Why collaboration matters.
All of our projects place an emphasis on the importance of collaboration. We like working with a number of different schools at the same time, as this affords a chance for children and adults to each engage first as strangers, then as collaborators.
Collaboration means more than just doing something alongside somebody else. In rich collaboration, you see an exchange of ideas, you see listening and expression and you provide a space for reflection and self-learning. You get to appreciate the strengths that you and others can bring, and you get to find ways for these strengths to be harnessed together. Likewise, you create an open space to recognise and develop the things that you find more challenging; effective collaborations allow for the development and improvement of skills and aptitudes.
Typical pedagogical and lesson structures rarely afford children the freedom of expression and volition that can be found in effective collaborative work between peers. Whilst the turn towards a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ has refocused attention on the content of what is taught, which is to be welcomed, it has ushered in a re-entrenchment of the model of ‘teacher as guardian of all that is worth knowing’. This plays out in the interaction and relationships between children and the adults who teach them, but also in their interactions with each other.
Children’s peer interactions, in learning contexts, are worth focusing on more assiduously as teachers. It is sometimes in these interactions that initial thoughts and responses are developed, and it is interesting to explore the extent to which this differs from the ‘product’ that is served back to the adults in the public forum of whole-class sharing and questioning.
Our project KAPOW encourages teachers to step back fully from the teacher role, and even from the facilitator role, to allow time to quietly nestle themselves alongside collaborating pupils. It can be remarkable how different the interactions are from the ones children have with their teachers, and this can shift teachers’ perceptions of pupils aptitudes.
The irreversibility of teacher-child interactions – the teacher can stop the lesson to direct the pupils, the pupils cannot stop the lesson to direct the teacher – is not seen in their interactions with each other. ‘The only content in which children can reverse interactional roles with the same intellectual content, giving directions as well as following them, and asking questions as well as answering them, is with their peers’. (Forman and Cazden, 1998: 205)
Not all pupils are equally ready and able to engage in collaborative peer interactions, and learning to do is an asset to them that supports their academic learning but goes way beyond that. The significant barriers that can be surmounted are often preventing pupils from enjoying the full richness of the social world around them. Bearne and Reedy recognise many of the different kinds of listeners and speakers in our classroom, whose needs ought to be considered when designing collaborative learning tasks.
They might include those who: – know when to contribute and when to let others contribute -are naturally reticent -help others by explaining things to them -are bi/multilingual -are fluent and assured speakers (Eve Bearne and David Reedy, ‘Teaching Primary English: Subject Knowledge and Classroom Practice’ – page 37)
When designing spaces for collaborative learning, whether that is lessons within a unit or the kinds of collaborative learning projects we do between schools, we need to account for the crucial role of personality, confidence and literacy in our activities. To achieve a climate in which all pupils feel challenged yet safe, can feel daring yet not pressured, requires real thought. When this is struck, a sense of ‘flow’ develops, as the agency gradually moves towards the pupils, and they can find themselves undertaking work in ways they might often have shied away from.
Collaboration matters not just because when several people work together, a greater quantity of ‘stuff’ can be achieved; to be able to collaborate with others enriches the individual, and allows them to reflect on themselves in a way that they might not otherwise be able to.
References and related reading
‘Exploring Vygotskyian perspectives in education: the cognitive value of peer interaction’ in ‘Learning relationships in the classroom’ (ed. Dorothy Faulkner, Karen Littleton and Martin Woodhead) – Ellice A. Forman and Courtney B. Cazden ‘
‘Teaching Primary English: Subject Knowledge and Practice’ 2018 – Eve Bearne and David Reedy
‘The Poet X’ – Elizabeth Acevedo
The Relational Teacher: Second Edition – Edited by Robert Loe