This week we begin a new monthly series, “Shady Oak Best Practices,” which shares details on our favorite approaches to education and why they work. If friends ask why you send your kids to Shady Oak instead of a “regular” school, refer them to this series—and the science backing us up—for starters. 


Collaborative learning might also be called “small-group learning” or “team learning,” as it involves placing students in groups of two to five individuals pooling their skills. While the concept is widely employed in labs and special projects, few schools make maximum use of its potential. 


Collaborative Learning Helps Students Get to Know Each Other 


“Group projects” often have a bad reputation because they leave the “who’s in our group” choice either entirely to the students (reinforcing cliques) or entirely to the teacher (leaving students feeling they were “forced into” working with certain partners). Encourage groups to blend and/or alternate “close acquaintance” and “casual acquaintance” partners—or, simply randomize the groups through counting off or drawing names. However exactly teams are formed, an effective teacher encourages every student to contribute to their fullest, and to see everyone else as someone worth working with, someone who has valuable contributions to make, and someone who deserves to be respected as a unique individual. When employed in this fashion, collaborative learning is an excellent defense against the popularity contests and bullying that dominate too many classrooms. 


Collaborative Learning Creates a Cooperation-Focused Classroom 


Another toxic attitude dominating many classrooms is obsessive competitiveness—the idea that what counts is “beating” other students to get the top grade in the class, or “beating the system” to get a high grade at any cost. Collaborative learning, by shifting the focus to cooperation and what everyone can contribute, places the emphasis back on learning for its own sake. It reinforces the values of listening and critical thinking, as opposed to just studying and memorizing (and feeling free to forget once the test is passed). And it slows the pace a bit, encouraging students to listen and consider rather than tear through to the finish.  


Collaborative Learning Prepares Students for Successful Futures 


Finally, by learning to learn from others in the course of solving a problem, students develop their relationship skills. By listening to others’ points of view, they develop their critical thinking skills. And by sharing ideas with the group, they develop their ability to put thoughts into words. All of which is invaluable for future effectiveness in the larger world. 


At Shady Oak, we emphasize collaborative learning because it models the essential life skills of teamwork, self-respect, and respect for others. 


Science Backs Us Up! Further Resources on the Topic