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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Why Should Students Collaborate?


So I just started taking the Connectivism and Connected Learning course – and I shall struggle to see how it differentiates itself as a ‘learning theory’. George Siemens is developing this theory along with Stephen Downes. George outlines it here in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

The first analysis I wish to make is how it speaks to the construct of ‘collaboration’ – one of the essential elements of ‘social constructivism’ – and George and Stephen, in no uncertain terms, distinguish connectivism from constructivism. In fact, they, like others, suggest that constructivism is not a learning theory but is rather a philosophy. Two of the principles of ‘connectivism’ are:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.

…constructivism is not a learning theory…

Although these are explicitly stated, on quick glance through the course materials, the references I see to collaboration are more ‘quantitative’ in nature – such things as ‘social network analysis‘ and so on.  The nature and quality of the collaboration doesn’t jump out at me at first blush. I may be wrong and will be interested in reading the rest of the articles, videos and presentations.

Let me take us on a somewhat retro look at some of the literature on collaboration in education.

What is Collaboration?

The word ‘collaborate’ is derived from the Latin collaborare – to labour together. It means ‘to co-operate; esp. in literary, artistic, or scientific work’ (Onions, 1973). A collaborator is one who works in conjunction with another or others. Students, when collaborating, are actively engaged in discussing their individual and collective work. They may be working on the same task, parts of the same task or they might be engaged in a superordinate goal of interest to all.

Learning is a social process.

Learning is a social process. Vygotsky claimed that higher level cognitive processes arise out of social experience; that each intellectual function appears twice – once at a social and external level among individuals and second as an internal, personal level within an individual.

According to Vygotsky, these cognitive processes evolve through interactions students have with teachers in schools, but this could be extended to interactions students have with more knowledgeable others, and, I believe, with less knowledgeable others either as non-instances or if they are in a ‘teaching’ role with them. Through these interactions students come to acquire not only knowledge but also routines for managing their acquisition and use of that knowledge.

Research suggests that collaboration may support and enhance ‘intentional learning’ and mindfulness. This might include:

  • externalizing knowledge (making knowledge explicit – both procedural and declarative);
  • scaffolding, and;
  • using the synergy of group dynamics.

One needs to be aware, however, that being arranged in groups does not necessarily constitute collaboration. The extra efforts of students may not be directed back to the task at hand. Socializing is not fundamentally the same as collaboration.  (See previous post for strategies to focus collaboration on the task at hand.)

Socializing is not fundamentally the same as collaboration.

Externalization of Knowledge

As in journal writing, collaboration promotes and supports the externalization of knowledge. When working collaboratively knowledge can be made explicit through:

  • conversation – in real time, face to face or across space;
  • modelling – observing and reacting to another’s action;
  • shared writing, tasks, or data – an asynchronous conversation (or information exchange) across space and time, or;
  • non-propositional representations – the sharing of a physical task in a constructive project.

This knowledge, in any case, might be either procedural or substantive.


Conversations allow for the concepts, vocabulary and processes necessary for the task to be made explicit. Perkins and Salomon (1988) said that, “Learning takes place in a social context (e.g., reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted.” The social aspect of the predominant classroom culture is, therefore, a critical one. The classroom atmosphere needs to be one that encourages and supports this exchange of ideas among classroom members.

Collaboration encourages one to consider and resolve cognitive issues…

Collaboration encourages one to consider and resolve cognitive issues in order to participate effectively. One must make sense out of one’s existing knowledge and information, struggle with disparities, resolve difficulties and then state it to another. Before communicating one’s plans and strategies, one needs to explicitly wrestle with the generation of a number of strategies (or not!) and select one to pursue. One then needs to attend to the monitoring of one’s progress on the task. Finally, one may be required to express reflections on the task or suggest application of learned knowledge to other domains. Conversation allows for others to share in this, unlike personal journal writing which is often designed for the individual to engage simply in self-resolution.  There is no other person with whom to dialogue.


As a student is involved in a task with others, actions are made explicit and are therefore modelled for the others. That which is observed depends greatly on the nature of both the collaboration and the task. It is desirable to encourage that normally implicit or covert behaviours are made explicit (a ‘think aloud’ strategy can help). For example, one should be able to observe another’s goals, goal revisions, concerns, difficulties, bugs, thoughts, dreams, strategies, reflections, metaphors, and domain transfers. Students should be able to observe others who are operating with varying degrees of expertise. Some more expert, some less. It is conceivable that if one watches and works with another student whose expertise is just in advance of his/her own, then this is an opportunity to be supported high within one’s own zone of proximal development (ZPD). Perhaps it is also valuable to work with many others all around your levels of competence in an effort to become aware of varying degrees of expertise. This ‘social comparison’ provides important metacognitive knowledge about one’s own knowledge structures. This natural modelling is indeed a recommended part of reciprocal teaching – not just contrived modelling, but genuine puzzlement, for example, as a result of a genuine misunderstanding of the material. Collaboration is a major feature of reciprocal teaching.  Each member is a contributor and is responsible for the learning of the group as a whole.  They are commenting, elaborating, requesting clarification, disagreeing (Palincsar, A.S., Brown, A.L., 1988).

each member is responsible for the learning of the group as a whole…

Shared Writing, Tasks, and Data

New tools online such as, Google Docs and wikis allow for synchronous authoring of documents. This is so very cool because it is really like a ‘window on the mind’ of the others who are writing.  I had students in such a space as they watched Roger Waters ‘The Wall’. The students were to document and analyze the many forms of media in that performance compared to the bands of the early days – such as the Beatles. I was able to scaffold the students with prompts I put in the Chat area of

Non-Propositional Representation

What is the nature of this learning that is under our consideration? Much learning is not propositional in nature.  It is important that knowledge be made explicit through discussion but there are other forms of knowledge representation that also warrant our consideration.  Much knowledge is constructed and represented by models rather than by propositions.  Media-making has exploded these days. Look at the data on YouTube uploads!  Data is easier to represent with models these days rather than simply relying on text. I think of some of the visualization tools available – some even as simple as the ability to play ‘what if’ with database or spreadsheet data.  Think of Google Earth, TinkerPlots, Twitter visualizations.


