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Cooperative Leaning

How it Works

The large oak tree outside the high school campus shades a stone picnic table. It is a favorite spot for students to gather and talk about dating, sports, TV, and, sometimes, homework and upcoming exams. Informal study groups meet there to discuss particularly troublesome aspects of algebra or chemistry. You can tell intellectual work is occurring: the concentration is evident, the seriousness is real. These groups exchange questions and explanations that are rich and intense.

Informally, such small group interaction is common. Students have always gathered together to practice and study. But there is a growing acknowledgment that combined with whole group instruction and individual work, cooperative learning should be a regular part of the week's classroom instruction.

Student interaction makes cooperative learning powerful. To accomplish their group's task, students must exchange ideas, make plans and propose solutions. Thinking through an idea and presenting it in a way that can be understood by others is intellectual work and will promote intellectual growth. The exchange of alternative ideas and viewpoints enhances that growth and stimulates broader thinking. It is the teacher's job to encourage such exchanges and structure the students' work so their communication is on-task and productive.

In addition to intellectual growth, cooperative learning enhances students' social and personal development. Group members can learn to work together in classrooms that reflect the complexity and diversity of the world. Students' lives are full of interactions with friends, family members and strangers and their futures will find them in jobs that require cooperation. The skills that are essential for productive group work in the classroom are relevant for today and the future.

What It Looks Like

There are many ways to talk about cooperative learning. While some teachers use informal one-on-one study groups to bolster skills, other more formal structures include designated student roles and specific steps for completing long-term assignments. There is no one "right way" to develop cooperative learning, and teachers must choose models and methods that match their particular teaching styles, students, and lesson content. The ways the teacher sets up the learning groups an experience.

Studies of students in cooperative learning groups indicate that there are two elements that enhance student achievement. One is group goals. The groups should be interdependent, working together to accomplish a common product. If the students are not sharing ideas and strategies, they are missing the intellectual growth that can come from it. Relying on the skills of one group member or allowing one or two people to dominate the group's activity does not result in greater understanding for all.

Closely linked to group goals is the second element of individual accountability. Assignments should be structured so each member accomplishes a specific task. Try to provide opportunities for every group member to make a unique contribution. One or two active members should not complete all the work while passive members sit back and watch. Student groups that work together without differentiated tasks (for example, to prepare a single worksheet) have not shown significant achievement benefits.

Provide the groups a space where they can work together. Students should be able to sit in a circle or across the table from each other and work without disruption. The teacher can act as a consultant, turning problems back to the group for resolution and providing feedback on how well they are working together.

Working Together

Productive groups in the classroom rarely happen spontaneously; simply placing students together and giving them an assignment is not enough. While students may choose friends for private study groups, it is a different matter to accommodate group members in a classroom and complete a project. Students new to cooperative learning may find it difficult to stay on task and focus on the assignment. Many students have been taught in an independent, competitive atmosphere. Those experiences can not be immediately transformed to produce a relaxed, cooperative group member, eager to share and work with colleagues.

Introducing students to interpersonal skills is the first step to getting the groups to work together. Making eye contact, encouraging fellow group members, using quiet voices, disagreeing without hostility-these habits will become part of the cooperative group's repertoire, but the students will need practice. Frequent monitoring and reinforcement is essential to assure that learning is actually occurring in the groups. Establish some rules for group behavior that promote equal exchanges among members. For example:

  • Contribute your ideas-they may be the key to the question
  • Listen to others' ideas
  • Give everyone a chance to speak
  • Ask all teammates for help before asking the teacher
  • Use consensus to settle disputes

A mix of different abilities, ethnic backgrounds, learning styles, and personal interests works best for productive student teams. One of the benefits of cooperative teams is the mixing of students who have not interacted before. Rather than allowing students to choose their own partners, assign students to teams that will reflect the combination you desire.

Mathematics and Science Cooperation

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommends that students be provided opportunities to work together cooperatively in large and small groups on significant problems-problems that arise out of their experiences and frames of reference. Group assignments should help learners combine new knowledge with prior knowledge, leading to the construction of new ideas within the group. Students should question, discuss, make mistakes, listen to the ideas of others, provide constructive criticism and summarize discoveries.

For example, students might be given equations to solve that include the use of parentheses. Groups of students would work together to arrive at best solutions to the problems and then share their solutions and strategies with the whole class. Discrepancies among solutions would stimulate small group analysis of the procedures used and lead to ideas about rules for governing this situation. During the group process, the teacher can provide assistance when it is needed-conferring with the group about their solutions, posing questions to keep the group on track, and providing encouragement as the group progresses through the task. Groups would then report their findings and hypotheses to the whole class, explaining their use of parentheses to solve the problems.

Laboratory science is a perfect setting for cooperative learning. The science lab has long been the place students could become active participants. Use these lab periods to encourage the interdependence and cross-student support of cooperative learning. Try structuring the lessons so each team member has an assigned task or question to research and then have group members compile the results in order to complete the overall task.

Younger science students can work cooperatively, too. Studies have provided evidence that cooperative methods are particularly effective in grades 2-9. Fewer studies have examined grades 10-12. The earlier and more often students participate in cooperative groups, the more comfortable and skillful they become in them. All team members can share leadership responsibilities; each can have a job to do.

The individual teacher's style and the characteristics of a particular class will influence the way cooperative learning works. Don't be discouraged if your efforts don't achieve the desired results immediately. It takes time for new methods to evolve, and it is very difficult to do it alone. Find at least one other colleague who is interested in cooperative learning and find out more about the ways to use cooperative groups together. Attend some professional development activities that will broaden your understanding of how to use small groups effectively. With the support and help of fellow teachers and other colleagues, you will see the benefits of cooperative learning in your classroom.

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