Cooperative Learning

    We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty rewards--gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A's on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean's lists or Phi Beta Kappa keys--in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.

    --John Holt

Learning can be structured competitively, so that students work against each other; individually, so that students work alone; or cooperatively, so that students work together to accomplish shared learning goals. David W. and Roger R. Johnson, professors, and co-directors of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, recommend that, while all three structures should be used, cooperation should play the dominant role in any classroom.

Why? Over 122 studies conducted between 1924 and 1981 provide clear evidence that cooperative learning experiences promote higher achievement than their competitive or individualistic counterparts. Cooperative activities also tend to promote the development of higher-order levels of thinking, essential communication skills, improved motivation, positive self-esteem, social awareness, and tolerance for individual differences.

Specifically, recent research links regular cooperative experience in the classroom with gains in the following areas:

In order for cooperative activities to be successful, teachers need to give attention to the following key elements:

    A. Group Size/Composition -- Johnson and Johnson report the highest levels of success occur when groups are kept small. In fact, they favor groups of two (dyads) for many cooperative tasks, with the number of group members increasing in proportion to the complexity of the task. Teachers introducing cooperative learning for the first time might let students select their own groups. But once comfort is established, the greatest potential for benefit occurs in heterogeneous groupings, with the teacher assuring a balanced mix of ethnic groups, females/males, handicapped with non-handicapped students, and students of low-to-high ability and productivity.

    B. Group Functions -- Students may work in groups on any of the assignments they would ordinarily do alone. They may meet to collaborate on solving a problem, to discuss an issue without direct leading by the teacher, to brainstorm for new ideas or summarize what they have learned about ideas previously presented, to formulate concepts out of information and facts they have been given. Particularly valuable is the potential of a group to share the parts of a complex project or jointly produce an assigned product. Goals for the group might range from practice in group communication processes to preparation for a presentation to the whole class group.

    C. Group Norms -- Teachers need to proceed slowly and with patience to introduce students to cooperative learning. It is not enough to rearrange the seating. A "culture" of group work needs to be developed that includes expectations regarding noise level, an atmosphere of trust, absence of "put-downs," equal participation, and willingness to help one another. The use of group grades is controversial, but Johnson and Johnson report good results from encouraging "we sink or swim together" mindsets. It is important that students learn to coach and teach each other. Brighter students' learning is enhanced by their efforts to teach the others; less-capable students benefit from increased one-to-one attention.

    D. Group Skills -- Students need to be taught procedures and given practice opportunities for rearranging the classroom space, moving quietly into groups, responding to teachers' signals for attention, etc. So, too, it is important for them to receive explicit instruction and regular practice in the interpersonal skills that this method, as well as life in a democratic society, requires. These include:

    1. Teamwork
    2. Support, and acceptance of differences
    3. Active/reflective listening
    4. Positive feedback
    5. Reaching consensus
    6. Coaching and tutoring others

    E. Group Goals and Roles -- Clear instructions, goals, and time lines for group activities are essential to successful cooperative learning. It is also important that each member have a specific function within the group: recorder, reporter, monitor, observer, facilitator, etc. Roles should be changed frequently, so that members have opportunity to practice new roles, and should be designed to fit the group's particular task.

Activities in A Living Laboratory: Volcanoes may be used to introduce your students to cooperative learning, or fit well into an existing cooperative program.

One such activity is "Jigsaw" (Aronson, 1978) a cooperative learning process for students from kindergarten through graduate school. Students are assigned to small heterogeneous teams, and the task to be learned and materials are divided into as many sections as there are members on each team. For example, a biography might be broken into "early years," "schooling," "first accomplishments," and so on. A study of plants might be divided into "food sources," "chemical manufacturing," etc. A study of a country might be segmented into geography, culture, industry, transportation, and government.

First, members of the different teams who have the same section form "expert" groups and study together. Each then returns to his or her team and teaches that section to his or her teammates. Jigsaw requires that students depend on and learn from one another. (See among other lessons Eruption Simulation, and Life on a Fiery Planet for adaptations of this technique. These lessons to be on line in the future.)


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