Contexts for Learning: Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development

By Ellice A. Forman; Norris Minick et al. | Go to book overview

9
Vygotskian Perspective on Children's Collaborative Problem-Solving Activities

ELLICE A. FORMAN and JEAN McPHAIL

The everyday lives of adults are full of complex and ill-defined problems that require high-level reasoning and organizational skills. These problems are often solved in collaboration with other people. For example, a husband, wife, and babysitter may need to coordinate their weekly occupational and domestic work schedules in order to supervise one or more young children. When psychologists study problem-solving activity, however, they typically observe people while they work on well-defined problems by themselves in a laboratory environment. Only a few psychologists, educators, and anthropologists have paid much attention to the thinking activities of adults while they are engaged in naturalistic group problem-solving tasks ( Gladwin, 1970; Hutchins, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Schoenfeld, 1989; Scribner, 1984). Their research shows that collaborative problem-solving activities provide a context in which supports for, constraints on, and challenges to an individual's thinking occur. In many of these situations, achieving the solution to a problem becomes secondary to negotiating a shared problem definition and a common means of communication ( Schoenfeld, 1989).

School activities that employ collaborative problem solving have the potential for teaching children how to deal with complex tasks and to work with and learn from each other. One would expect that exposure to a rich array of collaborative problem-solving activities in school would help children become effective problem solvers as adults. Unfortunately, the study of peer collaboration has just begun to evaluate the short-term benefits of group work for children and has not yet assessed its long-term outcomes. In addition, when the short-term benefits of collaboration are evaluated, the criteria used are individual measures of achievement, attitudes, and problem-solving skills. Almost no attention has been paid to the value of learning to negotiate task definitions and goals or to develop a shared means of interacting and communicating. (See Forman, 1989, 1992; Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1984; and Saxe, 1991, for exceptions.)

Educational and developmental psychologists have paid an increasing amount of attention to the use of peers as instructional resources in the classroom. Numerous articles have appeared that discuss the social, affective, and cognitive benefits of cooperative learning and collaborative problem

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