Approaches_Collaborative Inquiry

Collaborative Inquiry

A scenario

Figure 1. Source:

Upon introducing a new topic or concept to the students, Peter used to provide them with reading material relating to daily living to raise their awareness and interest. They then made use of the materials to carry out in-class and after-class learning activities, including worksheets, group discussions, literature search, and challenging synthesis exercises. He wonders which learning theory his teaching practice fits into and how he could improve it?

Teacher A: I am so confused. People talk about collaborative learning all the time. It should be something good, but I tried in my class, it did not work. I gave students some topics, and divided them up into groups to work on it. It seems that the whole class fell apart when I did it. I feel so uneasy when I don’t have control of the class. Who knows what they are discussing? They may be not learning anything at all when I am not there to control the conversation.

Expert: First of all, this is the transition you need to make yourself. Teachers should not be the center of the classroom, controlling everything. They should turn over the responsibility to the students, and facilitate them to learn and to construct knowledge. What I mean by “turning over the responsibility” is that it is no longer you who make them learn, but they themselves who want to learn and are responsible for their own learning. You need to believe that your students are able to construct knowledge.

Teacher A: then how can I make sure if they are doing well, and discussing about the content I want to teach?

Expert: collaborative learning does not mean that “putting students together” and let them learn. There are strategies. Teachers can use certain strategies or even technologies to facilitate collaborative learning.

Teacher A: what are the strategies?

Expert: Education researchers have studied a lot in this area. There are different kinds of collaborative learning strategies, such as jigsaw, think-pare-share, numbered heads together, and three-step interview. You may go to any of these to find out more.



Collaborative inquiry is an instruction method in which two or more students learn together on a shared assignment toward an agreed-upon goal.


Basic Assumptions and Principles

The underlying premise for collaborative learning is founded in constructivism. Constructivism, as an outgrowth of cognitive science, was promoted by all of the theoreticians of intellectual development, from Piaget (1970), Vygotsky (1978) to contemporary cognitive scientists.

The main goal of Piaget was to explain how knowledge develops (Piaget, 1977). A key assumption of constructivism is that mental structures are created from earlier structures, not directly transformed from teachers or other environmental information (Schunk, 2000). To further illustrate the internal and individual constructions of knowledge, Piaget defined three essential processes, namely equilibration, assimilation and accommodation.

As a direct reflection of Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory of learning (1978), emphasis on the social aspects of the learning process has become important in today’s thought about learning and teaching. Vygotsky’s theory stresses that social interactions are critical and knowledge is constructed between two or more people (Meece, 2002). Through a highly interactive process, which involves sharing, comparing and debating among peers and mentors, learners refine their own meanings and help others find meanings. In this way, knowledge is mutually built (Rogoff, 1990). Appropriate and timely intervention within an individual’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) has become an essential strategy for teachers working with the social constructivist approach (Pritchard & Woollard, 2010). Working in the ZPD requires a good deal of guided participation (Rogoff, 1990). Vygotsky stressed that learners need to be guided by more competent partner(s) to solve the problem they could not handle alone. In other words, learners need to be ‘scaffolded’ in a given situation to make progress across their ZPD (Pritchard & Woollard, 2010).

The essential components of collaborative learning are positive interdependence and individual and group accountability. Positive interdependence is successfully structured when group members perceive that they are linked with each other in a way that one cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds. On the other hand, the group must be accountable for achieving its goals, and each member must be accountable for contributing his or her share of the work-Individual and group accountability.


Classroom Implication and Teaching Strategies

Collaboration learning can take place on a variety of forms and is frequently practiced by teachers of different disciplines and fields with the aim of supporting deeper and more effective learning, especially when:

  • The learner is required to actively process challenging task and understand conceptual information rather than simply memorize and recall factual knowledge
  • The learner is challenged to articulate and defend their ideas, analyze and synthesize diverse perspectives from peers
  • Cooperative learning is more than merely having students sit together. Teachers and instructors need certain technologies and strategies to guide their students in this new learning experience:
    • Peer Review and Tutoring
    • Jigsaw
    • Role Playing and Work Distribution
    • Group Discussion
    • Roundtable
    • Buzz Groups and Brainstorming
    • Fish Bowl
    • Think-Pair-Share



Key Works
Successful Examples

  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget’s theory. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael’s manal of child psychology (3 ed., Vol. 1, pp. 703-732). New York: Wiley.
  • Piaget, J. (1977). The development of thought: equilibration of cognitive structures. New York: Viking Press.
  • Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context: New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
  • Schunk, D. H. (2000). Learning theories: an educational perspective. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.