John Sweller Interview 8: Can we teach collaboration?

This is part of a series of blogs detailing a discussion that I had with John Sweller in mid 2017. See all parts of this series on this page

OL: Okay, Raj’s final question is: ‘In your 2011 book with Paul Ayres and Slava Kalyuga, you presented preliminary evidence for the collective working memory effect. How has the research on this effect developed since then? What instructional design implications does this effect suggest for designing group work?’.

JS: Yeah. One of my and Paul Ayres’ ex PhD students, Endah Retnowati who’s an academic back in Indonesia now, did a PhD on the collective working memory effect. It’s interesting because that work was started by our Dutch colleagues and she found interesting results that have just come out in the Journal of Education Psychology.

Most commonly, collaborative engagement occurs in an environment where you’ve got people with different knowledge backgrounds who are getting together. So, in a business environment, you might get an engineer and an economist who need to work together on a particular project. One knows about the engineering element the other knows about economic things that they can bring together, and they can’t do it without each other so they’ve got to collaborate. That seems to happen less often in a classroom. In a classroom, you would hope, everybody has a reasonably similar level of knowledge so collaboration doesn’t work in the same way there. We found that, for example, if people are problem solving, collaboration may work because one person may be able to help another person. But if they’re all studying worked examples, it has negative effects. You’re better off studying a worked example by yourself. You’re getting the information you need from the worked example. In problem solving, you may need information and the only place you can get it from is somebody else. So you have those sorts of complexities.

OL: That’s not a distinction I’ve thought about a lot in the past. Because a widely held view at the moment is that ‘We need to teach students how to be collaborative problem solvers’ (see the Education Research Reading Room podcast episode on this with Jan Owen here). But you’re suggesting that, if we want to talk about what happens ‘in the real world’,  there’s different experts coming in from different fields. I think that’s really valuable to consider.

JS: Yeah, look, that’s another issue related to the importance of the distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. I’m not sure to what extent you can teach somebody to act collaboratively, because humans have evolved to be social animals. We work collaboratively. We know how to do it. In a sense, what you and I are doing now is working collaboratively. Nobody sat down with either of us and said: ‘Ok, when you engage in this sort of collaboration, this is what you do and this is how you do it.’ Nobody did that or needed to do it.

OL: But there are things that you and I probably both learned over time that have enabled this collaboration to be a richer one. Like for example, I knew that if I came to you after doing a lot of thinking in my own time, with prepared questions and also asked other people their opinions, I’d be able to bring more high quality questions to this discussion. So there’s stuff like that I guess.

JS: Absolutely, and the point you’re making is an important one. Let me expand on it a little bit more. When we talk about biologically primary knowledge it’s not a suggestion that we don’t learn biologically primary knowledge. We certainly do and you certainly had to learn exactly what you just described. But you didn’t have to be told that in class. You didn’t have to have a,  ‘Today we’ll learn how to collaborate’ type thing. You do have to when teaching biologically secondary knowledge: ‘Look if you’ve got an equation (a+b)/c=d solve for a, the first move you ought to be making is multiplying out the denominator on the left hand side’. That you have to be told. You might pick it up yourself eventually but it’s a long slow process. What you just described that you learned, yeah you had to learn it, but my guess is you learned it pretty quickly without any explicit tuition, and that’s really what I mean by biologically primary. You know that if you’re going to have a discussion with somebody on a complex topic, it’s a good idea for you to prepare before and it may be useful for somebody to remind you occasionally: ‘Look, you really need to prepare beforehand. Before you go into this, if you’re being interviewed for a job, don’t just walk in there, prepare for it’. And people may need to be reminded of that periodically. You don’t really need to be told how to prepare. Make sure you know the topic that you’re going to be talking about sufficiently to talk about it. Make sure you give some thought to ‘What does the other person I’m talking to know and how does that relate to what I know and how does that affect how we’re going to hold the conversation?’ But you do all that automatically. There was never a module in class, and if somebody set up such a module at any level teaching ‘This is how you collaborate with people’, I think they would be wasting their time.

OL: Could it be the case for some people that this is more biologically primary than for others?

JS: Oh, absolutely! It’s not that it’s more biologically primary, but rather, for all skills, all biologically primary, probably secondary ones as well, but certainly biologically primary skills, you get a normal distribution. You get some people way on the left and they’re very poor at it, and some people may, for genetic reasons, be very poor at some skills. And they’re likely to be people who we feel may end up with societal problem because their skills are so poor in that area. Other people will pick up these skills easily. And you can say that for every single biologically primary skill. It varies. The fact that it’s biologically primary doesn’t mean we all have it to the same extent. Or even if we all have it. Some people don’t have it and they generally face challenges in life as a result.

