Construction of Knowledge and Group Learning
Marcia C. Linn and Nicholas C. Burbules
Enthusiasm for group learning is so widespread that one takes the risk of seeming retrogressive by even raising the possibility that it may not be the best mode of learning for all educational aims, for all subject areas, or for all students. Yet historical experience, if nothing else, should make us cautious about regarding educational ideas like group learning as panaceas. Certain ideas have a cyclic nature and return again and again in slightly different guises, despite mixed or even nonexistent evidence of success. Such proposals are often couched in language that is broad and ambiguous, taking on as many different meanings as there are advocates for them. Rhetoric praising such approaches often replaces serious attention to more endemic problems of education. For this reason, we approach the idea of group learning with some skepticism.
Arguments for group learning are usually buttressed by the claim that students learning together co-construct more powerful understandings than they could construct alone. For example, a recent issue of The Professional Teacher acknowledges that group learning has a long history in education but then asserts that the new twist is "cooperative learning" and concludes, sweepingly, "The process of learning cooperatively actually improves the acquisition and retention of content and skills throughout the curriculum. Kids learn better when they learn cooperatively" ( Dockterman 1990, 8).
In this chapter, we argue that advocacy of group learning as a mechanism for knowledge construction oversimplifies important issues concerning the social structure of groups, the goals of individuals in groups, and the diverse nature of knowledge construction. The weight of evidence supports the conclusion that knowledge is constructed (e.g., Eylon and Linn 1988), but the evidence on the process of co-construction is much less definitive. Although most research groups start with the premise that social interaction facilitates cognitive development ( Azmitia and Perlmutter 1989; Brown and Palincsar 1989; Doise and Mugny 1984; Slavin 1983), they disagree about how and when group learning fosters effective knowledge construction ( Cohen 1986; Damon and Phelps 1989; Elshout, in press; Fraser 1989; Kulik and Kulik 1989; Salomon and Globerson 1989; Schoenfeld 1989; Webb 1989).