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But not Least...

Who's on First? - and Why should I care?

The Nature of Collaboration

The Collaborative Environment | Collaborative Permissions | Collaborative Skills
When NOT to | How-To: Where Do I Go From Here?
Resources for Collaboration in the Classroom

Independent Tasks and Cooperative Taskscooperation

The main reason for invertebrates to produce sounds is for communication. They do so either actively or passively. For those invertebrates that use sound actively, there are different needs for communication including defense against predators, social relations (including mating) and to protect territory. (How do marine invertebrates communicate using sound?)

In my experience, lobsters are social creatures that commonly share shelters both when they are young and when they mate. They commonly live in close proximity in nature and have such highly ritualized agonistic [combative] encounters that they rarely injure one another during fights. (Ask Doctor Lobster: Care tips for egg-bearing females)

It occurs to me that perhaps the most significant difference between the lobster and the child (aside from the thumb) is that the child likes to communicate with her peers and will, more often than not, go out of her way to do so solely for positive social reasons. This is what makes Collaboration work. The fact that the child also has rituals for agonistic communication is what make the supervision of Collaboration a Teacher task.  That said, how does the individual child fit into a working collaboration?

The individual plays three roles in a collaborative environment: as independent agent, as cooperative agent, and as collaborator. Collaboration makes use of the group in order to increase information content and its filtering (many sets of eyes, hands and ears are better than one) and to construct a product. The ultimate goal of Collaboration, however, is not the product, but the learning of the individual student.  It is, in fact, essential that the individual be able to apply critical thinking to group ideas and conclusions.

The role of the individual in a collaborative groupClick to see image in full size


Cooperation vs. Collaboration

Cooperation is not collaboration. Cooperation is goal-directed and concrete. Collaboration is about the sharing and modification of ideas and opinions. Collaboration is driven by attending to the answers to questions like Why? What if? and How does? and such phrases as Tell me, Explain it to me, and What do you notice. The goal of collaboration is the construction of new learning and new learning tasks and the realization of learning at the individual student level.

Cooperative tasking is just dividing a large independent task into smaller independent components which are pooled to create an end product. Information gathering, survey graphing, information charting or databasing, scientific measurement, counting the baskets made by a partner, creating a Sketchpad diagram to a teacher's directions - these are all independent tasks appropriate to learning. The self-centered nature of the k-12 learning environment is conducive to independent investigation and parallel learning; it is an environment that is optimal for cooperative tasking. For this reason, teachers often are satisfied with cooperative tasking in the classroom. Creating a product (presentation, drawing, map, project, solving math problems) is an independent task, too often assigned for homework. Such tasks teach or reinforce a specific technology tool skill (or other literacy skill, such as counting, writing or measuring), but they contribute to the literacy needed for the future use of technology only when assessment criteria and feedback are applied to the task steps through a collaborative experience: When the purpose, process, and product are assessed through questioning, answering and attending.


The Collaboration Skills

In a classroom, there are two types of questions: Teacher Questions and Kid Questions; and two types of answers: Teacher Answers and Kid Answers. A major goal of the collaborative environment is to eliminate this divide. This requires that both teachers and students develop a skill set that supports and encourages the Questioning, Answering and Attending that generate the knowledge flow and development pictured above.

independenceStudents do not learn in isolation.  At all levels, the learning of other students and the "data pool" of the environment (teachers, media, surrounding culture, parents) contribute to the learning of the individual. From an early age, children gain experience at gathering information from this environment. Young children are persistent knowledge seekers and the "data pool" is culturally structured to support their learning quests. They gain confidence in their ability to float through a learning task, controlling it only in so far as they turn away from information and information sources that do not meet an immediate need. "Taking in" information in this context is the 1st skill for learning. It is not, however, a collaborative skill, but the reverse: it the major skill for an isolated learner.

