Saturday, October 6, 2012

Cooperative Learning

A basic definition of cooperative learning in a school setting is the practice of a small group of students working actively together to perform a task or reach a goal.  But why do teachers choose to embed cooperative learning into their daily instruction?

There are many benefits of cooperative learning!  Some of them include:
  • Students learn to work together to reach a common goal, versus competing against each other
  • Students often work harder in order to contribute to the team
  • Discussion amongst students often leads to deeper levels of thinking about the topic
  • Discussion amongst students often leads to deeper understanding of the topic
  • Students learn to value and respect each others opinions/ideas/beliefs/perspectives
  • Many times, higher-level achievement occurs
  • It adds a safety net for students who may struggle academically in school
  • It allows students to practice leadership skills
  • Research has proven that cooperative learning is often a favorable approach to learning for minority groups
  • It enhances social skills
  • It allows students to learn and grow from one another
  • Students experience an interdependence on others, while still having some individual accountability
  • It can bring students together who have very different backgrounds, cultures, races, etc with a common goal
Honestly, if you research the benefits of cooperative learning, I'm sure there is a plethora of material you can read to discover many more benefits!  

 So, with a bunch of research that tells why we should include cooperative grouping in our classrooms, why do many teachers not do it?  

Some of the most common reasons I've heard as to why teachers do not like cooperative learning are:
  • Conflicts with students within the group
  • Feeling unsure of individual accountability of students
  • Noise level
  • Students not contributing at all....just along for the ride
My response to the reasons above are as follows:
  • A teacher clearly needs to be proactive when selecting groups, giving special consideration to which students (s)he puts together.  If a student really struggles with working cooperatively, we generally have individual work that focuses on the same skill; however, it's not quite as fun!  :-)  We have the student do this work, and then try it again the next time we do cooperative groups.

  • In terms of the teacher worrying about individual accountability, this can be handled in a couple of different ways.  First, roles can be assigned to each student in the group, so each student is responsible for something right out of the gate.  We also have had students fill out a self-assessment after their group work, which includes how much they contributed to the group and how they grew academically or socially during the task (along with several other questions).  There is also a part in the cooperative learning self-assessment where they can write about concerns they had regarding their group as a whole and other members of the group.  Having students individually reflect on their learning after the group work has been another way we have addressed this issue.

  • First of all, there has to be some noise in order for students to talk and work collaboratively!  A teacher's tolerance of noise level is going to vary from person to person; however, there probably are very few cooperative learning activities that require yelling!!  Therefore, what works best to address this concern is to have a protocol established that focuses on noise level.  This could be a nonverbal warning, a verbal warning, and even a consequence for what happens if they don't adjust their noise levels.  We have had students do a cooperative learning activity where all their communication had to be silent (many of them wrote their conversation down) because their noise level was way to high, and they just couldn't seem to adjust it that day!  That rarely happens, but we do have a protocol in place, which the students help us create, for when it does.  We have to be careful and remember that noise is by no means a bad thing, as it can be reflective of thoughtful conversation amongst students, as well as excitement about learning!  We need to use our professional judgment (and even the judgment of students who may think it's too loud) to decide what is most appropriate for the specific cooperative learning activities. 

  • The students who like to take a joy ride during cooperative learning activities and just sit and let everybody else do the work can be swayed by having the group roles, the self-assessments, the individual reflections, and the independent work that I wrote about earlier!
I do love cooperative learning and am proud that it is a natural part of our classroom.  We are very aware, though, that there is not one way of teaching and learning that meets the needs of every single student; therefore, cooperative learning is one of the practices we use in our classroom!  It's good practice to mix up how the teaching and learning occurs in your classroom and never rely on only one way!  :-) 

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