By Sam Piha
Dr. Judy Willis is a board certified neurologist, who turned her attention to becoming a classroom teacher. Her goal was to apply what she knew about the brain and learning to strategies that could be developed for the classroom. She is now an educational consultant who speaks to groups of people from around the world about the interface between the new knowledge of neuroscience and learning. We were particularly interested in her work regarding why collaborative learning works.
What does new brain science tell us about collaborative learning?
“When youth participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive cooperative groups, their affective filters are not blocking the flow of knowledge. When you plan your group such that each member’s strengths have authentic importance to the ultimate success of the group’s activity, you have created a situation where individual learning styles, skills, and talents are valued and youth shine in their fortes and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert. They call on each other's guidance to solve pertinent and compelling problems and develop their interpersonal skills by communicating their ideas to partners.
The brain scans of subjects learning in this type of supportive and social learning situation show facilitated passage of information from the intake areas into the memory storage regions of the brain. This is consistent with the original cognitive psychology research and theories of Steven Krashen about the affective filter - that learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer and visa versa.
Many of the motivating factors that have been found to release dopamine are intrinsic to successful cooperative or collaborative group work such as social collaboration, motivation, and expectation of success or authentic praise from peers. Because dopamine is also the neurotransmitter associated with attention, memory, learning, and executive function, it follows that when the brain releases dopamine during or in expectation of a pleasurable experience or reward, that this dopamine will be available to increase the processing of new information. That is what occurs when a young person enjoys a positive cooperative learning experience, and even when s/he anticipates participation in that type of activity sometime during the class or program.
Successfully planned group work can help to support adolescent youth by reducing a fear of failure that can cause them to avoid academic challenges. Well-structured cooperative group activities build supportive peer communities, which in turn increase self-esteem and academic performance.”
– Dr. Judy Willis, Neurologist and Classroom Teacher
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.