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Collaborative learning: how can it help your students?

Collaborative learning can develop soft skills, but most activities centre on the learner's exploration of the curriculum, not the teacher's presentation of it.

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According to the National Careers Service, employers are looking for – and lacking – candidates with soft skills. Through collaborative learning, skills such as decision making, flexibility and problem-solving come to the fore. These skills are best developed in school, and the earlier the better.

Whilst you wouldn’t expect a new graduate to gain vocational skills in the primary school classroom, it’s well established that the experiences and memories gained in early years go on to play a vital role in shaping the more personal and societal aspects of the adult.

Individual learning and the ‘broadcast’ approach established by more traditional teaching methods have a role to play, but as we move into a more collaborative world, the principles and personality traits gained from peer-to-peer education and engagement are more important than ever.

Adapting teaching to the new world

The world is already collaborating. From hackathons, such as NASA’s international Space Apps Challenge, a two-day event involving technologists, scientists, artists, educators and more, engaging with publicly available data to design new solutions for global challenges. To open innovation, with new ideas being sought from outside the usual channels – such as the National Primary Care Development team asking patients for ideas.

From Kickstarter to crowdsourcing to open plan offices and carpools, the world in which we live increasingly shares its resources, ideas and information for the common good. We have the technology to communicate more broadly than ever, and the business world is using this to its advantage. It’s time for the world of education to follow suit.

Setting out the principles

Broadly speaking, collaborative learning is a method of active learning that relies on the principle of two or more students coming together to work towards a common goal.

Collaborative learning activities vary widely, but most centre on the learner’s exploration or application of the curriculum, not simply on the teacher’s presentation of it.

There are three broad categories into which collaborative working can fall:

Collaborative learning

Students make individual progress in tandem with others, working towards a common goal. Students are accountable to one another and, with appropriate direction, will self-manage this. Pupils learn to better understand and anticipate difference, recognise it in themselves and others, and use it to their advantage.

Co-operative learning

Co-operation involves inherent interdependence – like the cast and crew of a theatre production, for example. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, but are open for negotiation. This method of collaboration brings with it a strong sense of accountability.


With proper use, competition is an effective means of developing your pupils’ collaborative skills. It can be particularly effective with teams (especially when students are incentivised with rewards to work toward), and can help to develop entrepreneurship and leadership skills. It should be pointed out that pupils’ learning to collaborate in this way need to be monitored closely, to ensure they are developing the right skills the right way.

The realities of collaborative learning

It’s important to remember that effective collaborative learning does not necessarily come easy. Making a move to a new kind of learning experience is not a quick fix, and may necessitate a change of mindset for everyone involved. Not just your colleagues, but your students, and potentially you, too. You should see the transition to collaborative approaches as a journey, which you’ll all embark upon together. As you get further, you’ll continually assess and refine approaches to ultimately gain a view of how collaboration works most effectively in your school.

With that said, it’s not an overwhelming proposition either. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water, you should implement collaborative and cooperative approaches in the right circumstances for your students and your curriculum.

Whilst putting some initial planning and thought in up front will naturally be required, transitioning to collaborative learning principles won’t require more work in the long term. It just demands a different kind of work. Work in which your role has changed, as you become more of a moderator, supervisor and occasional guide, rather than a leader.

The beauty of a collaborative approach is that it offers such flexibility, so you can group students together in the optimum way and refine and adapt groups as you travel along your journey. As a learning experience, collaboration offers a full range of models which can be adapted to suit whole-class, multi-team and small-team settings.

Most importantly, an effective collaborative approach does not lose sight of the individual. You know how unique each student is, and you know how important it is to tailor your approach to their distinctive learning styles. Collaboration, done right, plays to this perfectly. There’s still room for personalised instruction and guidance from you to ensure all attitudes and abilities are accommodated.

A collaborative approach doesn’t assume that everyone will travel at the same speed. The brighter children will not be held back, as they will have an inclination towards guiding the outliers. And the outliers will benefit from a stronger network of group support and direction.

The benefits of collaborative learning for pupils

Starting to see the benefits? The outcomes of collaborative learning lie in many tangible and less tangible traits:

  • Improved performance: Research shows that collaborative methods are much more valuable than individualistic methods in building student performance and progression.
  • Embedded learning: Going far above and beyond the broadcast approach, collaboration embeds knowledge more powerfully through listening and sharing. A student is more likely to remember something learnt with and from a peer than something broadcast from the front of the classroom. The dialogue and discussion over new ideas and approaches to solving the task set make it more memorable and require a deeper level of skills.
  • Confidence building: Well-planned collaboration allows all students to recognise and value the importance of their own contributions. It emboldens them with the confidence to teach and learn from others – not only their peers, but their teachers too.
  • Improved psychological health: There has been found to be a strong correlation between cooperativeness and psychological health. A more collaborative approach could lead to better emotional maturity, well-adjusted social relations, strong personality identity, ability to cope with adversity, basic trust and optimism about people, and independence and autonomy.
  • Inclusivity: There is no such thing as an ‘average’ child, and collaborative learning plays to this. It can give outlier students unique ways forward. They bring their own strength and skills, which are recognised and valued by other students. Effective collaboration recognises the merit of everyone in the group, allowing each child to work to their strengths and gain support from others when needed.
  • Well-rounded citizens: This may seem a bold claim, but as mentioned at the beginning, what we learn in childhood, we take into adult life. Collaborative practice can become so inculcated in a person that they take their skills not only on to further education and work, but into their personal lives too. The more people are equipped this way, the more harmonious society can become.

Find out about developing student soft skills and how technology can aid collaborative learning techniques in our article: ‘Can technology help pupils to develop soft skills?’

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Teaching and learning through collaboration

In one or many ways, you’ll already be applying the principles of collaborative learning within the classroom. You will have observed that students sometimes work in parallel, with minimal interaction. Sometimes they work together. Sometimes they compete. All of these approaches can form part of deeper learning through collaboration.

One of the key considerations and behavioural shifts involves you. You must avoid the temptation to ‘lead’ the group. Your role has changed from one of leader and broadcaster to one of moderator. Motivate the group when they are struggling, but be conscious of not offering answers or solutions too readily. Maintain oversight of the group dynamics and make sure to encourage the quieter or more reluctant students when needed.

In Part Two of our collaborative working series, we discuss your role and the practicalities of implementation in more detail, offering a detailed approach to building collaborative learning into the primary school classroom.

With the world of work already demanding softer skills from individuals and a culture of collaboration from its workforce, the time to start introducing the principles and moulding the personalities is in the classroom has arrived. We cannot prepare our pupils for the future with the tactics of the past. And if you’re ready to take your collaborative learning to the next level, the ActivPanel allows classroom collaboration like no other – request your free demo now to bring your pupils into the spotlight.

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Hattie, J (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Abingdon, Routledge.

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