Designing for Collaboration


globe-lights (Flickr) by ptwo under a Creative Commons Attribution Generic License

In reading “The Social and Interactive Dimensions of Collaborative Learning” (Miyake & Kirschner, 2014) it was no surprise to see the authors state, “It is as though the social aspects of learning in general and collaborative learning in particular are so natural or matter of course that educators and researchers assume that they do not need to be addressed specifically – either in practice, in the learning situation, or in theory, in the research situation” (p. 418).

This reminded me of a very rich professional learning experience I had a few years ago. As part of our school division’s AISI (Alberta Initiative for School Improvement) project on assessment for learning, we were asked to meet in divisional grade groups to investigate a particular assessment topic of interest. This turned out to be one of the most highly professional experiences I have had as a teacher. We heard via the divisional grapevine that other grade teams were experiencing difficulties, from complete dysfunction leading to administrative supervision followed by a breakup of the team, to groups where colleagues got along, but little was accomplished.

I often wondered, what was it about our group that contributed to its success? Miyake & Kirschner’s (2014) model of team learning beliefs and behaviors has made things more clear. The four factors that make up the model – psychological safety, cohesion, interdependence, and group potency up until now have been studied in isolation. Miyake and Kirshner (2014) have evidence to suggest that the four factors are complementary and together have positive effects on team learning.

As a team, we decided to have a deep and serious look at our curriculum documents, for two purposes. We wanted to chunk an overwhelming number of outcomes for each subject area into groups, which would allow for a more holistic approach to assessment, and we wanted to discuss how we could gather authentic evidence of learning for the clusters of outcomes. Our discussions were focussed, lively, generous, and supportive and in reflection, the four factors were always in play.

Psychological safety: We all felt safe in stating ideas and making mistakes that would not be ridiculed.

Cohesion: Not only did we share task cohesion in that we worked together to achieve a goal, but we also shared social cohesion in that we liked, cared for, and became closer to each other.

Interdependence: Task and outcome interdependence led us to searching out solutions and compromises.

Group Potency: This is also sometimes referred to as group efficacy. Because we had a shared goal that we felt would benefit our classroom teaching, we believed that as a group we were doing important, effective work.

Not only was the team learning powerful, but the growth in my individual understanding impacted the way I design and think about learning tasks. Miyage & Kirschner (2014) confirm this in stating, “Learning environments should be designed to foster co-construction of knowledge and meaning and mutually shared sensemaking. At the same time, the learning environment should foster each individual’s self-regulated, sustainable learning” (p. 434). They suggest there is no universal way to do this – that the design of the learning environment must fit the situation.

For me this means prototyping, reflecting, and continued learning.

Miyake, N. & Kirschner, P. (2014). The social and interactive dimensions of collaborative learning. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd ed.) (418-438). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

About sandralbecker

An educator who is passionate about the creation of a school Learning Commons, which supports inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration.
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