Is Collaborative Learning Child’s Play?

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Collaborative Learning Week banner with ASCD logoBy Sean Slade

Play is what humans do; but there’s an inaccuracy in our perception of it. We consider play to be something trivial, something unimportant. We dismiss things as being easy when we use the common phrase, “that’s child’s play.” When we think of ‘playful’ as if it were the opposite of ‘serious,’ or when we dichotomize work and play, we create a world where possibility is limited and fun seems inconsequential.

On the contrary, play is primary. In fact, the way the world plays and learns is indistinct from the social, political, and economic structures that the future adults will participate in.

—Jordan Shapiro, “Fixing Education Is Child’s Play,” Forbes.com

Play, by its very nature, is collaborative. It could even be viewed as the most basic form of collaborative learning. While playing, children (and adults) observe what is around them, focus attention on a problem, and synthesize the group’s actions into a solution.child's play quote

Play is essentially collaborative learning but with even fewer restrictions (such as a classroom, a schedule, or standards). It is an activity that empowers the player to make decisions and to confront challenges. Frequently, players have to plan, practice, evaluate, and revise actions or strategies in real time. Almost instinctively, play defines the actions and activities as meaningful, personalized, and relevant.

Play is often where the individual is in “flow,” as outlined by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow Theory, and, therefore, where the greatest learning and accumulation of knowledge takes place. It should be an educator’s dream setting.

Play can be free or structured—or anywhere in between. Restrictions—such as purpose, goal, or setting—can change the activity and the rationale behind it; this is where the skill of the educator comes in. Play does not have to equate to fantasy role playing unless that is the aim. It also does not have to equate to a competitive physical challenge, although it can. Teachers can establish certain restrictions to help maintain a particular focus while allowing players the freedom to make decisions and develop strategies on their own.

Just as students need to learn and practice concepts, theories, and skills, so do they need to focus on developing the ability to collaborate. We cannot and should not expect students who have not been encouraged to be collaborative to become successful collaborators at a moment’s notice, nor should we expect every opportunity for collaboration to go smoothly. That’s where the practice comes in. Play provides students with an opportunity to engage in discussion and collaborative problem solving and improve on those skills in ways that might seem less demanding than structured learning.

As adults, however, we are often discouraged from engaging these same skills and behaviors that we developed as children. The negative connotation of “child’s play” as something simplistic or insignificant takes precedence. If we truly want to encourage collaborative learning, we should embrace play, embrace how we used to learn as kids, and use the art of play to develop a world where possibility is unlimited and fun is anything but inconsequential.

More on collaborative learning and teacher effectiveness.

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