What is Collaborative Learning?

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After reading this guide, you will better understand collaborative learning.

You will get actionable tips on how to improve and implement collaborative learning within your organisation.

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The definition of collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is the educational approach of using groups to enhance learning through working together. Groups of two or more learners work together to solve problems, complete tasks, or learn new concepts.

This approach actively engages learners to process and synthesize information and concepts, rather than using rote memorization of facts and figures. Learners work with each other on projects, where they must collaborate as a group to understand the concepts being presented to them.

Through defending their positions, reframing ideas, listening to other viewpoints and articulating their points, learners will gain a more complete understanding as a group than they could as individuals.

collaborative learning

Collaborative learning vs. cooperative learning: What is the difference?

There is some confusion about what the difference is between these two types of learning. In fact, cooperative learning is a type of collaborative learning, which is why at first glance, the two might seem similar.

The difference between cooperative learning and collaborative learning is that, in cooperative learning, participants are responsible for a specific section of their own learning and success, and also that of the group as a whole. They must use their knowledge and resources to make sure that all team members understand the concepts that they are learning.

The roles and structure of cooperative learning are predefined, and are often likened to the cast and crew of a theatre production: the success of the show depends on all of the interconnected roles supporting each other, but there is a director overseeing the project closely.

To think about collaborative learning in terms of roles within an organisation, in software development, a group of junior developers has a task to learn a new framework, then develop part of a program while using it. Each developer has their own part of the code to develop, but their work will only be successful if everybody learns and performs their part properly. Even though each person has a separate role in the work, the entire group has a stake in the success of others.

In collaborative learning, individual participants must also take responsibility for their team learning and succeeding, but their roles, resources, and organisation is left up to them. There is no director to administer the rules of engagement, so the group itself must self-direct.

The benefits of collaborative learning

Why use collaborative learning? Because every organisation can benefit from having an energized and informed workforce. There are many benefits of collaborative learning, both for the organisation as a whole and the learners as individuals.

The organisational benefits of collaborative learning

1. Develops self-management and leadership skills

When individuals are tasked with working together to achieve a common goal, they are being given the opportunity to develop high-level skills.

While having to organize, assign, and teach, they are learning how to manage both themselves and others while leading in a productive fashion.

2. Increases employee skills and knowledge

When employees participate in collaborative learning, they are developing a wide range of skills and knowledge. Not only will they strengthen their existing skills by having to teach others, they in turn will learn new skills from other employees.

This reduces the need for formal training while encouraging employees to continually upskill in known concepts and engage with new concepts.

3. Improves relationships across teams and departments

When individuals have limited contact across teams, it is difficult to foster connections and teamwork. Collaborative learning across teams forces individuals to develop new connections and find ways to work together.

This can be especially beneficial for organisations that depend on remote workers, as fostering strong connections among distant workers can be difficult.

4. Improves knowledge acquisition and retention

Studies have shown that utilizing collaborative learning may lead to increased involvement and better retention of knowledge.

The process of collaborative learning allows participants to achieve higher levels of thought and the information is retained much longer than when learned in a non-collaborative setting.

5. Improves employee retention and promotes workplace engagement

Employees that are given the opportunity to learn new skills tend to be more satisfied in their work, and are less likely to seek out other opportunities.

Satisfied employees are more productive and will engage in their work, leading to increased efficiency and output.

The individual benefits of collaborative learning

1. Turns learning into a truly active process

The learner must organize their thoughts, present a cohesive argument to demonstrate their point, defend that point to their peers, and convince others that their argument is correct.

This active engagement means that the individual learns, and retains, more knowledge.

2. Promotes learning from others viewpoints

Learners benefit from hearing diverse viewpoints. Studies show that when a person is exposed to diverse viewpoints, especially from people with varied backgrounds, they learn more.

3. Teaches how to think critically and quickly

The learner must quickly synthesize responses and, if they find that their argument is lacking, adjust their ideas on the fly.

Individuals learn how to think critically and quickly, while intaking new information and adjusting their own viewpoint as new ideas are introduced.

4. Promotes listening to criticism and advice

The learner will also listen to others talking through their ideas, offering their thoughts for or against their peers’ arguments.

This dynamic approach means that learners gain a more full understanding of the topic, as they have to consider it from all angles.

5. Develops public speaking and active listening skills

Individuals learn to speak well in front of an audience of their peers, to listen actively, to challenge ideas and build a framework of ideas in conjunction with others.

This increased social ease will help individuals both socially and at work.

6. Improves cooperation

When given a specific goal, learners are more likely to engage in thoughtful discussion with each other, improving both their understanding of the subject and their esteem for each other.

