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    How Collaborative Learning Activities Build Powerful Student Brains

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    How Collaborative Learning Activities Build Powerful Student Brains

    Today's digital students love working in groups, and it's in their nature. They work, game, and connect online constantly. In school it's no different, where they look to their peers to collaborate and share ideas. They're just as likely to work with students across the world as they are students in their classroom.

    And there's some great news about this—collaborative learning activities are not only more interesting for students, but may be more helpful in facilitating brain development than traditional teaching methods.

    Collaboration Fluency skills are a huge asset for life after school. The working world is being affected by new communication technology. One's ability to function in teams that are both real and virtual is important. Henry Ford said it best:

    "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success."

    Collaborative learning pushes children to express themselves to their peers and interact to acquire and make use of information to achieve a desired outcome. Teachers may need to help students new to the activity, providing scaffolding and model appropriate behavior for listening to and discussing different viewpoints. However, these efforts are worthwhile, as collaborative learning has been shown to have a remarkable impact on students and their development in a number of areas.

    Let's seek to understand more about the influence of collaborative learning activities on brain development, as well as the social and emotional advantages of the approach.

    What Is Collaborative Learning?

    One definition of collaborative learning is based on the thoughts of J. M. Gerlach:

    “ ... [this type of learning] is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves. It is through the talk that learning occurs.”

    In the classroom, collaborative learning activities involve students working together in groups to complete a project, problem-solve or create a product. This approach to learning requires students to:

    • Associate new knowledge to prior knowledge;
    • Communicate with peers to process and synthesize new information;
    • Be exposed to various perspectives; and
    • Develop socially and emotionally as they listen to different viewpoints, and express and defend their own ideas.

    Collaborative learning pushes students to actively engage with their peers, and articulate and question ideas as they move forward in finding a solution. One goal of this approach is to move learning toward a student-centered model of education. The process involves soft skills that are important in the social-emotional development of a learner, such as problem-solving, managing emotions and the verbal exchange and discussion of ideas.

    Collaborative learning can also begin at a young age to engage learners and foster a student-centered learning environment. The active engagement of this approach requires more from students than skill and drill. However, does collaborative learning serve as a workout for the brain?

    Research Supports the Use of Collaborative Learning

    A developing child needs to execute their own acquisition of knowledge and manage their behavior. The executive functions of the brain generally do not fully mature until early adulthood. This means that parents and educators have a relatively large window in which to positively influence a child and their development.

    The plasticity of the brain shows that executive functions will interconnect in a progressive manner when using knowledge domains for words, facts and images in a goal-directed purpose. Outwardly, students will show active participation in the learning process. Educators may see children wanting to organize steps for completing a project, evaluate the progress of the work and search for additional resources. Students are attempting to manage themselves while developing executive and metacognitive skills. Children may develop such areas in as much as they are challenged by parents and teachers. Like a muscle, the activity of using executive functions appears to strengthen an individual’s ability to do so throughout their life.

    Writing, talking, listening and moving during group activities involves multiple sensory-intake systems which work to enhance long-term memory.

    The brain rewards the student participating in engaging learning activities. There are measurable responses that occur in the brain when working with others in a supportive and cooperative group. A release of dopamine happens during these activities. This neurotransmitter increases the feeling of pleasure, helping a child persevere and overcome challenges. The amygdala also activates. This area is part of the emotional-monitoring limbic system and determines if stimulation goes to the prefrontal cortex, the seat of the higher cognitive brain, or to the involuntary, reactive brain. Brain scans have shown that information learned among peers in an emotionally-supportive situation will be sent to the cognitive brain.

    Isolated skill practice does not tend to produce a pleasure response in students. The brain activates to release dopamine and support a child’s learning when students attempt to create a desired product or use information to solve a problem of interest. Writing is a subject area the offers an opportunity for active learning and creative production. Writing, talking, listening and moving during group activities involves multiple sensory-intake systems which work to enhance long-term memory. When retained information is retrieved, it appears that multiple neural networks are activated as memory storage has occurred on a number of long-term memory circuits. Learning is more efficient for the brain in collaborative learning activities, and is more likely to be remembered and retained.

    Benefits of Collaborative Learning Activities: Emotional and Psychological

    The brain itself functions is such a way as to support an engaged learner working with their peers to achieve a specific outcome. The learner feels pleasure and is motivated to persist to when working toward a goal with others. The brain facilitates the activities involved and stores information in such a way as to make it easier to retrieve it in multiple memory storage areas. A student who experiences pleasure during an activity and achieves successful outcomes is more likely to want to work in such a way in the future. Classroom environments that facilitate collaborative learning activities promote the mental development of young learners, helping them become adults with the mental, emotional and social capacity to work with others.

    There are five key social-emotional skills that are related to personal and professional success in life. These critical social-emotional skills are:

    • Self-awareness;
    • Self-management;
    • Social awareness;
    • Relationship skills; and
    • Responsible decision-making.

    The development of these skills has a direct relationship to important outcomes such as career success, and reduced involvement in criminal activity. Children who have the opportunity to develop high social-emotional skills can reflect on their actions, seek assistance when needed and stay motivated through difficult times. Children taught social-emotional skills have a reduced likelihood of developing emotional problems or participating in anti-social behaviors.

    Students are hardwired to work with others. Teachers can create an environment that encourages learners to work together on a specific project or discuss their different viewpoints. While an educator or parent may notice and praise certain positive behaviors, the brain itself will provide a participating student with feelings of pleasure, reinforcing the action and the desire of a student to continue with a particular course of action.

    Collaborative learning activities allow children to learn and demonstrate empathy and prosocial behavior. These behaviors can be more important than the objective of a task itself, as they can be used in other social environments and support the soft skills required later in life. Collaborative learning allows parents and educators to provide students the tools needed for success in the classroom and in a future career.

    Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

    Originally published Mar 18, 2019, updated Dec 19, 2021

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