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Making learning captivating: Collaborative work as part of a varied learning diet

Written by: Steve Walker
3 min read

Developing a culture of learning at Bradford Academy that reflects our desire to be a ‘great school’ has become our major focus. The founding teaching and learning principles of Bradford Academy were that learning would be challenging and collaborative, providing a wide diet of learning opportunities in the classroom. This diet needs to produce outcomes that are visible and measurable; however, these outcomes need to be more than grades and levels.

Collaborative learning

The research I have examined is focused mainly on collaborative learning. Collaborative learning is described by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2018) on their teacher toolkit as;

“A learning approach which involves pupils working together on activities and learning tasks in small enough groups that everyone is able to participate in the assigned collective task. Pupils may work on separate tasks contributing to an overall outcome or work together on a shared task.”

The EEF (2018) argues that the impact of collaborative learning is consistently positive, although it does point out that this impact can be affected by group size and poor planning. They argue that ‘the greatest learning gains are as a result of structured approaches and well-designed tasks’ and go on to say that ‘approaches which promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains’.

Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (2014) conducted 168 studies comparing cooperative learning to competitive learning (students working alone) among university students, and found that cooperative learning produced greater academic achievement. Discussing their findings, Brame and Biel (2015) suggest that ‘cooperative learning is characterised by positive interdependence, where students perceive that better performance by individuals produces better performance by the entire group’ and argue that collaborative working is an adaptable approach, working for small or large groups.

Critics of collaborative learning often point to problems that are structural, such as vague learning objectives and poor expectations for accountability. Some argue that group work is an avoidance of teaching. Randall (1999) points out some important weaknesses of collaborative learning. For example, group work may place too much burden on some students, and in mixed ability groups can lead to the more able doing most of the work. There is also a danger that group work encourages lower-level thinking and ignores the strategies necessary for critical or higher-level thought. This may be due to the amount of time available to discuss topics within a group. However, these shortcomings are often a result of ineffective planning and implementation, rather than the approach itself. Training with staff and students, developing rubrics and protocols that support planning and sharing best practice, should help mitigate some of the criticisms. The EEF (2018) offer the following points to consider:

  1. Pupils need support and practice to work together; it does not happen automatically
  2. Some pupils will try to work on their own, so tasks need to be designed carefully to avoid this
  3. Competition between groups can be used to support pupils in working together more effectively. However, overemphasis on competition can cause learners to focus on winning rather than succeeding in their learning.
  4. It is particularly important to encourage lower achieving pupils to talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks to ensure they benefit fully
  5. Professional development is required to support effective use of these approaches

Going forward, we will need to ensure that teachers and middle leaders are comfortable in changing strategies that have produced ‘good’ outcomes for a majority of our learners. We need to ensure that they feel safe in taking risks and that they have the support of senior leaders to do so. Training and guidance about best practice and research will be provided by the Academy’s team of lead practitioners: research-focused teachers who are outstanding in terms of their pedagogy and champions of current best practice. This training will take place throughout the year in weekly ‘Pedagogical Postcards’, five-minute CPD sessions in whole-staff briefings and through the fortnightly after-school CPD sessions. Staff and learners will need guidance on expectations so that we develop flexible but consistent practice across subjects. Finally, parents and carers will need to be informed so that they know and share our goals and can support their children at home.

Collaborative Learning Project (2018), a teacher network, develop and disseminate resources to aid effective group work and ‘talk-for-learning’ across a range of subjects and phases (see:


Brame CJ and Biel R (2015) Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Available at: (accessed 30 January 2019)

Collaborative Learning (2018) Welcome page – Collaborative Learning Project. Available at: (accessed 24 April 2018).

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Teaching and learning toolkit – collaborative learning. Available at: (accessed 24 April 2018).

Johnson DW, Johnson RT and Smith KA (2014) Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in University Teaching 25(4): 1–26.

Randall V (1999) Cooperative learning: Abused and overused? Gifted Child Today Magazine 22(2): 14–16.

Riordan, R (2016) Deep Dive Talk with Michelle Sadrena Clark & Tony Simmons. In: Deeper Learning 2016, San Diego, US, 22-25 March 2016. Available at (Accessed 24 April 2018).

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