There is likely to be a small semantic difference between the term collaborate and cooperate, largely to do with the means, the former being all together working, while the latter could still allow some isolated activities which will benefit the group outcomes. However you look at the words though, to me it seems eminently sensible to consider that working together is likely to end up with a significantly better outcome than isolationist approaches.
Collaboration applies to schools as entities and groups of teachers working together. The best practice derives from colleagues working together. An individual’s and a school’s imagination and capacity is limited by their personal and corporate experience; therefore a school’s capacity to improve will be limited by the collective imagination. The best schools engage in information gathering from others. Others may be achieving better. To go and see how they do things there can be illuminating and provide reflective opportunities.
However, just copying may not be the means to improve the home setting.
Lehrer uses the notion of “The Power of Q” to identify that connected group dynamics can be critical, especially in the theatre, where too few connections might limit ideas, whereas too many can lead to complacency and reduce innovation that way. A mixed group seemed to allow for ideas to be seeded. There is a very clear discussion of the merits of group activity as well as some of the drawbacks.
The benefits of collaborative learning Ted Panitz TPANITZ@mecn.mass.edu
Develops higher level thinking skills;
Promotes student-faculty interaction and familiarity;
Increases student retention; Builds self esteem in students;
Enhances student satisfaction with the learning experience;
Promotes a positive attitude toward the subject matter;
Develops oral communication skills;
Develops social interaction skills;
Promotes positive race relations;
Creates an environment of active, involved, exploratory learning;
Uses a team approach to problem solving while maintaining individual accountability;
Encourages diversity understanding;
Encourages student responsibility for learning;
Involves students in developing curriculum and class procedures;
Students explore alternate problem solutions in a safe environment;
Stimulates critical thinking and helps students clarify ideas through discussion and debate;
Enhances self-management skills;
Fits in well with the constructivist approach;
Establishes an atmosphere of cooperation and helping school-wide;
Students develop responsibility for each other.
John Hattie’s research describes a very clear difference in attainment between individual working and collaborative activity, sufficient to account for a difference of one grade at GCSE. It could be surmised from this that at year 6 the difference would be one level improvement. So, if there is clear evidence that attainment is higher when children collaborate, shouldn’t it become the norm for school experience?
If, instead of thirty individuals, the teacher saw the class as four or perhaps five working groups, each with discernible needs, for example working at around the same level, and tasks specific to each group were created and given to each group, what would be the outcome? Probably chaos, for some, especially if the class was not used to this way of working. A transitional approach would be to identify which of the groups already had an independent capacity and offer them the opportunity to work in a different way, thereby modelling learning behaviours to be shared with the rest of the class.
Development activity, the process of creating an idea, lends itself to group working. Creating a storyline or a piece of artwork, D&T, music, movement, an argument for and against a course of action, trying to explain how something works/happens. The list is endless, as all learning activity can be developed within different groupings of children.
Anything greater than one is a group.
The immediate benefit is the need to articulate ideas. Clarification may be necessary, so children are challenged by their peers to provide detail. This articulation, challenge, explain loop can enable the learners to develop an extended oral vocabulary, which in turn embeds concepts more fully, then be captured in some form of appropriate recording.
One of the major drawbacks can be described as “Group-think”, where everyone eventually ends up thinking virtually the same thing. The collective identity is stronger than the imperative to fulfil the task in hand, perhaps out of a desire not to hurt or alienate any member. Creative individuals might be stifled by the collective decision, or by the ideas of a stronger member. Culturally there seems to be a reluctance to accept very bright people, with terms such as “nerd”, “geek” and “boff” being used as put-downs.
Managed carefully, group activity can be life-enhancing as well as generating deeper and more sustaining educational progress, as learners are required to reflect on their contributions. They are put in the position of active producers and contributors to the group success. They participate to save face, but more importantly, they enjoy working things out together.
Schools work within rules and regulations drawn up by governments, including prescribed curricula and preferred pedagogy, both of which can change over time, with the prevailing orthodoxies. These rules are then “policed” by an inspection system, which categorises schools. Achieving one of the top two categories can give a school permission to carry on with practices and to seek ways to enhance what is being provided.
The lower grades require specific improvements within a short timescale, subject to follow up inspections, thereby potentially restricting permission to explore a range of options. A requirement to improve the “basics” can ignore the opportunities of the wider curriculum to enhance application skills in maths and English, through investigation and collaboration.
Parents give or withdraw permission to schools to be as good as they can. This can be measured by the number, quality and time consumption of interruptions to the routines of staff at all levels. Interruption reduces the focus and potentially the effectiveness of staff to get on with quality tasks, including teaching and monitoring.
Teachers work within systems and policies drawn up by senior management and Governors, guided by national guidelines. If these are rigid in application, they can restrict the ability of teachers to create more challenging opportunities, as they are frightened to take risks.
Schools and teachers do not work in a hermetically sealed environment. Listening to the radio or watching television can provide sufficient doubt for teachers to become risk averse.
I remember listening to John Stannard, the architect of the Literacy Strategy for the last Labour Government, in 2000, as he outlined his vision of what it meant to him. What he was describing was my school three years previously. The rigidity of interpretation by the Secretary of State in morning pronouncements and the localised delivery of programmes by County advisers ensured that my outstanding teachers worked to more limited interpretations. It took much discussion and permission from me to allow them to redefine their practice. Our SAT scores went up and parents were pleased with that, so giving permission to do more of the same and, as it turned out, better.
If the benefits of collaboration far outweigh achievements by individuals, why do we persist in maintaining practice that was more appropriate for 19th Century clerks, than 21st Century problem solvers?
Why aren’t we encouraging schools to work together to improve practice, rather than setting them up to compete with each other?