Think about your last achievement at work. How many people contributed to your success, directly or indirectly? Whether it was your colleagues providing feedback, your family giving advice over dinner, or a friend sharing expertise on a specific topic, it is likely that several people played a role in your project, making it a collaborative effort.
In schools, similarly, pupils work together on activities and learning tasks. This is called collaborative learning. A subtype of collaborative learning is peer tutoring, in which students teach each other during group work. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has identified collaborative learning and peer tutoring as low-cost, beneficial learning strategies.
Why are these methods so beneficial? Collaborative learning, unlike hierarchical interactions between teacher and student, allows for more dynamic interactions as students alternate between the roles of tutor and tutee.
Let’s take the perspective of the tutor first. To explain a task, the student needs to break it down into smaller steps and show exactly what the tutee needs to do, and in what order. To solve an addition problem, for example, the student needs to know how to align numbers on a piece of paper, which numbers to add first, what to do with carried digits, and how to check the final results. This requires planning and organisation on the part of the tutor, who has to retrieve information learned in class, elaborate on that information, make connections between different ideas, and consider how what has been learned applies to a concrete problem.
All of this stimulates metacognition – the capacity of pupils to think about their own learning. Metacognition is another learning strategy that is low-cost and highly efficient, according to the EEF.
For their part, tutees benefit from receiving information from a peer who is likely to be able to put herself in their shoes. They may feel more comfortable asking questions to a fellow student rather than the teacher, and can build on previous interactions to develop a positive and motivating learning partnership.
What conditions are required for collaborative learning to be successful? First, students must be able to communicate without one person dominating another and without competition; this is more likely to be successful between friends. Second, the students should be matched in terms of ability – tutors should be only slightly more advanced, so that they can relate to the perspective of the tutee. Third, the task must be structured so that students know what is expected of them. Flashcards might be used, for example, with a question on one side and the answer on the other. Learning strategies are explained by the teacher beforehand.
“Collaborative learning will help pupils navigate the wider world, where progress and discoveries are rarely achieved by one person alone.”
Teachers play an important role in ensuring that these conditions are met, by providing appropriate material, suggesting appropriate pairs/groups, and intervening if pupils get off on the wrong track and draw erroneous conclusions. They can scaffold pupils’ metacognition, helping them to explain their learning strategies.
The role of collaborative learning – which can take place not only in a physical environment, but also online – is not to replace “normal teaching” but instead to consolidate learning. By participating in a social community that allows them to share knowledge with their peers over an extended period of time, pupils become aware of how we all depend on each other. The experience of collaborative learning will help them navigate the wider world, where progress and discoveries are rarely achieved by one person alone.