Some of the Benefits of Collaborative Group Learning & Collaborative Problem Solving 

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The principles of Collaborative Group Learning and Collaborative Problem Solving have been tried and tested by the founders of Infinity School within a number of international and schooling contexts including secondary, further and tertiary environments over a period of six years. The effects of Collaborative Group Learning and its associated pedagogy are varied and positive, resulting in the development of enhanced academic competencies and proficiencies and in the development of a range of attributes which contribute towards an individual’s capacity for lifelong-lifewide learning. With the ongoing application of the theory and practice of CGL, active research, data collection, analysis and refinement of the process of engineering and facilitating CGL is continuous across contexts. A myriad of effects resulting from an engagement with CGL are being observed, in particular a reorientation of learner perceptions of their learning skills and attributes, and of the benefits of learning with others. At the start of an engagement with the process and practice of CGL learners perceive the benefits of learning with others to be appropriating knowledge but as engagement continues the perceived benefits shift and become much more focused upon the process of learning itself. An individual’s engagement with their own metacognitive and socialised learning practices is a key ingredient of effective lifelong-lifewide learning.

CGL is generally well received by learners with data indicating again that the longer the learner experiences collaborative learning the more they come to see its benefits and with that a sustained willingness to engage with CGL further. Students feel that they benefit from learning collaboratively as they recognise the development of their speaking and listening skills, an ability to learn with others (in particular social mediation strategies) and enhanced academic skills and abilities. Of these the most prevalent are those skills and attributes which can be associated with a self-directed learning capacity. Through CGL students develop self-regulation, self-management and a capacity for autonomous strategic learning. When asked ‘Do you think you have become more independent and able to direct your own learning?’ students identify that they perceive they have increased in their learning autonomy. These perceptions are time and again confirmed by peers and educators alike.

Importantly what CGL enables is a shift away from dependence upon the teacher towards interdependence within the group, in turn generating learner independence. Due to the group construct, multiple zones of proximal development converge enabling learners to benefit from intellectual scaffolding, appropriating skills and attributes that help them not only to learn from each other but also develop autonomy from the teacher. By shifting learning to the group and to the individual the risk of facilitating learned helplessness, a common feature in classrooms, is not only avoided but actively replaced with learned empowerment. Learner autonomy takes the form of group and individual self-direction within their learning. Individuals are initially provided with opportunities to and then given freedom to plan their own learning without teacher input.

Learners also identify that they feel they have gained skills and attributes in areas which can be associated with an increased capacity for self-directed learning, such as:

  • using what has been learnt in one subject to help in another;
  • trying to get along and work with other people who are not just friends;
  • taking risks even when it might result in failure;
  • being able to find and use resources to help with learning;
  • taking responsibility for their learning;
  • listening to and being interested in what others think.

Evidence suggests that the skill strands of effective verbal communication and enhanced attributes associated with effective social learning helped to not only facilitate CGL, due to a continued active application of these skills, but also generate a capacity for ongoing self-directed learning. Areglado et al. (1996) consider the development of this capacity as an extremely important facet of a lifelong-lifewide learning capacity, and we at Infinity School agree.

Contributing significantly to the emergence of the above skills and attributes is the development of lower and higher order verbal communication skills. An active engagement with CGL offers opportunities for discourse as discussion, debate and consensus building. Learners can be increasingly observed applying skills such as verbal task regulation (Biemiller et al., 1998) and active listening highlighted by eye contact and note taking. Collaborative inquiry and problem solving activities in particular provide weaker students with opportunities to experience how to communicate within a group. CGL provides learners with multiple opportunities for talk in and as learning to be taught to students by students, helping build a socio-linguistic foundation for further CGL. Learners are visibly becoming furnished with knowledge of how to undertake constructive and reciprocated dialogue with the more competent tutoring the less skilled.

Mid level communication skills such as turn taking and verbal task regulation can also be seen to develop. What the increased effectiveness of verbal communication builds within groups is enhanced social-cohesion, a safe environment of trust and respect in which to learn. Groups can be seen to develop an effective application of discourse sequences such as initiation, response, feedback (discussed by Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975) and spotlighting, performance and evaluation (discussed by Rampton and Harris, 2009, p.13) as a means of regulating group discourse. In addition logical marshalling (Jaques and Salmon, 2007, p.19), presenting knowledge and views, visible listening, questioning, debate and ultimately consensus building are regular features of group talk and learning due to the application of both CGL processes and an appropriate CGL pedagogy. What this suggests is that actively engaging in CGL helps develop verbal interaction skills, simultaneously enabling more capable communicators to develop sophisticated modes of dialogue and those with weaker communication skills to develop confidence, leading to active involvement. A vital skill for lifelong-lifewide learning is verbal communication and both observations and student voice suggests that through exposure to structured discourse such as discussion, debate and particularly consensus building, facilitated through an engagement with CGL, such skills can be developed.

For CGL to be fully effective learners need to ‘learn the craft of interdependence’ (Bruffee, 1993, p.1). As a skill, interdependence requires a number of attributes to be developed, including effective verbal communication skills, for its successful application. The evidence suggests that an active engagement with CGL can facilitate individuals developing the cognitive and social tools needed for and the ability to apply interdependent learning, leading to a sustained capacity for CGL and in time Liberated Learning. Feedback from students suggests that they begin to work with each other interdependently rather than dependently, in particular sharing knowledge derived from independent research. The recurring evidence suggests that CGL scaffolds the very attributes and skills needed to make effective CGL work.

As engagement is extended over months and years the development of communication, interaction and social skills such as intersubjectivity (Ding and Flynn, 2000) are embedded, all of which helps generate interdependence. With this comes an increase in observable interdependence, a facet of which is an increase in reciprocal teaching between students and student-student tutoring. The heterogeneous construct of the groups enables the more competent to tutor the novice, while the nature of the CGL activities allows learners to move freely between the role of novice and more able.

The effectiveness of this interdependence correlates with the level of communication being used by individuals and patterns of verbal interaction applied by the group. This supports Bruffee’s (1993) assertion that effective interdependence is ‘social maturity integrated with intellectual maturity’ (p.2).

In order to support the application of CGL a number of tools, for students and educators alike, have been developed, applied and evaluated. With communication, social-mediation and role taking crucial elements within the process of undertaking and building a capacity for GCL resources have been developed to aid students in these areas. These include student and teacher guides, role cards, communication cards and a series of Learn to… sessions designed to support learners in their collaborative practices. Such resources will support learners and teachers alike within Infinity School to ensure that effective Collaborative Group Learning processes are enacted through the most appropriate Collaborative Group Learning Pedagogies.