Educational Fad: Collaborative Learning

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How effective is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning doesn’t float the boat of some folks. In fact, they have a special loathing for it and see it as an open invitation to mess about. Behaviour guru Tom Bennett criticises “the self-evidently intellectually bereft idea that children learn best from other children”.

Does Collaborative Learning Work?

Tom knows what’s what when it comes to this. By his own admission he says “group work is a perfectly sound approach in the classroom for many activities.”

The real problem here isn’t whether collaborative ‘works’ – of course it ‘works’ in certain contexts and under certain circumstances. The issue is when we are told that “kids only learn properly in groups“. It has been abused and overused (Randall, 1999).

At one time, if you weren’t ‘doing group work’ then your lesson could get ‘downgraded’ and deemed unsatisfactory. Why?

Clueless observers watching your every moves had fallen for the idea that group work was where the real magic happened. It was easy to fall for the hype. But as Tom says, “It isn’t dogma, it isn’t a panacea, it isn’t the messiah. It’s one strategy among many.”

A Bit of Everything

You’ll always find pros and cons with every strategy. However, to bestow some special sort of status on group work and make it the mother of all learning is just bonkers. If there is piles of research to support this fine but actually you won’t find it. You can ask students what they think too – many don’t like it and the reasons they give are all valid but then is this because their group work was poorly managed. What about introverts?

Group Work Has Its Place

Group work has its place but it won’t work all of the time. It is still just one of the many teaching tools available (Vander Stelt, 1995). Remember what Dylan Wiliam said about what makes a good lesson?

“I don’t know definitively what makes a good lesson and furthermore, I’m convinced no-one else does. Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.”

Collaborative learning, group work, cooperative learning – call it what you will but this was a passing fad and not a long-term promise.

Collaborative learning was a fad when it was being pushed and pushed as the best way for students to learn. In reality, it was the ‘best way’ on occasions but then so was everything else in the right hands, in the right minds and at the right time.

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

One thought on “Educational Fad: Collaborative Learning

  1. Wholeheartedly disagree that cooperative learning is a fad without long-term promise. Admittedly it requires more than a superficial glimpse at the principles and a half-hearted stab at developing the meaningful skills and attributes required to develop the independence and interdependence that allows the shared accountability to ensure equal effort from all. When undertaken amidst a flurry of initiatives it is doomed to fail as it requires equal focus on achieving social and academic goals simultaneously – no mean feat but of huge value when achieved.

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