How it Works
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
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
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.
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
It Looks Like
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
your ideas-they may be the key to the question
to others' ideas
everyone a chance to speak
all teammates for help before asking the teacher
consensus to settle disputes
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.