Collaborative Learning–Why Is It Powerful?

Collaborative Learning–Why Is It Powerful?

“Psychologists have made a compelling case that we only grow in connection with others. However, we don’t need to learn with others in formal training or development programs: we can architect our own opportunities to gain insight, knowledge, and skills that move us on an upward trajectory. We can have more control over our learning at work if we make building high-quality connections a priority.”

—  Jane E. Dutton and Emily Heaphy, “We Learn More When We Learn Together” Harvard Business Review, JANUARY 12, 2016

I’ve found that much of life’s most important learning has come from those connections. They started in early childhood and continued into contemporary work life.  As we engage with the people around us—our team, mentors, clients, family—we acquire a kind of rolling momentum that grows over time.

What made the early learning powerful was that it occurred during what psychologists call a “critical period.”  But not just in the sense of early development.  The learning happened at times when we were most ready to learn, most curious, and most open to new ideas.  That early learning framed our world view, the general model on which we would add and interpret new information going forward.

Those connections are no less important today. With our brains locked into the digital revolution, we live in a virtual sea of information—often to the point of overload and dysfunction.  Our connections to others help us determine what is important and what isn’t.  And they allow us to test and rehearse new skills and understandings within a social context.

Why is collaborative learning powerful? 

There are the easy answers:

It’s about energy.  Learning, for most people, is work. We avoid change and prefer to do things the old, comfortable way. Collaboration however means connecting to other people—an energizing activity.  Energy, the excitement of working with others, lets us overcome our resistance to change.  Most of us find that making useful contributions within a collaborative context is intrinsically rewarding.  As we are rewarded, we do things in new ways—a special kind of learning.

It’s about information. Each team member multiplies the number of shared information resources. Each person brings new connections that enlarge the pooled wealth of the team.  Sometimes we call it “synergy.”  Maybe it’s an over-used word, but it’s a good concept—that “more than the sum of the separate parts.”

But there’s more.

It’s also about focus.  When we’re in collaborative mode, we’re focused on a common task.  This means that we stay on target, within guidelines the group creates.  As we collaborate, our work processes yield better results, either in big jumps or successive approximations.  We see tangible outcomes, extrinsic rewards.  These outcomes reinforce all the learning that was wrapped around completing those tasks.

This principle of learning through solving real problems is at the core of why collaboration is powerful.  As the probability of finding good solutions increases, so do the attendant rewards.  As we are rewarded, we begin to retain and share the processes that led to those outcomes.  This is a powerful mode of learning that points to the conclusion that collaborative work and collaborative learning can be seen as the same process.  Both reinforce the other.

Prof. Dutton suggests that we should make “high-quality connections a priority.”   Who can argue?  Our choices around who we choose to work with are critical.  It’s the mutually supportive quality of those relationships that moves the enterprise forward.