Collaborative Problem Solving in World Language Education

Approximately four decades ago, in the 1970s, language teachers grew tired of hearing former students remark, “I studied X language for four years and I don’t remember a thing!” Educators and researchers began to acknowledge that language education had, to that point, produced students adept in grammar but otherwise unable to operate within immersive contexts. In response, language educators and researchers began developing alternative approaches to language learning that emphasized usability of language over grammatical mastery of language.

Several traits characterized this paradigm shift toward what has became known as “communicative language teaching”. One trait of communicative language teaching is the development of communicative tasks within a classroom context. Sometimes these tasks are highly structured information-gap activities, in which a teacher will provide strategically differing sets of information to different students, and the students will need to communicate in the second language in order to complete the task. Other times, these tasks could be open-ended: interview a classmate, for example, and write a description based on what was learned (Aski, 2009, p. 45-6).

These developments in language education towards collaborative, authentic tasks paralleled developments occurring in the wider field of education. In a text outlining constructivism, Angela O’Donnell identifies five features of dialectical constructivism: “(a) the importance of social participation, (b) the availability of scaffolding, (c) the need for authentic tasks in which learning is embedded, (d) the role of tools to support learning, and (e) the dialectic between the individual and the environment broadly construed.” (O’Donnell, 2012, p. 67) All of these features of dialectical constructivism complement and support communicative language instruction.  

Further studies support the use of collaborative problem solving to help students construct knowledge in world language classrooms. In Youjin Kim’s comparison of Korean language students completing story-writing tasks individually versus collaboratively, Kim concludes that, “overall, the Collaborative group resolved a higher number of LREs correctly and performed significantly better on the vocabulary tests than the Individual group.” (Kim, 2008, p. 127) Kim continues to indicate that “From interaction with a partner, individual mental resources were tapped, and the knowledge building that learners collectively accomplished became a tool for the further individual use of their [Language 2].” (Kim, 2008, p. 126)

Janice Aski identifies two traits that mark tasks as effective for language output: “Firstly, tasks are oriented toward a goal. Learners are expected to arrive at an outcome, or accomplish a goal through interaction. Secondly, a task is a type of workplan, which suggests that participants take an active role in carrying out the task.” (Aski, 2009, p. 43) In other words, the traits that make language output activities effective also fit within O’Donnell’s definition of dialectic constructivism, those of having an authentic goal and social participation.

Collaborative problem solving, therefore, fits neatly within a world language teacher’s classroom practice, and one tool that is fundamental in facilitating such collaborative tasks is the connectivity enabled by the Internet and other technologies. This is aligned with the imperative of Richard Culatta, the Director of the US Department of Educational Technology, that technology integration in classrooms should be used to educate students in new ways, not merely digitizing old methods. For example, language inputs available to a world language teacher now extend beyond the text available in a published curriculum, as teachers and students now have unlimited access to authentic language multimedia available online. Also in line with Culatta’s vision is the use of technology to promote student creativity. Using technology, students can collaborate using text, audio, and video as creative modes of language output. 

Best practices in language education, such as the use of authentic communicative tasks, paired with current theories of how students learn through collaborative problem solving, are both are facilitated through new developments in technology. World language teachers are at an ideal intersection to promote student collaboration and creativity in unprecedented ways that will engage students not only in their second language, but also in their abilities to adapt, problem-solve, and create, in alignment with the concept of Maker education. Now it is time for teachers to innovate: How can teachers design open-ended problem solving activities in a way that students can complete using creativity and collaboration, but also while using a second language?



Aski, Janice. “The Impact of Second Language Acquisition Research on Language Practice Activities”. Italica 86.1 (2009): 37–58.

Culatta, Richard. “Reimagining Learning”. TEDx Beacon Street (2013). Accessed Apr 4, 2016.

Kim, Youjin. “The Contribution of Collaborative and Individual Tasks to the Acquisition of L2 Vocabulary”. The Modern Language Journal 92.1 (2008): 114–130.

O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI: 10.1037/13273-003.


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