Collaborative Learning: A Natural Fit for Adolescents

Collaborative Learning: A Natural Fit for Adolescents

Collaborative learning is an approach to education built around interactive, dynamic classrooms and the theory that students learn better when they learn together.

Research around the attributes and benefits of collaborative learning has fallen in and out of favor for at least the last 100 years, and the technique has frequently been pitted against more individualistic, competitive approaches despite the fact that many teachers agree the two can coexist. And with smartboards, smartphones, laptops, and other technology increasingly present in today's digital learning spaces, it is easier than ever to experiment with both collaborative and individual student work.

For adolescents, however, there may be even more reason to consider using collaborative learning strategies. A 2017 analysis of the social needs of adolescents based on research by the University of Texas at Austin found that it is important to “harness the adolescent desire for status, respect, and a more respectful climate” in order to “blunt” biological changes that often urge students to dwell on their social status. According to University of Texas professor David Yeager, paying attention to students’ social and emotional lives can “spill over into other areas of functioning, because social and emotional life matters so much at this age.”  

In Yeager’s experience, creating assignments that foster “positive, democratic group dynamics” can be a tremendous boon to adolescent academic achievement—particularly for low-scoring teens. Similarly, in 2015, Canadian research group EduGains noted that encouraging collaborative work among adolescents is key because it “capitalizes on the high value adolescents place on their social interactions with their peers.” EduGains found that group work and other cooperative assignments are often motivating because they allow students to be accountable to their peers as well as their teachers.

Further, EduGains pointed out that collaboration has been identified by some observers as “one of several learning and innovation skills necessary for post-secondary education and workforce success.” That’s because collaboration can give students an opportunity to take more risks, work closely with peers from different backgrounds, and develop empathy and networking skills. Also worthy of note, EduGains relied on research from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills to reach this conclusion; the partnership is a collaboration in itself, drawing support and sponsorship from businesses, teachers unions, and education research and testing companies.

Ultimately, cultivating successful collaboration is certainly a skill that can be taught. Below are some guidelines and strategies for using collaborative teaching and learning with adolescent students.

  • Skills matter: Group work should be grounded in “purposeful talk” that researchers say is necessary for “seeking understanding, supporting thinking, and expanding ideas.” This can promote the art of listening, as well as a deeper understanding of how to give and receive effective feedback or work toward a common goal. For a further list of such strategies and their connection to improving adolescent literacy, check out EduGains' newsletters.

  • Know your brain research: In 2012, neurologist and middle school teacher Judy Willis wrote an article called “How to Build Happy Middle School Brains.” In her writing, Willis noted that “brain research tells us that adolescents experience more comfort and enjoyment when pleasurable social interaction is incorporated into their learning experiences.” While disruptive “emotional anxiety” can occur when adolescents are asked to perform independently, “successfully planned group work” can promote the greater retention of knowledge.

  • Fishbowls and beyond: Collaborative learning strategies abound on the internet and can be compiled, practiced, and modeled to foster successful group learning. Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation offers a wealth of resources on collaborative learning, including several key strategies such as “Stump Your Partner” (asks students to pose post-lecture questions to one another), “Catch Up” (allows students to compare notes with one another mid-lesson), “Team-Based Learning” (requires students to do pre-unit work that helps guide the teacher’s input), and “Fishbowl Debate” (puts students in groups of three to debate a topic).

With any collaborative learning strategy, Cornell researchers advise teachers to start with clear “learning outcomes” that spell out what students should “know or be able to do” as a result of any lesson. Noted University of Minnesota collaborative learning experts (and brothers) David and Roger T. Johnson also advise teachers to continually check in with students and intervene to make sure group work is proceeding as planned. Using data gathered from this type of monitoring can be a good way to ensure all students are having a successful experience, both socially and academically.

Through combining careful planning and an eye toward long-term goals, collaborative learning can be an excellent way to tap into adolescents’ social, emotional, and academic needs. Although there is no single “best” way to teach or learn, research has shown that well-planned, strategic group work can meet adolescents where they are and help them master important 21st-century skills.

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