Organizing Collaborative Learning Experiences around Subject Matter Domains

The Importance of Aligning Social and Intellectual Structures in Instruction

Authored by: Lindsay L. Cornelius , Leslie R. Herrenkohl , Jenna Wolfstone-Hay

The International Handbook of Collaborative Learning

Print publication date:  February  2013
Online publication date:  March  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415805735
eBook ISBN: 9780203837290
Adobe ISBN: 9781136869556


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Outside of institutions of formal education, students participate in a variety of social practices in their communities, each, as Nasir, Rosebery, Warren, and Lee (2006) describe, involve “diverse repertoires of overlapping, complementary or even conflicting cultural practices” (p. 489). These authors advocate a position that students’ ways of knowing and communicating are developing skills which they bring with them into the classroom, and which inform the ways in which they interact with the content of the curriculum and the social and intellectual practices of instruction. Subject matter areas, or disciplined ways of knowing, 1 also embody distinct social practices and ways of interacting which experts draw upon when engaging in their professional communities (Lemke, 2001). Learning scientists, for example, routinely engage in practices of reading others’ research in peer-reviewed journals, using these findings to bolster their arguments for novel research, engaging with trusted colleagues to receive feedback on early versions of their work, and submitting finished papers to conferences or to relevant journals in their field. Discussions among learning scientists rely upon shared sets of terminology and references to works which are assumed to be widely read by members of the academic community. Additionally, learning scientists make particular assumptions about how learning ought to be studied and they design research to investigate aspects of learning with human subjects. As disciplines are applied to formal schooling contexts, these ways of engaging are often masked within a generic mode of instruction which Bruner (1960) referred to as the “middle language” of schooling practices. In school communities, that is, dialogue is often limited to students’ reproduction of “right” answers and is similar across subject matters, not reflecting important differences in how knowledge is organized in respective fields (Schwab, 1978). Current trends in education, however, have advocated for bringing disciplinary engagement with the subject matter to the fore in curriculum and instruction (Engle & Conant, 2002; Hatano & Inagaki, 1991). Having students engage in curriculum which is organized around sets of ideas such as experts draw upon in their respective domains has been discussed in the learning sciences literature as necessary to promoting meaningful opportunities that can be transferred or adapted to new types of problems (National Research Council, 2007a).

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