Thursday, December 26, 2013

Collaborative Learning: The Theoretical Foundation

Guest Post by Rabbi Stan Peerless
1st in a series of five articles

In our study of collaborative learning, we will deal with collaborative learning in its broadest sense. Thus, we will discuss collaborative learning as a general concept, but will also learn about specific methods of collaborative learning, such as cooperative learning and even aspect of project based learning.

Before discussing methods, let's understand the theories that underlie the collaborative learning approach and their implications. Collaborative learning is based largely on the social learning theory of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning." Everything that we learn takes place in a social context. From birth and throughout our lives, our interactions with others shape our understanding of the world. Consider the learning of a young child – learning occurs as parents interact with their child, as the child plays with other children, and as they grow, as teachers interact with the child in school.   

Unlike Piaget's notion that children's' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, "learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function" (1978, p. 90).  In other words, social learning tends to precede development. For a comparison of the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, view the following short video:

Piaget acknowledged that some children may pass through the stages of cognitive development at different ages, and that some children may show characteristics of more than one stage at a given time. Nevertheless, he insisted that cognitive development always follows a universal predetermined sequence, that stages cannot be skipped. As such, according to Piaget's theory, a student should only be given learning activities that are appropriate for their current level of development. Vygotsky believed that cognitive development could not be so rigidly defined, and that development can occur as a result of interactions with others. Thus, according to Vygotsky's theory, learning activities need not be determined by a pre-defined level of cognitive development. Rather, according to his theory, the most worthwhile learning activity is that which involves interaction with a "More Knowledgable Other (MKO), and fall within the learner's the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).    

In order to gain an understanding of Vygotsky's theories on cognitive development, we must understand these two principles:
·      The more knowledgeable other (MKO) refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. Although one might assume that the MKO would be a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case.  Many times, a child's peers or an adult's children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience.  For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teen-age music groups, how to win at the most recent PlayStation game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze - a child or their parents? In other words, it is often the case that different individuals have different areas of expertise that are not related to age, and social learning can thus often be a reciprocal process.
·      The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle mentioned above, the Zone of Proximal Development. This important concept relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. Vygotsky (1978) sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given - allowing the child to develop skills he/she will then use on his/her own - developing higher mental functions.

So, what does an ideal learning activity look like according to Vygotsky? Let's take a look at a common example that often occurs in the development of a young child. Shaffer (1996) gives the example of a young girl who is given her first jigsaw.  Alone, she performs poorly in attempting to solve the puzzle. The father then sits with her and describes or demonstrates some basic strategies, such as finding all the comer/edge pieces and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself and offers encouragement when she does so.  As the child becomes more competent, the father allows the child to work more independently.  According to Vygotsky, this type of social interaction involving co-operative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development.

Vygotsky's theory case important implications for classroom instruction regarding the respective roles of teachers and students, the design of learning activities, the creation of a positive learning dynamic, and grouping. We will examine these issues as we proceed.