Examples of collaborative learning activities

There are many ways to foster collaborative learning within an organisation:

1. Evaluating training systems

Within teams or departments, pair newer employees with more senior ones.

Have them work together to evaluate the training systems currently in place, assess flaws in the system, and develop recommendations on how to effectively update the training to better serve the organisation and its employees.

2. Solving problems across teams

Bring together various teams and present them with a problem to solve.

This might be how to develop a new feature for a product, what changes should be actioned on an existing software, or instituting a new training program.

Outline what results you would like to see in broad terms, then let the teams work.

At the end, the teams will present what they have developed, justify their choices, and outline their plans to accomplish the task.

3. Developing new products

When it comes to developing new products, collaborative learning can be a massive asset.

Teams can work together to identify relevant niches, brainstorm solutions, and create product concepts.

After presenting their products, a question and answer session can help develop the idea further, as they defend their ideas, respond to criticism, and sharpen their pitch.

4. Explaining concepts to other departments

Have departmental teams create a presentation that teaches their work to the other departments.

They should present the work that they do, the problems that they solve, and present some ongoing concepts that they are working on.

Other departments will participate in a question and answer session, giving the benefit of their experience to help solve ongoing issues while also learning more about how the organisation works as a whole.

5. Build a collaborative learning community

A collaborative learning community is an environment that fosters working together to solve problems, prioritizes open communication and gives individuals many opportunities to both learn from and teach others. An organisation that chooses to provide these opportunities on a regular basis will create a collaborative learning community, in which individuals will actively participate in collaborative learning.

Good examples of collaborative learning activities will have clear instructions, a set goal, mid-sized groups of three to five individuals and flexible rules, so that groups can experiment within themselves and work with open communication.

Collaborative learning theories

While there are some differences between collaborative learning theories, as a whole, collaborative learning is underpinned by the concept that learning is a naturally social act, and that learning occurs through talking, attempting to solve problems, and seeking to understand the world.

To begin, we will look at the first theories of collaborative learning, which were concerned with how children learn. Later theories took into account how adults continue to cognitively develop throughout their lives.

Vygotsky’s theory of social development

Lev Vygotsky’s social learning theory puts an emphasis on the importance of social interaction for the development of learning and cognition. He believed that community was an important factor in the process of creating meaning and knowledge.

Vygotsky’s theory approaches learning from a sociocultural viewpoint, arguing that individual development does not happen without being informed by social and cultural contexts. He proposed that speech plays a major role in the development of thought, with conversations with more knowledgeable people driving forward understanding and cognition.

An important aspect of Vygotsky’s social learning theory is the Zone of Proximal Development.

This is the idea that, if you visualise what a person can and cannot do as zones, between those zones is a third zone, known as the zone of proximal development. This is what a person is able to learn, but needs guidance to be able to do so. It is in this zone that new skills, in the process of development, are found. When a person has access to other people who will teach them, they will learn the skills found in their zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky also developed the concept of the More Knowledgeable Other.

This is a person who already has the knowledge or experience that the learner is seeking. It could be a parent, teacher or older adult, but could just as easily be a peer. It is through interactions with this person that a learner can see desired behaviours modeled or receive important information.

Vygotsky termed this as collaborative dialogue, as the learner seeks knowledge, internalises the information provided by the More Knowledgeable Other, then uses that information to guide their own actions. More Knowledgeable Others allow the learner to operate within the Zone of Proximal Development.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

Jean Piaget set out to understand how infants and children develop their understanding of their world, and how they become able to use reason and thought to develop hypotheses.

His theory states that, as children grow, they construct an understanding of the world around them, experience discrepancies between their understanding and their experiences, then correct those discrepancies through reorganizing their mental processes.

Piaget developed the concept of ‘schemas,’ which he defined as units of knowledge, the basic building blocks that allow humans to organize knowledge and understand complex concepts.

He defined a schema as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.” He believed that there are some innate schemas, such as the sucking response of newborn infants, and others that are acquired through experience.

For Piaget, the cognitive development of a person was directly connected to the number and depth of their schemata.

As children develop, they use their schemata to process the world around them using assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation, a child uses an existing schema to handle a new object, situation or interaction. Accommodation is when a child finds that their existing schema does not work for the new object, and so the schema is changed.

Piaget believed that this is driven by a need for equilibrium, which in turn drives development. Equilibrium is the state in which a child’s existing schemata can handle most new information in the assimilation process. When that doesn’t happen, disequilibrium will commence and the child will be uncomfortable. The child will respond to that by seeking to adjust, through the process of accommodation, and will master new knowledge through that process.

To Piaget, the processes of assimilation and accommodation require an active learner, as the child must seek to discover the problem-solving skills they need. In this process, the child must interact with physical and social environments to learn.

