There is a habit of distinguishing learning from work. You often hear that learning is not work and that learning has (finally) finished when you start working. However, learning is a form of work, which, like work, you can get tired of, and work without learning seems contradictory given the steady agricultural, industrial, healthcare or economic development that results from the “working” human being. In particular, project management, a group-based organizational form where the output is the delivery of a unique product or service, has a large component of learning (stepping outside the routine). In short, working and learning are not mutually exclusive activities. Whether in learning- (schools, vocational institutes, universities, etc.) or working-organizations (industry, government, etc.), working together leads to a form of learning, hence our title: “Working together to learn.”
A transactive dialogue
Working together, collaborative efforts, touches many aspects of daily life, whether it is children who play, people at work, community activities, sporting events or cultural manifestations. It also occurs in scholarly education, either implicitly, as a result of students’ self-regulated learning initiatives, or explicitly, as in collaborative learning tasks. With collaborative we refer here to “the use of a self-contained task and with the focus on joint activity with the object of creating shared understanding” (p177, Tolmie, et al., 2010). The strength of collaborative effort lies in the creation of conditions that lead to co-construction of meaning, a process that is mediated by constructive conflict, also referred to as transactive dialogue or shared cognition (Blatchford et al., 2003; Blatchford et al, 2006; Garrison & Akyol, 2015; Tolmie et al., 2010; Van den Bossche et al., 2006). The word “transactive” implies a developmentally-effective dialogue (Berkowitz & Gibbs, 1983). Indeed, when our students were asked about the main arguments for why collaboration had contributed to the success and enjoyment of their project, their unambiguous answer was: sharing (Kramer & Kusurkar, 2017). They expressed this in two fashions, sharing in the sense of comfort, sharing workload, skills and responsibilities, and in the sense of co-construction, developing shared knowledge and understanding through the exchange of thoughts and opinions (transactive dialogue). Norbert Wiener formulates the quintessence of sharing in the introduction to his book on Cybernetics (full citation in the home page): “(..) working together (…) joined by the desire, indeed by the spiritual necessity, to understand (…) and to lend one another the strength of that understanding.”
In addition to this being generally considered an effective way of learning (Slavin, 1980), it also leads to a more mastery-learning approach (also known as deep learning) (Entwistle & Waterston, 1988). Mastery learning is about learning to know and understand, not to comply with an external or internal control. The latter is associated with performance- or surface-learning. The social interaction that underlies transactive dialogue also seems to be an important factor that determines group performance, or group intelligence (Williams-Woolley et al., 2010). Indeed group members with helping norms (displaying helping behavior toward group members) and a voice (frequently offering constructive propositions) disproportionally contribute to group performance (Li, et al. 2015).
Group Beliefs and Task Complexity
Whether or not group members engage in transactive dialogues, and to what extent, depends on their perceptions of the interpersonal context of the group. Four beliefs (group-beliefs) have been identified that influence group working: psychological safety (inclusive group ethos, trust), cohesion (stay on task together), potency (also known as collective efficacy, collective intelligence or collective competence) and interdependence (crucial information comes from other group members) (Van den Bossche et al., 2006). The idea is that group members are more likely to engage and maintain a transactive dialogue when they anticipate/recognize sufficient levels of psychological safety, cohesion, potency and interdependence. With respect to the fourth belief, interdependence, when group members are able to make unique contributions to a task they exhibit less social loafing (Harkins & Petty, 1982). Social loafing is the phenomenon that participants put less effort, less engagement, into a group task compared to an individual task. Unique contributions means that members can be recognized for that contribution. Here we refer to the need of individual recognition and individual accountability in group processes.
Besides group beliefs, engagement also depends on whether group members identify with the task; they must perceive the task as complex (afore mentioned “interdependence”) and relevant and not as “busy work”. In the context of education, the authenticity of the task, that is, group projects that resemble real-life situations, is a determining factor in this (Asgari & Dall’Alba, 2011; Barab et al., 2000; Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010; Scager et al., 2016; Visser et al., 2017). In companies, identification with the task seems to be determined by the recognition of a “shared purpose” (improve the product, improve the production line, answering an unmet societal need, beating the competitors) (Adler et al., 2011).
It is fair to say that the necessary interplay between social and cognitive skills receives little attention in education, either in the support of collaborative tasks, what can teachers do to steer students to positive group beliefs (Blatchford et al., 2003; Dijkstra et al., 2016) or in the construction of tasks, is it really necessary to work in groups (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010). For instance, how can you foster psychological safety or make sure that group members recognize cohesion and potency? How do you assure a faire distribution of tasks? There are signs that collaboration in the workplace is also not always based on functional necessity, reducing some group projects to “busy work” (with all the negative consequences for entrepreneurial employees) (Cross, et al. 2016).
PS1: There are certainly differences between learning institutions and work organizations. In learning institutions, future opportunities are still very wide, that is, students are not necessarily each other’s competitors (unless you want to be top of the class). In companies, there is competition because there are a limited number of places. Job promotions are an increasingly strong mobile for commitment and they drive employees towards “external regulation” (doing to win, to be seen by the leader (see figure 1 in Self-Determination Theory, autonomy and collaborative attitude) and “extrinsic goals” (doing to become more powerful and richer). This is a major brake on an accepting group culture and thus on “transactive dialogue.” In particular, stereotypical alpha males (and females) wreak havoc in this regard (Kahn, 2016).
PS2. The references in this page, and all others, are a fraction of what has been published on this topic. Compared to biological science & technology literature, one of the surprises of social sciences is that there are few common references, each “school of thought,” each journal, has its own repertoire and there is little or no common “citation” ground (Daenekindt & Huisman, 2020).
PS3. Semantics. There are also many different terms describing more or less the same behaviors or processes (at least from a teacher’s point of view). Sometimes the hairs are split to the point that only a small group of authors (researchers) knows what exactly it is about and what the terms mean (Daenekindt & Huisman, 2020).
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