Collaborative Learning for Collaborative Solutions

By Tania Carlone

As a former educator, I’ve been reflecting on how my previous study and experience in cooperative learning and team-teaching have influenced my work as a facilitator and mediator. It’s been years since I’ve been in the classroom, but there’s still continuity between the phases of my career. 

I was hired in my last faculty position to break down disciplinary silos toward more integrated, multi-disciplinary curriculum and instruction. My graduate degree was in education and organizational leadership, rather than the content of instruction, and I was happy to have an opportunity to organize a ninth-grade humanities pilot program, co-taught by a team of five teachers. This was at an independent school that integrated curricula in the social sciences, English, visual and performing arts, and technology. The idea was to start that integration at the introductory, ninth-grade level—if successful, we’d then apply it schoolwide. 

The program was steeped in progressive educational trends of the late 1990s, emphasizing student cooperative learning, project-based study, portfolio-assessment, service learning, and environmental sustainability. We used holistic evaluation that included narrative grading, self- and peer-evaluation, all based on descriptive rubrics reflecting levels of competence in distinct areas. One such area was collaboration. Much of the learning in the program occurred in teams and students were evaluated based on how effectively they worked together in the categories of: 1) time and task management; 2) active listening; 3) personal responsibility; 4) mutual respect; 5) conflict resolution; and 6) positive interdependence.

In the first days of the program, students were aghast that their performance would be hitched to others. The highest achieving students were near mutiny. “This was so unfair,” they protested. It was unlike anything they had experienced before. Many aimed to get into competitive colleges, and, in their minds, this program could compromise their success. Our team listened carefully to the students’ concerns: what if they didn’t agree and couldn’t avoid conflict, would that mean they would get a bad grade? What if one student didn’t finish their part on time, would everyone be penalized? Why should we value “positive interdependence,” and what does that even mean? 

I can recall the first time I explained that the objective of conflict resolution (which I now wish we had named Conflict Transformation[1]) was not to avoid conflict. I said that conflict is an important part of the collaborative process and it indicates diverse thought. Conflict offers an opportunity to innovate and be creative. It is a natural part of human interaction. I explained that students wouldn’t be evaluated on whether conflict emerged but on how they responded once it did. Did they listen to each other and try to understand? Did they treat each other and their ideas respectfully? Did they work interdependently to find a resolution that honored the range of ideas? Did they ask for help from their teachers to support them through a difficult conversation? 

That’s how they would be evaluated. 

Years later, I’m moved by memories of that moment, recalling how protestation melted away. Our teaching team smiled at each other when we felt a collective sigh of relief overcome the students. We knew we had gotten their buy-in.

Now, I’m thinking about how cooperative learning applies to consensus building and collaboration in multi-stakeholder policy environments. It turns out to work similarly. The collaboration rubric we developed for students has much in common with the guiding principles or ground rules we employ with our stakeholders. Conflict has a similar place, too: in multi-party collaboration, when confronted openly and honestly by a mutual gains approach that focuses on interests and generates options for mutual benefit, conflict often leads to more inclusive, innovative solutions. 

Like my teaching, my approach to facilitation is process-oriented. To be sure, the focus where I work is often on the content of discussions, which tends to be quite technical, particularly in California water policy, one of my main areas of expertise. And a certain level of content fluency is essential to effectively facilitate discussions and mediate on the stickiest of issues. But I still assert that durable agreements on our most pressing problems require a sound process governed by the “soft” skills of active listening, mutual respect, and interdependence.  

I came to this field through a non-traditional pathway, and I have sometimes overlooked or undervalued that experience in education. But these days, thinking about my preceding career reminds me that, at its core, helping people build consensus and the capacity to collaborate is inherently a learning process. I’ve to realize how much my practice has benefited from those skills I first honed as an educator. 

[1] Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation: Clear Articulation of the Guiding Principles by a Pioneer in the Field. New York: Good Books, 2003.