Collaboration and Learning

I’m now in Amsterdam where I just gave a talk about collaborative creativity at the big European educational research association, known as EARLI.  The organizers of the panel were Neil Mercer (University of Cambridge) and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland).  Four people spoke about this topic:

Eva Vass (University of Bath) described her research on children’s creative dialogues, conducted with Dorothy Miell (Open University).  She studied 7 to 9 year olds in a New Zealand school; she showed how these children almost instinctively coordinate their conversations by managing the “floor” (a technical term for who is speaking and when) through “jointly constructed utterances, simultaneous, and overlapping speech” in a way that resulted in “mutual inspiration.”

I then presented a research study I did with Stacy DeZutter (now at Millsaps College) of a youth theater group.  We studied the collaborative improvisation of an improvised performance, over 12 rehearsals and five live performances.  The most interesting findings were: (1) the performance never did become completely scripted; the group kept improvising and embellishing; (2) no single performer played a central role, all of the dramatic elements emerged from the dialogue on stage.

Anneli Etelapelto, of the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, then described her study over two years of a group of teacher education students.  She closely analyzed five meetings of this group, and compared the least creative and the most creative sessions.  Uncreative sessions had “disputational talk” where each person attempted to invalid the others’ opinions.  The creative sessions displayed “complementarity in participants’ talk and by inclusive utilisation of each other’s views”.

The final presentation was by Neil Mercer of the University of Cambridge.  He and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland) videotaped rehearsals of a rock band, and showed how often they disagree, often arguing heatedly and with swear words, and yet their dialogue still contributes to a successful performance–because they are all committed to a shared vision (of how their band should sound) and a shared goal of a successful live performance.

I am excited that the study of collaborative creativity is beginning to have an impact on how we think about learning.  So many of our most important learning experiences happen when we are in groups with others, and this is why understanding collaboration is central to the study of learning.