The Need for Collaborative Learning

May 20, 2011

Fundamental social change brought about by technology in the web and communication media creates conditions where people no longer accept unquestioningly authority and have means to create powerful groups to reject unacceptable situations (as in Egypt) even though powerful interests are trying to dominate and control the means by which this is done (Wu 2011). Likewise, in the context of school, students have access to unlimited information and contacts via the internet and are no longer willing to accept the limitation of teacher-lead curriculum specific teaching.

However, the computer encourages distraction and information is presented without hierarchy or qualitative discrimination. Student’s become easily distracted and lost within this world and are easily subject to manipulation by advertising and various interest groups. On one hand they reject teacher control, on the other they seek guidance and direction within the confusion of communications. It is a point of crisis at which, historically, extremist political interests often gain control because they offer simplistic solutions in face of extreme insecurity of complexity. We are therefore at a point when we require citizens capable of clear, analytical thinking, communication and collaborative skills and transdisciplinary, wide perspectives. The problems that we face require creativity, autonomy and a capacity for life-long learning. It is therefore the apposite moment to apply the principles of collaborative learning, shown to be extremely effective in higher achievement, caring, supporting relations and psychological health (Johnson and Johnson, 2000).

Unlimited access to learning material and the capacity to create groups through social media should enable new learning environments that free students from the dominance of school. However, by itself the computer tends to isolate people (according to psychologist Deborah Tannen, more than 90% of human communication is non verbal). Young students do not have in place the tools of self-discipline to avoid constant distraction while on the computer (the worlds of work and play become one), nor have they developed the qualitative judgement to choose between the material they are presented with. There is also the requirement of perspective to judge what it is important to learn.

Thus presential, social interaction is necessary for learning. Putting people in group does not automatically lead to collaborative learning: so group and interactive skills have to be taught. Creativity and the perspective to deal with complex problems and the relationship between ourselves and our thinking needs various processes, including moments of absorption and research, along with periods of reflection and moments of distance and detachment. The addictive power of computer immersion and the dominant directivity of the tools can kill creativity. Thus a distinction needs to be made between computer and non-computer time and understanding developed of the power and limitation of the computer and how it affects human thinking and reality.

Further, clear definition must be made of fundamental, essential skills and techniques beyond the attraction and diversion of market-led constant change and renewal.

As Johnson and Johnson (2000) write, “The truly committed cooperative learning group is probably the most productive tool humans have”, guided by a clear perspective of the essential human tools we need to acquire and the understanding that answers are something that we seek together and are not absolutes imposed from the outside: based on a true respect for others, this model could revolutionize our schools and create the citizens of the future that are capable of addressing the enormous crises that we face (see Gilding, 2011).

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FOUCAULT, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish, Penguin

GILDING, P (2011) The Great Disruption: How humankind can thrive in the 21st Century Royal Society of Arts Lecture: http://www.thersa.org/rss/rsa-audio/

HOLLAND, D.K. (2011) Blow Up the Design School!, Communication Arts May/June issue

JOHNSON, D.W., JOHNSON, R.T., STANNE, M.B.: (2000) Cooperative Learning Methods: A Meta-Analysis, University of Minnesota

WU, T. (2011) The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Royal Society of Arts Lecture: http://www.thersa.org/rss/rsa-audio/

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