Team work and collaborative learning


Geetanjali Kumar
Practicing Counsellor, Trainer, Parenting coach, Motivational speaker

It is the long history of human kind and animal kind too, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. — Charles Darwin

Collaborative learning may seem to be a recent innovation in education, but this interactive approach to learning existed centuries ago. In ancient India, life and learning coexisted much like the student and his teacher, or guru, with every aspect of daily life presenting opportunity for learning.

Collaboration refers to processes wherein people work together especially in literary, artistic or scientific work. Collaboration requires a process and a purpose…many people working together to achieve a common goal. This entails the practice of teamwork. Collaboration is about compassion, love, support, kindness, and the power that we gain when we share with each other and lean on each other.

Learning is social in nature. Using different mediums, whether it be books, discussions, technology or projects, we study and develop new ideas, impart ideas and share perspectives with others. It was a collaborative Computer Club about basic programming at a middle school that brought together two minds, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft.

“I never try to teach my students anything, I only try to create an environment in which they can learn.”— Albert Einstein

What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning today encompasses educational methodologies and environments that enable groups of students to work together. Effective collaborative learning environments provide students with practical problem-solving and communication skills that can be applied to their future careers. It doesn’t come naturally to students. To truly prepare students for college and careers, teachers must equip their students with such 21st Century learning tools. One of the most valued skills employers are looking for in an employee is the ability to collaborate. This doesn’t just mean being ‘nice,’ but being able to be part of a productive, efficient team that gets the job done.

Research shows that educational experiences (such as collaborative learning) that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning, preparation for real life social and employment situations.

Its benefits…

Benefits of Collaborative learning include:

  • Development of higher-level thinking (not just recalling facts).
  • Communication, self-management, and leadership skills.
  • Promotion of student-educator interaction.
  • Increase in self-esteem and responsibility.
  • Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • Research suggests that children as young as five can benefit through collaborative learning, as older students.

Simply putting, students in groups and letting them dive in is not enough to attain good outcomes, it can be “toxic for learning and classroom cultures.” Most students are used to working on their own in competition for grades. Collaboration gets harder when children hit puberty and become more self-conscious around their peers.

Making meaningful collaborations…

Here are the skills for preparing and supporting students in deep, meaningful collaborations:

  • Personal responsibility: Help students see themselves as positively interdependent so that they take a personal responsibility for working to achieve group goals.
  • Effective interpersonal skills: Explain how to listen, paraphrase and ask questions, take turns, give constructive feedback to each other, keep an open mind, act in a trustworthy manner, and promote a feeling of safety to reduce anxiety of all members. Teachers to model how to give feedback and encourage students to actively, respectfully participate during group work.
  • Teamwork skills: Review how to negotiate and compromise; how to participate; how to ask for help and when; how to help others, and how to make decisions. For larger tasks, teach them how to assign roles to save time.

Classroom arrangement…

Collaborative learning is not about immobile students facing forward and listening to the “sage on the stage.” Rather, the teacher is a manager and facilitator in the classroom requiring collaborative-friendly furnishings.

Lightweight, movable and re-configurable furniture that can accommodate both a traditional classroom setting and work groups of various sizes. Here are a few suggestions to make classroom more adept to collaborative learning:

  • Chairs on wheels to enable easy navigation.
  • Carpet to enable easy navigation of furniture.
  • Accessible power and data outlets.
  • A room size that allows for easy reconfiguration during activities.
  • Ideally, the instructor station should be smaller, mobile and easily accessible, so the teacher can wander the classroom, listening to discussions and answering questions.

Facilitating collaboration…

Facilitating collaboration is an important aspect of teaching that requires skilful planning, a high degree of awareness, and on-the-spur decision making. To nurture collaborations in the classrooms…

  1. Include different types of learning scenarios. Studies suggests that collaborative learning that focuses on rich contexts and challenging questions produces higher order reasoning. Assignments can include laboratory work, study teams, debates, writing projects, problem solving, and collaborative writing.
  2. Using different strategies such as clusters, buzz groups, round robin, leaning cells, fish bowl discussions and jigsaw strategy.
  3. Focus on enhancing problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Design assignments that allow room for varied interpretations. Different types of problems might focus on categorizing, planning, taking multiple perspectives, or forming solutions. Encouraging students to use a step-by step procedure for problem solving:
    • Identify the objective.
    • Set criteria or goals.
    • Gather data.
    • Generate options or courses of action.
    • Evaluate the options using data and objectives.
    • Reach a decision
    • Implement the decision
  4. Establish group goals. Effective collaborative learning involves establishment of group goals, as well as individual accountability, before beginning an assignment. This keeps the group on task and establishes an unambiguous purpose. Have flexible norms which change with situations so that groups do not become rigid and intolerant or develop sub-groups. Students learn about the importance of teamwork; how individual efforts unite to help the team accomplish goals. They learn to collaborate with one another, that it is okay to fail and then try another method, and what it means to be a supportive and dependable teammate. Perseverance is key in teamwork, and students learn that failure is an important foundational step, as it gives them the opportunity to review, reflect, reorganize strategies, and redirect their efforts towards, the successful outcome.
  5. Establish class interactions. Students should work together on the task. Roles are important in group development, for:
    • Initiating discussions.
    • Providing information.
    • Challenging assumptions/devil’s advocate.
    • Clarifying points.
    • Summarizing.
    • Reaching a consensus.
  6. Be wary of “popular thought process.” Collaborative learning calls for maintaining a balanced approach where groups do not favour the more confident members. Juggling the group members can help counter this problem.
  7. Keep in mind the diversity of groups. Mixed groups that include a range of talents, backgrounds, learning styles, ideas, and experiences are best. Mixed aptitude groups tend to learn more from each other and increase achievement of low performers.
  8. Value diversity. Students need to respect and appreciate each other’s viewpoints. For instance, class discussions can emphasize the need for different perspectives. Create a classroom environment that encourages independent thinking. Teach students the value of multiplicity in thought.

While creating a highly collaborative classroom, teachers need to frequently model listening, paraphrasing, artful questioning, and negotiating.

Google spent years studying their working teams and determined that success wasn’t based on “who” was on a team but on the culture created by the team — for example, a group that takes turns talking vs. one in which members speak over one another.

Google’s research shows that teachers can benefit by helping students understand how good teams operate and then build a shared set of skills that work, no matter the team’s composition, by engaging students in, and reflecting on, a variety of collaborative experiences in the classroom. This will foster positive classroom climates, increase students’ interpersonal skills, to work together in teams, and better prepare them to participate in collective action for change.

So we can agree with the saying, “two minds are better than one.” But with a little modification, “Better yet, how about three or four?”

Geetanjali KumarGeetanjali Kumar is a Practicing Counsellor, Trainer, Parenting coach, Motivational speaker for 18 years. She has conducted more than 1000 workshops for Principals, Teachers and students. She is an experienced trainer working for CBSE and other agencies to conduct workshops Pan-India. She is a national resource person for Nationwide Adolescent Education Program (AEP) run by Ministry Of Human Resource & Development from 2004 onwards in partnership with MHRD-NCERT-UNFPA. She is also a resource person to deliver training sessions on Career Guidance and Counselling for the Cluster Guidance Resource Persons of SCERT, Punjab.