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All About Collaborative Learning Spaces

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What is a collaborative learning space?

A collaborative learning space is one that, through physical design and innovative pedagogy, maximizes student collaboration and engagement. Unlike a traditional lecture-based classroom, where students work independently in rows of immobile desks and chairs, a collaborative classroom promotes group work and student-directed learning. The instructor acts as a facilitator - encouraging discussion, assigning projects, answering questions and moving about the room as needed.

To be effective, a collaborative learning space must have flexible, group-friendly seating and easy-access technology. Think mobile or lightweight group learning desks and chairs, activity tables with whiteboard tops, moveable marker boards or cork boards, and laptops, tablets, or wall-mounted flat panels. The goal is to outfit the space with furniture and equipment that quickly and easily facilitates collaboration. Teachers in a collaborative classroom often forgo a large, stationary desk upfront in favor of a small, mobile workstation as well. This reinforces the idea of "instructor as facilitator", and allows the teacher to easily move about the room assisting groups of students.

Where did collaborative learning spaces come from?

Learning spaces designed specifically for collaborative work became popular in schools across the country with the advent of the Internet in the late 20th century (though research has long shown the benefits of collaboration, both in the workplace and in the classroom). The Web created a shared space for groups to communicate remotely and instantaneously.

By the early 2000s, new learning technologies such as laptops, tablets and interactive boards became more affordable and began to trickle into schools. This quickly gave way to more tech-friendly and mobile furniture from suppliers, such as chairs and desks with casters, tables with grommets and soft seating with outlets. These advancements, coupled with a growing need for collaboration in the modern workforce, pushed educators to redesign their classrooms into more student-centered spaces.

What are its benefits to students?

Research has shown that collaborative learning has numerous social, psychological and academic benefits to students. A 2011 study published in the Procedia journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences titled "Benefits of collaborative learning" states that, psychologically, student collaboration reduces anxiety, improves self-esteem and develops a more positive attitude toward teachers.

Socially, collaborative learning encourages students to embrace diverse modes of thinking and working through curriculum. It strengthens students' ability to cooperate; to work through and understand any social conflicts that arise - a critical skill in today's workforce. This ultimately creates strong social bonds within the class.

Academically speaking, collaborative learning helps develop critical thinking and communication skills by requiring students to formulate their own ideas, discuss those ideas with peers and receive feedback. This academic ownership can increase student confidence and overall success.

Plus, there are short-term physical benefits to rearranging the classroom's furniture for collaborative work. Physical movement, even in short bursts, burns off excess energy, improves metabolism and increases blood flow to the brain (which can in turn boost mental cognition and concentration).

Laal, Marjan. Ghodsi, Seyed Mohammad. "Benefits of Collaborative Learning." Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 31. 2012. 486-490. Science Direct. Web. Accessed: 17, Feb. 2017.

Williams, Jennifer. "Collaborative Learning Spaces: Classrooms That Connect to the World." Edutopia. 16, Oct. 2015. Web. Accessed: 15, Feb. 2017.

Beichner, Robert. Cevetello, Joseph. "7 Things You Should Know About Collaborative Learning." 8, Jan. 2013. Educause. Web. Accessed: 15, Feb. 2017

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