Evolving constructivist perspectives on learning have fueled interest in collaboration and cooperative learning. Two characteristics of constructivist teaching are complex, real-life learning environments and social interaction.
Different constructivist approaches favor cooperative learning for different reasons. Information-processing theorists point to the value of group discussion in helping participants rehearse, elaborate, and expand their knowledge. As group members question and explain, they have to organize their knowledge, make connections, and review all processes that support information processing and memory. Advocates of the Piagetian perspective suggest that the interactions in groups can create the cognitive conflict and disequilibrium that lead an individual to question his or her understanding and try out new ideas.
Constructivists who favor Vygotsky’s theory suggest that social interaction is important for learning because higher mental functions such as reasoning, comprehension, and critical thinking originate in social interactions and are then internalized by individuals. Children can accomplish mental tasks with social support before they can do them alone. Thus cooperative learning provides the social support and scaffolding that students need to move learning forward (Woolfolk, 2001, p.44).
Slavin (2000, p. 256) refers to Vygotsky’s theories when he speaks about constructivist theories of learning:
“Modern constructivist thought draws most heavily on Vygotsky’s theories, which have been used to support classroom instructional methods that emphasize cooperative learning, project-based learning, and discovery. Four key principles derived from Vygotsky’s ideas have played an important role. Two of them are very important for cooperative learning. First is his emphasis on the social nature of learning. Children learn, he proposed, through joint interactions with adults and more capable peers. On cooperative projects children are exposed to their peers’ thinking process; this method not only makes the learning outcome available to all students, but also makes other students’ thinking processes available to all. Vygotsky noted that successful problem solvers talk themselves through difficult problems. In cooperative groups, children can hear this inner speech out loud and can learn how successful problem solvers are thinking through their approaches. The second key concept is the idea that children learn best the concepts that are in their zone of proximal development. When children are working together, each child is likely to have a peer performing on a given task at a slightly higher cognitive level, exactly within the child’s zone of proximal development.”
Slavin, R. (2000). Educational Psychology : theory and practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Woolfolk, A. (2001). Educational psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.