Collaboration can provide scaffolding that may reduce the cognitive load. A ‘cognitive partner’ is able to share the load of a task more complex than one might be able to handle alone. One is scaffolded by the group, by the interactions, by the sharing of cognitive load. Lauren Resnick (1987 p13) draws a comparison of individual cognition at school versus shared cognition outside school. She indicates that for the most part school learning and performance are individual.  Most work is comprised of individual assignments.  A student succeeds or fails individually. Outside school, on the other hand, much activity is socially shared.  The ‘system’ of individuals either fails or succeeds.  For example, in the case of manoeuvring a large vessel she maintains that “no individual in the system can pilot a ship alone”. Within this kind of culture one can apprentice with a more knowledgeable other. Cognitive processes that are normally hidden are made overt through the pursuit of a socially shared intellectual task and are a focus for discussion and clarification.

A ‘cognitive partner’ is able to share the load of a task…

Synergy of Group Dynamics

Collaboration may lead to insights that might not occur without the benefits of the discussions and interactions. Twenty years or so ago, I recall connectionist theory suggesting that the knowledge is in the connections and in the interactions among the members of the group. ‘The strength is in the connections.’ With respect to collective problem solving, Schoenfeld (Collins et al, 1989) says “Groups are not just convenient way to accumulate the individual knowledge of their members.  They give rise synergistically to insights and solutions that would not come about without them.” Collaboration, therefore, may lead to a ‘whole’ that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Groups are not just convenient way to accumulate the individual knowledge of their members.  They give rise synergistically to insights and solutions that would not come about without them.”


There are some challenges in real time classroom conversations of course. There is often not enough time for each individual to express his/her thoughts. After all, time is – as we know it – linear and so to take turns indeed takes time. We need to use breakout groups and such techniques to maximize this and we do: Think, Pair, Share; Literature Circles, etc.

There are issues of power and voice as well. Sometimes, there are dominant, extroverted personalities who get the majority of ‘air time’. Also, introverts sometimes prefer more time to ponder the issues before expressing their ideas publicly.  And there are kids who are more shy than others and may not speak out quite so willingly. My own research saw that these children were often a lot more expressive than usual in an asynchronous, online, collaborative journal writing environment.

Looking Forward…

I am looking forward to diving in deeply to the developing theory of connectivism – not just to investigate and synthesize the literature and thinking on collaboration, but to come to terms with the other components from diverse domains.



Onions, C.T. (1973). The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical  Principles. Oxford University Press, Ely House, London W.

Perkins, D.N., and Salomon, G. (1988). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 22-32.

Resnick, Lauren. Educational Researcher, Vol. 16, No. 9. (Dec., 1987), pp. 13-20

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid 1970s–particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter blogs at The Construction Zone.


10 thoughts on “Why Should Students Collaborate?

  1. So is connectivism akin to cloud learning? Classroom crowd-sourcing?

    I wonder how the roles of experts and expert networkers will balance out in schools over the next few years.

    Will I need to be a good English teacher if I can out each of my students in contact with an expert mentor? Am I worth the same investment in both roles? What if I help kids teach each other? Is that worth more or less than implementing scripted instruction?

    What if we looked at pay bands by pedagogy? That would make for lively legislative debates.

    We have a national school culture that devalues theory in favor of results, which does all kinds of things to morale, motivation, and innovation. I’m glad we have a place like the Co-op to talk, and I’m grateful I work for a school that doesn’t undercut our responsibilities to our kids by c0ercing us to be responsible only to the tests.

    I like to think that connectivism like ours at the Co-op spurs a lot of content-acquisition as we discover one another’s work and share resources. I don’t know that starting with content acquisition would produce as much learning. Where do you go when your content is acquired if there’s no one else to learn with? Where your teacher tells you?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 26, 2011, 3:45 pm
    • Hi Chad,
      I think the creators would suggest that ‘cloud learning’ is an element that enables ‘connectivism’ to be a valid theory these days. George says, “At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. ”

      He goes on to delineate the principles of connectivism:

      * Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
      * Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
      * Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
      *Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
      *Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
      *Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
      * Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
      * Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

      You raise some interesting points about ‘content’. I am tired of hearing about ‘knowledge management systems’. Mind you, I hear about them in the context of relatively old-school information technology folks. New people, like Roger Schank and John Seely Brown, see more along our lines – in terms of ‘knowledge flows’.

      It just, in my opinion, has to start with a learner’s desire to know.

      looking forward

      Posted by peter skillen | January 27, 2011, 12:13 pm
  2. Indeed it does. I have a post I’m working on for Digital Is about using that desire to move from a writers workshop to a makers workshop. I’ll let you know when it’s live; I’d love to read your response to it.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 27, 2011, 3:33 pm
  3. Peter, Why do you think we Americans historically have tended to deemphasize the social aspects of learning in ways that Vygotsky did not?


    Posted by Kirsten | March 4, 2011, 1:03 pm


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