What is collaboration?

It was the last of our sessions at University for ‘Maths Specialists’ this evening, and despite coming at the end of a long day I found it very inspiring. Sue Johnstone-Wilder, a secondary Maths specialist, led us through a variety of open ended problems which reminded me of the importance of inspiring children to play with numbers and follow their own lines of enquiry.

One of the problems she set us got me thinking along slightly different lines. This was a task in which we worked in a group of three, each of which was provided with a number of cards containing facts about the building of a pyramid in an alien culture. Some of this information was irrelevant, with the rest of it providing the raw data for a several stage calculation to discover how long the pyramid took to build.

I have come across problems such as this before, usually in ‘team building’ type exercises to encourage collaboration, as the answer cannot be reached without information held by everyone involved. However, the first thing we did when approaching the task was to pool the relevant information and copy it out in a central place, and then all approach the problem fairly separately.

This got me thinking about what collaboration truly is, and how task design can influence it. Although all of us needed to communicate to solve our problem, we were only really contributing specific pieces of information, and once these were in the public domain our thought processes followed their own separate tracks. One person alone could solve the problem once they had all the information. I wonder if this is truly collaboration, or if what we should be aiming for with collaborative tasks is more of a sharing of thinking and skills rather than simple scattering the facts required between members of a group.

Is a more desirable model of collaboration that of a team with different skills working together on a project? Take the example of someone designing a project, someone else constructing it, and another person costing it. All of these skills are essential to completion and each person is bringing their own specialism to the table. However, is this true collaboration or is it simply three people doing their own thing and then passing it on to another to then add to?

I don’t think I have the answers to these questions, but I thought they were interesting things to consider when looking at designing group tasks, and thinking about what we really want pupils to get out of group work. The answer to this may be different things at different times, but sometimes it is all to easy to forget to consider what these are!

With tools like Google Docs, Etherpad, and the forthcoming Google Wave, I am looking forward to encouraging collaboration using technology in my classroom next year, however there are obviously a lot of issues to take into account way beyond the obvious classroom management ones…

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