Brief History of Collaborative Learning: The Origins of Learning Groups

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The origins of collaborative learning as a teaching methodology can be traced back to ancient civilizations. However, it was replaced by other learning philosophies both in the West and in the colonized East. Collaborative learning was granted a new lease of life in the second half of the 20th century when research showed that students learned faster and retained more when they became partners in the process of teaching and learning instead of remaining mere receivers of knowledge from their educators.

A Historical Perspective

In Ancient India, a man’s life was said to have four stages. The first “stage” of life began with the “second birth” after a boy went through his thread ceremony (akin to confirmation) around puberty. This stage, called Brahmacharya, began the student’s learning process under the tutelage of a “guru.” In this “gurukul” system, a group of scholars lived and learned together within the premises of the guru’s ashram.

Learning had no school hours. Life and learning were the same for the entirety of the student’s life until he was ready to enter the second stage of his life. Every aspect of the student’s life, from his waking to his ablutions to his nutrition, his clothing, his activities and friendships were opportunities for learning. The gurukul student lived to learn and learned to live with his guru, his guru-ma (the guru’s wife or the guru-mother) and his guru-brothers.

“Learning groups” such as the gurukul were the norm in ancient traditional societies from Ancient Greece in the West to China in the East. Through the ages, prophets and seers have taught by example and experience to small groups of disciples.

In traditional societies, small, close-knit communities made it possible for wise men like Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Nanak and Kabir to foster learning through personal experience from social interaction rather than through texts or scriptures, which were recorded later for posterity. Pertinent examples of this sort of “social” learning through cooperation and collaboration could also be the Filipino concept of Bayanihan (being a “bayan” loosely translated to a community spirit of cooperation) and the Malaysian/Indonesian idea of Gotong royong (the spirit of mutual help in a society or community).

As small, close communities disappeared all over the world with the advent of urbanization, easier travel and migration, formal school systems with standardized curricula began to develop. The ancient forms of collaborative learning disappeared, making way to a new paradigm of individual and competitive learning through a system of lectures, texts, notes and tests.

The contemporary concept of Collaborative Learning began to interest educators in the West after theories of personality development, group dynamics and social cognitive mechanisms began a fresh thought process into learning mechanisms and classroom techniques. Though there is no one point of origin that can be attributed to the process of Collaborative Learning, one can find many related ideas that have helped the formation of this teaching tool.

Collaborative Learning in the 20th Century

Dewey’s explorations into the social nature of learning and his advocacy of teaching through discussion and through hands-on problem solving; Elwin’s social inter-dependence concepts and Deutsch’s ideas on cooperation and competition can be seen as early seeds of the Collaborative Learning process.

Alpert described interdependence among members as he studied Group Dynamics and social psychology and wrote about the reasons behind the success and failure of groups.

Piaget talked about intellectual development as something that was fostered by social interaction. If you disagree with me about something, it causes disequilibrium in my world view and forces me to think again about my ideas, thus expanding and enhancing my experience and comprehension of my world.

Vygotsky supported the idea of learning as a social process. According to his sociocultural theory, we learn first from our interactions on the social level and then carry that learning to our individual selves.

Loosely speaking, these thought processes can be bundled under the theory of Constructivism, which serves as the foundation of the structure we call Collaborative Learning. At the core of Constructivism is the idea that we learn from our own experiences; that learning is active; that we make meaning of the world around us from what we see, feel, hear, smell etc and by asking questions, exploring new ideas and evaluating our existing knowledge. Every time we have a new experience, we try and fit it into what we already know. The new experience can either add to our knowledge of the world as we already know it or it can modify our perspective and give us a fresh belief.

According to the constructivist, we are not passive absorbers of knowledge given to us by others. We are, on the contrary, active contributors to the learning process. This learning process is affected by the context of the experiences from which it began. Thus, learning is a social process, enhanced by our interpersonal relations and encounters.

Collaborative Learning and its origins, then, are synonymous with the educator’s attempt to bring Constructivist theories into practice in the classroom.


1. Dewey, J. Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi, 1938.

2. Lewin, K. A Dynamic Theory of Personality. New York: McGraw Hill, 1935

3. Deutsh. M. “Cooperation and Competition.” Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000

4. Allport, G.W.The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954

5. Piaget, J. Biologie et Connaissance. Paris: Gallimard, 1967

6. Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society. Edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978

This post is part of the series: Collaborative Learning

Essays on the definition and origins of collaborative learning and explorations into the nature, scope, benefits and effectiveness of this technique in improving student learning

  1. The Origins of Collaborative Learning
  2. The Fundamentals of Collaborative Learning
  3. The Benefits of Collaborative Learning
  4. Tips on Designing Interactive Learning Activities