Collaboration skills are not inherent in children. Opportunities for communication and collaboration enrich learning tasks by supporting optimal learning. Collaboration and its Assessment, leading to a reevaluation and filtering of learning tasks and outcomes, should be teacher-guided. This is the way out of the data trap, even a way to avoid it all together. But these steps are often omitted from a unit or assignment. A closed, question-driven learning task implies a single-answer-driven learning outcome; gathering and arranging answers are independent or cooperative tasks that result in predictable products. These learning "projects" are easy to design, easy to assign, and easy to assess. Because they are concrete in nature, they are often the framework for elementary school learning tasks. Too often, this is also the framework for student assignments in middle school and high school. They encourage, and often force, the student to work in isolation.

Collaborative tasks, especially those involving assessment and filtering, require that the student learn with and from others. Without the teacher-guided collaborative process, students continue to measure success only by the answer to "Is it right?" or "Is it enough?"  The implication of these questions is "more is better, all is best," leading to a combining of answers and gathered data, rather than the assessment and filtering that should precede the development of a product. The product becomes the end of the process, rather than a step on the learning journey. Learning, like its process, remains an isolated activity.

It is our belief that as children move along the developmental spiral, acquiring skills that they can apply to higher level thinking tasks, they must learn how to Filter the information that is used in the construction of learning. Collaboration, even if just "bouncing ideas off of others," is an essential component of this process. Purposeful, guided development of the Collaboration Skills of Questioning, Answering and Attending is an essential Teacher Task in the 21st century classroom. Contrast, for example, our Learning Model with that described above - note the relative unimportance we place upon Product and the central position of Construction.


When NOT to collaborate

It is tempting to believe that ALL technology assisted learning should be collaborative in nature. This is not the case at all. If you have read the above carefully and studied the diagram and our Learning Model, you will notice that there are two outcomes of all collaborations:

  1. A lateral or spiral change in understanding or focus
  2. A problem is solved with newly constructed knowledge or through the recall or synthesis of previously learned knowledge

Simply put, it is not appropriate or desirable to use collaboration when these two outcomes are not inherent in the task. The two most egregious errors made by technology lab coordinators and classroom teachers is to use collaborative computer work with memorizational learning, or with a learning task that requires or develops automaticity. These activities would include:

It is, in my view, one of the negatives of non-ubiquitous computing that teachers have come to believe that all students absorb computer tools skills the way the larval lobster absorbs nutrients. And ancillary to this, they believe that those students who know more will teach those who know less by challenging them to learn more, which has become an argument for collaborative grouping in the above activities. As I have illustrated, I hope, in the above and other parts of the Learning and Lobstering series, collaboration skills do NOT include software tools skills or keyboarding skills and are NOT knowledge based. The only relevant predictor of success in a collaborative group is previous participation in a successful collaboration (see How can technology develop higher order thinking and problem solving?). The above learning tasks, therefore, are best separated from collaboration and seen as individual learning tasks.


How-To: Where do I go from here?

We believe that teachers can not design successful collaborative projects unless they first participate in successful projects. We strongly recommend, therefore, the following methodology for the teacher beginning on this journey:



Least Tern has collected and created materials to help you with the collaborative process.  Below is a Highlights listing. For a more complete listing, browse the following sections of our site:

Pedagogy | Web-based Tools | Software Tools | Model Projects | Projects to Join

newThe Web Project - offers tools, projects and pedagogy - a Vermont-based collaborative environment

Pedagogy and Methods


Web-based tools


Software Toolkit - some recommendations

Must have: Spreadsheet, graphing, word processing, databasing, image creation (paint) and manipulation, web page editor/creator, chat client, presentation application, science probeware, email, telephone
Optional: a desktop/laptop monitoring device that can be used on your own LAN can be used for collaboration if you are inventive - see our listing


Model School Projects - these projects have been identified by collaborating universities and organizations


Locate Existing Lessons (1-class collaborations) and Projects to Join, Adapt, or Use



E. Sky-McIlvain 7/26/04