Collaboration in education is certainly not a new idea. Assigning students to classes has always created a potential framework for collaboration among students. In higher education particularly it is not unusual for students to organize study groups in order to help each other learn. But public education has tended to focus on individual learning, even to the point of making learning a competitive enterprise, a zero-sum game. In Active Learning the trend is away from these practices, at least to some extent. For the most part authentic Active Learning activities involve collaboration, almost as a trade mark.
Social Constructivism, Piaget, and Vygotsky
Active Learning grows out of Social Constructivism, a theory generally attributed to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Constructivism is a metaphor that likens building knowledge to building a house. The learner builds new knowledge by attaching it to existing or previous knowledge, very much like building an addition onto a house.
Vygotsky’s contribution was the inclusion of social context or culture as a central factor in the way children learn.
According to Vygotsky, social interaction, especially involvement with knowledgeable community or family members, helps children to acquire the thought processes and behaviours specific to their culture or society. The changes or growth that children experience as a result of these interactions differs greatly between cultures; this variance allows children to become competent in tasks important or necessary in their particular society.
Vygotsky is best know for his Zone of Proximal Development.
As this illustration shows our ZPD always exists just beyond our current knowledge. It represents the learning we might reasonably achieve at this point. Our success depends upon coaching by knowledgeable others, adults or more knowledgeable peers. It is in this idea that Active Learning teachers see the dual importance of collaboration among students and the coaching role of the teacher.
The experience of most teachers confirms that students generally like to work together on learning tasks.
There is also evidence, as in this Scientific American report, that two heads are generally better than one in problem-solving activities.
Even more important, however, is the value of collaboration when it includes the teacher and other experts. The true spirit of enquiry involves using the accumulated expertise of others to build the best solution. Successful Active Learning teachers are not shy about inviting outside experts to participate in their classroom activities. And more importantly still, Active Learning teachers see themselves as collaborators in the classroom learning experience.