Chances are good that you have heard the term “cooperative learning” used by your child’s teacher to describe some aspect of the way she teaches. If you haven’t this year, you likely will in the future. Cooperative learning is one of the most commonly used teaching strategies in classrooms today – and with good reason. With careful planning and implementation, cooperative learning can increase student achievement while creating a sense of community in the classroom.
Cooperative learning is a carefully planned method of placing students into groups so that they will work together to learn the material at hand. The teacher keeps several things in mind while grouping her students:
- Ability level – Research has proven that the best groups are those that comprise several ability levels (for instance, one high, one low, and two average)
- Social skills – As with academic skills, so do social skills vary from child to child. Each group should comprise a diversity of these skills as well.
- Size – Four students to a group seems to be ideal, as it allows each child to participate fully while also allowing for maximum diversity within the group.
- Rotation – Students should have the opportunity to work with many other children rather than the same group, week after week. Some teachers regroup their students each month or each quarter, while others group their class only for certain projects.
Part of the learning process is helping one another in the group master the material. Not only do the children enjoy success with the topic at hand, they also feel successful in helping each other learn. This makes cooperative learning valuable for all students, including those who are identified as gifted, those with learning disabilities, and those who are learning English as a second language.
Within the team, each student has a unique role. The teacher may assign the roles, or the students may decide who does what as one of their first group activities. While it is not critical that every group has every role covered, it is important that each child is responsible for one or more duties. Responsibilities can be combined into one job, and each job may be given a title that suits the purposes of the class or fits the theme of the unit being studied.
Team member responsibilities can include:
- Monitor/Facilitator – Keep the group on track.
- Time Keeper – Keep an eye on the clock to ensure the task is being completed in the time allotted.
- Cheerleader/Encourager – Make sure all comments and criticism within the team are positive and purposeful.
- Materials Manager – Retrieve and return supplies needed for the project.
- Recorder – Take notes.
- Checker/Verifier – Check notes for accuracy, and go to reference resources for information as needed.
- Reporter – Share team’s findings with the rest of the class when appropriate.
There has been a tremendous amount of research done on cooperative learning, and some of that research has turned into big business for education-oriented consultants and materials producers. There are books, seminars, and conferences available to help teachers learn how to use it in their classrooms, as well as a plethora of teaching aids to assist once the structure has been implemented.
While actual methodology and terms may vary among commercial programs, there are some basics that will be present in any successful cooperative learning model. Without making sure these essentials are in place, cooperative learning is little more than a way to group children:
- Positive interdependence – The activity should be designed so that success can only come about if every team member does his part. Cooperative learning guru Spencer Kagan refers to this component as “sink or swim together.”
- Individual accountability – Each student should be very clear on what his role in the project is, and then he must be held accountable for doing his part. The group should be small enough to prevent any one member from “hitchhiking” or quietly fading into anonymity.
- Interpersonal skills – Teachers cannot assume that children come to a team armed with skills such as leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict resolution. These skills must be taught, and then the cooperative learning group activity allows for plenty of practice.
- Reflection – Through honest appraisal of how the group and individual team members worked on a project, students learn from their experience.
Cooperative learning is neither advisable for every subject, nor for every assignment. But it is very flexible and adaptable, making it quite usable for most classroom projects. Many teachers in the elementary grades use cooperative learning as the foundation for all classroom activities, and then provide opportunities for independent work when the cooperative structure is not appropriate.
Although cooperative learning can be the ideal approach for many tasks in the classroom, its success depends largely on how well the teacher implements it. Some areas that may present challenges include:
- Behavior – Not all children work well with others; for that matter, the same can be said for adults! Just because a child has not typically done well working with other children does not mean that he should not be included in a cooperative learning group; to the contrary, this will be an excellent opportunity for him to practice the skills he will need for future collaborative efforts in the workforce.
- Grading – It is very important that the teacher never give a grade to the whole group. She may develop a points system, whereby teams can compete for points; this may actually motivate children to acquire and practice effective teamwork skills. But grades per se should only be given to each student for his own participation or achievement.
- Management – It takes a lot of planning, organization, and monitoring to implement cooperative learning effectively. Most teachers who use cooperative learning agree that it is well worth the effort.
The advantages of cooperative learning have been well-documented in the classroom and are backed up by research:
- Cost Effective – Cooperative learning does not require any additional resources. In fact, it allows for sharing of materials.
- Optimized learning – Current brain research indicates that children who can teach a concept or skill to others reinforces his own understanding of that skill or concept.
- Tolerance – Students learn to appreciate one another for their unique contributions to the group. While they may not like every team member, they do learn to work together regardless of differences.
- Intellectual Atmosphere – By working together for the common purpose of mastering academic content, students are discussing curriculum topics as scholars. While normal “kid banter” will not be eliminated from the classroom – nor should it be – the cooperative learning classroom sees an increase in discussions that focus on the concepts and skills being taught.
- Achievement – There is a positive correlation between cooperative learning (done properly) and higher test scores for all students, regardless of ability level, socio-economic demographics, or subject matter.
With so many academic benefits inherent in effectively implemented cooperative learning, perhaps its most attractive feature is that it makes learning fun. It’s no wonder that it has become one of the most frequently employed educational strategies for students of all ages.