OL: So in the same way that for some people who are on the bottom end of the distribution when it comes to being able to acquire speech, and it aids them to have a speech pathologist to work with, for example. Could it be argued that for those who are on the bottom end of the distribution with respect to group work or collaboration, or having discussions, or not hitting people in the face, or whatever it may be, that it may help them to have explicit instruction on how to relate to other people?

JS: Yeah that’s exactly right. Look, at the extreme end we’ve got kids on the autism spectrum. Those kids frequently have much greater challenges learning how to relate to other people. You know, most non-autistic people just pick it up automatically. Autistic kids won’t. And can they learn to do it? Yeah, they can learn to do it, via the biologically secondary system. It’s a slow clumsy way of learning it, but it’s the only way they may have. You can have some high performing autistic people whom you don’t really know they’re autistic because they spent years learning how to: “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do in this social situation. Oh right!” They need to be explicitly told: ‘Don’t say this in this situation.’, ‘Do act in this way in this situation’. To them, it’s all new.

OL: Therefore, if it’s possible to take people who were at the bottom of this distribution and, through explicit instruction, move them more towards the centre, is it feasible that we could identify the skills and attributes of those at the top end of the spectrum and use explicit instruction to move those individuals in the middle of the distribution more towards the high end?

JS: People in the middle of the distribution, you probably can’t move towards the high end, it just means they have learned the skills a little bit slower or they’d be a little bit older when they learned the skills but they acquire the skills and they automate these skills once they got them, there’s nothing you can or need do. They’re already there and we know, for example, that somebody who’s not terribly socially competent in middle primary school, by the time they get to secondary school they’re better at it. Or somebody who has difficulty with relationships when they’re teenagers, by the time they’re in their 20’s they don’t have the same difficulty with relationships any more. Other people have difficulty with relationships all their lives.

OL: Yeah, and that’s my question I guess. Because, one could propose, the difference between a working marriage, where they stay together and it’s generally a positive experience, and a thriving marriage for example, might be a few daily actions. For example: expressing gratitude, acknowledging when you notice what the other person does a nice thing, ‘I notice you vacuumed the floor, thanks for doing that.’ Things like that. And I really think in situations like that, explicit instructions on those things, which is essentially going to therapy, could be beneficial.

JS: You’re absolutely right. Those little things, we can tell somebody something and they’d say ‘Oh right, why didn’t I think of that?’

OL: So I’m curious, with that as a background, I’m curious as to why you still think that it’s a waste of time for people to try to teach these little things that could measurably improve collaboration, because a relationship is essentially collaboration.

JS: Look, you probably can. But the amount that has to be learned and the difficulty of learning it is probably fairly minor. In other words, there’s no working memory load associated with it. You tell somebody ‘Look, you should say thank you a little bit more.’ I remember one of my daughters, when she was younger, she rarely smiled at anybody. We told her, ‘Look, people think you’re grim all the time. Just smile a little bit.’ And that’s all it took. What I just told you was the limit of it, and that was okay.

OL: I know what you mean. If you try to run a course on some of these skills, half the students are going ‘Oh my goodness this is the most obvious thing you could ever talk about’, and the other half might not be ready to learn it yet. These kind of lessons have to come to a person at the right time for them to take it on. That’s my impression.

JS: You’re right. We always have to remember that all skills follow a normal distribution, and some people, for genetic reasons, take a bit longer to learn and it might be better to teach them something. The only concern I have is some people place such an emphasis on these skills, and they can see that these skills are much more important than anything they teach in school, because you can completely wreck your life if you don’t have these skills. So they say, ‘That’s what we ought to be concentrating on’. I’m worried about it taking away too much from learning mathematics or other subjects because it is something which, for most people, is easily learned. And yeah, they might need a little bit of help, but that’s all you need. Sometimes, most often that help simply comes from your family but some kids are in the unfortunate situation where they don’t really have a family who can provide suitable information to them.


Next post:

9. CLT – misconceptions and future directions

All posts in this series:

  1. Worked Examples – What’s the role of students recording their thinking?
  2. Can we teach problem solving?
  3. What’s the difference between the goal-free effect and minimally guided instruction?
  4. Biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge
  5. Motivation, what’s CLT got to do with it?
  6. Productive Failure – Kapur (What does Sweller think about it?)
  7. How do we measure cognitive load?
  8. Can we teach collaboration?
  9. CLT – misconceptions and future directions