Collaboration is the new buzz word. Sometimes it is hard to keep track of them all. Why do we want our students to collaborate and work in groups?
Learning is a social construct. We learn best when we need to articulate our thinking. It does not happen in isolation. We learn when we connect the dots, ask questions and synthesize new learning with previous knowledge. It is hard to do all of that all by yourself.
More heads are better than one. When the task is problematic and challenging (and this is key to collaboration), more heads are better than one. Each student brings his or her own background knowledge to the table to solve the problem or complete the task. And because learning is a social construct, students can learn from one another.
It provides immediate and effective feedback. When you work in a group you receive constant feedback about your ideas. As heads nod, people smile and listen to your ideas, you know that you are on the right track and explaining yourself well. When eyes scrunch and brows furl, you know that you are not being clear. When you present your idea and someone else presents a contrary idea, the feedback is that there may be a hole in your thinking.
It creates empathy. As students learn to work with others, they learn that other people may have different ideas and ways of looking at the world. Learning to listen to and respect others’ ideas is at the heart of empathy.
It scaffolds learning. It is really, really hard to learn something new or to apply a concept to a new problem. When students can work together in developing new knowledge, they are supported in their learning. Teachers are the same—when you try a new teaching idea, it is best when you can walk across the hall and work through it with a teaching partner. When we try new things on our own, without any support, we are more likely to give up in despair.
Collaboration is pleasurable. Of course we have all had the experience of working in a dysfunctional group. But, usually human beings find groups to be enjoyable. If learning is fun you are more likely to stick with it. (And, if you are worried that your students sometimes get off topic, think about the last meeting you went to where you collaborated—you probably made jokes, went off topic and did some socializing as you did the work).