Piaget also presented a four-stage cognitive development process, which he believed must happen before learning could commence.

1. Sensorimotor, birth to two years, is the stage where a child learns to form mental representations. This is when a child will develop object permanence.

2. Preoperational, two to seven years, is the development of symbolic thinking.

3. The concrete operational stage, seven to eleven years, is the beginning of using logic to work things out in their head, rather than needing to learn concepts physically.

4. The formal operational stage, beginning at age eleven, is when full logical cognition is possible, including working out complex hypotheses.

Piaget versus Vygotsky: What is the difference?

While both Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that cognitive development comes in stages and has roots in both nature and nurture, they differed on some key points.

  1. Piaget believed that a child drives their own cognitive development, as children have an innate tendency to adapt to new experiences, whereas Vygotsky believed that social interaction is what drives the cognitive development of children.
  2. Piaget thought that children learn best when allowed to use self-discovery and active learning, and Vygotsky thought that instruction and guidance were key to a child’s learning.
  3. Vygotsky also posited that different cultures and periods of time have an impact on cognitive development, while Piaget thought that it was the same universally.
  4. Piaget also thought that, while the stages of development are more or less set, children will only proceed to learning when they are ready, and Vygotsky believed that development could be accelerated by using the zone of proximal development and more knowledgeable others.

An essential difference is that Piaget thought that the result of cognitive development was language, Vygotsky thought that language was the key to cognitive development.

There is evidence that a child being exposed to guided learning within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development shows greater understanding than a child learning alone within Piaget’s discovery learning framework, according to a study conducted in 1990 by Freund.

Kegan’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

The developmental theories discussed above center around cognitive development in children. It was previously thought that cognitive development ended around 25, but there are some who believe that it is a lifelong process. Robert Kegan posited that it is possible for people to continually develop the systems they use to create meaning by transforming the way that they interact with the world.

He developed five stages that put an emphasis on transitioning from a subject (I am) to object (I have) framework. According to Kagan, the subject framework does not allow self-reflection, as it is too closely held for objectivity to happen. It can include beliefs, behaviours and assumptions about the world. The object framework allows a person to detach from the concept, reflect upon it, and consider it objectively. This exercise of transitioning framework, according to Kegan, drives cognitive development.

Simply put, Kagan theorised that becoming an adult means transitioning to higher stages of development.

This means developing an independent sense of self, and gaining the traits associated with wisdom and social maturity.

An adult with a high stage of development is in control of their behavior, is self-aware, and is able to more effectively manage their relationships and the social factors affecting them.

Kegan’s five stages are:

1. Impulsive mind

This stage is early childhood, where impulses drive action.

2. Imperial mind

Subject: Is needs, interests, wants
Object: Has impulses, perceptions

This is the adolescent stage, although some adults remain here. Relationships are transactional, and self-interest is the driving force behind all behaviour. Actions are driven by outside consequences, rather than internal belief systems.

3. Socialised mind

Subject: Is mutuality, interpersonal relationships
Object: Has needs, interests, wants

This is the stage where most people are, according to Kegan. This stage is dominated by external sources, such as other people, groups and the society around us as a whole, and what they think of us. The culturally prescribed way of living is paramount to a socialised mind, regardless of personal desire.

4. Self-authoring mind

Subject: Is self-definition, personal autonomy
Object: Has mutuality, interpersonal relationships

At this stage, a person is able to self-define. They are not swayed by the opinions of society, and will decide for themselves who they are, what they stand for, and how they should behave.

5. Self-transforming mind

Subject: Simply is
Object: Has self-definition, personal autonomy

Kegan believes that only 1% of adults reach this stage. At stage 5, the sense of self is not static, but is instead able to constantly adjust and react as new information, interactions and experiences are processed.

In an organisation, it is ideal to give your employees the tools to transition to the upper stages. Fostering growth within an organization has many proven benefits, including increased output, higher employee retention, and better employee satisfaction. Developing programs to assist your employees to learn and grow within the organization will have a myriad of benefits.

Transitioning to the upper stages involves curiosity, critical thinking and openness to new ideas and concepts, all of which are desirable traits to curate in a workforce.

Collaborative learning research and articles

  1. Collaborative learning in the workplace: Practical issues and concerns
  2. Collective Learning in the Workplace: Important Knowledge Sharing Behaviours
  3. Improving Collaborative Learning and Global Project Management in Small and Medium Enterprise
  4. A Change Theory: Key Concepts for Understanding the Work of Robert Kegan
  5. Lev Vygotsky
  6. Jean Piaget
  7. Collaborative learning
  8. The benefits of collaborative learning
  9. Active and Collaborative Learning
  10. Collaborative learning: What is it?
  11. Part 1: How To Be An Adult— Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development