperate with one another and actually look forward to integrating everyone’s ideas into one product.
Last year, students in grades 4-6 delivered a presentation about the Mission to Mars to an audience of parents and family members on the last day of school, and the slides they created offered terrific insights into the lessons they had learned. Interestingly, without teacher guidance, 2/3 of the slides focused on mistakes they had made and what they had learned from them.
Perhaps the most powerful testament to the power of collaborative learning came near the end of their presentation. The last slide appeared on the screen, and the final child to present, a nine-year-old, stood alone beside the screen in front of the audience, most of whom were adults he had never seen in his life. He explained that the students agreed that the biggest and most important thing they learned on their mission didn’t have anything to do with Mars, at all.
“We wasted a lot of time while everyone was arguing that they were right,” he said. “Once everyone finally stopped trying to run the whole thing themselves, and we really listened to one another, we discovered that between us, we really knew a lot more than any one of us knew alone. And it took a while for us to figure that out…but once we did, we were super awesome and got a much more interesting result. I don’t think any of us were expecting that to be the big news when we heard we were going to Mars.”
It’s precisely this kind of moment that Stoios says the project was aiming for rather than mastery of astronomy or engineering principles. “Group work builds confidence,” she says. “All of a sudden, individual strengths shine, and you see a natural, beautiful thing where leadership is developed.”