Published Online: March 19, 1997

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Collaborative Learning, Collaborative Mislearning

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Can your students tell the difference? Can you?

The least effective mode of teaching and learning is still the most popular at all levels of instruction: teaching by telling, learning by parroting. I tell it. You tell it back to me. When you tell it back to me the way I told it to you, I assume you have knowledge. In this world of classic didacticism, the poor student alternates between passive listening and mindless recall, the "good" student between good note-taking and clever cramming. The poor student becomes bored, alienated, or hostile; the "good" student skilled at short-term mimicry.

Despite the fact that this "tried and true" method results mainly in transitory, lower-order learning, we continue to use it. Our triumph at the upper level are student memorizers who regurgitate information they neither understand nor are interested in understanding; information they neither incorporate into the system of their thinking nor ever use.

In recent years, however, a growing number of educators have begun to seek a corrective to didactic talk and passive recall. That corrective is active student involvement in learning. More and more teachers realize the power of active engagement. They realize that students must work content into the structure of their own thinking, if what they take in is to remain there. These educators have increasingly begun to figure out ways to configure instruction so that students work together in the learning process.

Of course, those familiar with the relevant research know that students actively engaged in trying to figure out content, students working together to reason things through, carry away more permanent and significant structures than those who rotely memorize. Having students "do it themselves" teaches them a lot more than episodic parroting does.

But, having recognized that active cooperative learning is a necessary condition to higher-order learning, we must not assume that it is a sufficient condition. Far from it. Let us not forget that collaborative learning is used in the learning that produces criminal behavior, in standard peer-group learning, and in socialization processes that result in prejudice, shared illusions, and stereotypes. Gossip, hatred, fear, and even math anxiety are all the product of "cooperative" group learning. The group influence that occurs in gangs provides a powerful example of undesirable cooperative learning whereby gang members actively learn together to behave in manipulative, hurtful, greedy, and even deadly ways.

Having students "do it themselves" teaches them a lot more than episodic parroting does.

If cooperative education is to go beyond mere activity, if it is to involve activity that produces high-quality thinking and desirable learning, it must embody clear-cut intellectual standards and a self-assessing process whereby students raise their learning to a self-critical level. In other words, students must learn how to probe and evaluate their own thinking as intrinsic to their cooperative work: seeking, finding, and eliminating mistakes that impede excellence in thought. This means that critical-thinking standards must infuse the ground rules of cooperative education. This includes the enduring--but typically ignored--intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, precision, depth, breadth, fair-mindedness, and logicality.

Students must learn to routinely ask questions such as: Are we thinking clearly enough? Are we being accurate in what we say? Do we need to be more precise? Are we sticking to the question at issue? Are we dealing with the complexities of the question? Do we need to consider another perspective or point of view? Are our assumptions accurate or are they faulty? Is our purpose fair-minded, or are we only concerned about advancing our own desires? Does our argument seem logical, or is it disjointed, lacking cohesion?

In other words, these important standards of thought must be applied to all of the important structures of thought: to its guiding goal or purpose, to the central question, to the information used with respect to the question, to the judgments that are made with the information, to the concepts inherent in the judgments, to the assumptions that underlie the judgments, and to the implications that follow from it.

After all, whenever we think, we think for a purpose, within a point of view, based on assumptions, leading to implications and consequences. We interpret data, facts, and information based on concepts, ideas, and theories in attempting to answer a question, solve a problem, or resolve an issue. Teachers and students must explicitly know these structures and use them mindfully in their thought.

Students must learn to be accurate and precise in their use of information and language, to check to make sure that the information they use is relevant to the issue at hand. Students must come to understand that when they are addressing a complex issue, they must explicitly deal with its complexities and consider differing points of view. These are just a couple of the ways that students (and teachers) must come to routinely check thinking as they think--whether individually or collectively.

In short, active or cooperative learning is not enough. Such learning must be disciplined throughout by careful application of the intellectual standards that keep the best thinking on track. It must target and check the crucial structures in thinking. Spontaneous, interested student thinking does not naturally involve appropriate standards. In fact, most students (and people in general, for that matter) are drawn to use standards for assessing thinking which are both egocentric and sociocentric. Most people agree with only that which agrees with what they already believe (egocentric) and that which agrees with what those around them believe (sociocentric). These "natural" tendencies can be overcome only over time and only when appropriate intellectual standards are carefully cultivated.

Yes, it's time to bring active, collaborative learning into the classroom--time long overdue--but only if we ensure that sound critical thinking is the vehicle of that collaboration, only if students assess their collaborative byproducts rigorously, effectively, critically.


Linda Elder is the executive director of the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

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