Cooperative Learning by Sandra Simões

I´ve always found group work an interesting form to organize the classroom but it can be a bit messy and noisy, especially if the class is big or if students are noisy already! Sometimes some students do not work properly and take advantage on their classmates’ work and effort.  So, because of this, I decided to look for better ways to implement group work in a more productive way. I started to research and read about this subject and I realized then that I was looking for cooperative learning, not the traditional group work we use to do when we were students.

So, what is cooperative learning? In fact, it is group work, but it is organized in such way that student’s learning is improved. It obeys to an asset of principles and techniques that allow learners to work more effectively in order to achieve their goals and, therefore, success.

I believe we can say that cooperative learning is a methodology which transforms heterogeneity in a positive thing that facilitates learning. Contrasting traditional teaching, it gives voice to the student and silences the teacher. However, we must bear in mind that in this type of learning the teacher must have a strong action and awareness of his role. In traditional teaching, there is the concept of knowledge transmission in which the teacher is the depository of knowledge and, interactions that matter, are those that take place between teacher and student. What happens between students is considered parallel and often disturbing. Cooperative learning is based in teamwork and Kagan (1992) defines team as “Four individuals, giving and taking. By interacting four becomes more.” Johnson and Johnson (1990: 4) define it as:

“(…) working together to accomplish shared goals. Within cooperative activities individuals seek outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and beneficial to all other group members. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning.”

However, Johnson, Johnson and Holubec say : “Sitting students near each other and telling them that they are a group in and of itself does not produce cooperation or the higher achievement and other outcomes typically found in cooperative learning groups” (1990: 7-8). Let’s see the main differences between traditional group work and cooperative learning groups:

Cooperative Learning Groups                       Traditional Learning Groups

Positive interdependence No interdependence
Individual accountability No individual accountability
Heterogeneous membership Homogeneous membership
Shared leadership One appointed leader
Responsible for each other Responsible only for self
Task and maintenance emphasized Only task emphasized
Social skills directed taught Social skills assumed and ignored
Teacher observes and intervenes Teacher ignores groups
Group processing occurs No group processing

          These five elements above are essential to promote cooperation:

1) Positive interdependence, which consists in creating situations where students work together to maximize all learning, sharing resources and achieving success together. This element is central, because students must believe that each one is only successful if all are.

2) Individual accountability – the group shall assume responsibility for achieving their goals and each member will be responsible for doing their part to the common work. Students must have clear objectives and be able to assess progress concerning the goals and efforts of each element of the group.

3) Stimulating interaction, that is, the ability of students to influence each other  to get involved in learning from each other in such a way that will promote the learning of others and acquire a mutual personal commitment and with common goals.

4) Social skills should be taught so that there is real cooperation. Students must know to wait for their turn, share and compliment, ask for help, be patient, and so on.

5) Group assessment, which takes place when the members analyze to what extent they are achieving the goals and maintaining effective working relationships.

So, how can we organize our classroom in order to have cooperative learning working effectively for us, teachers, and for our students? Here are some strategies, ideas that can be used and adapted. We can use the same all the time, we can mixed them, or even use a different one each week. It depends on us and on our students. We can also start with homework correction in pairs and then go to the group work and use it  all class long.

  1. Roundtable

Present a category (such as a vocabulary area) have students take turns writing one word / phrase at a time.

  1. Write around

For creative writing or summarization, give a sentence starter (for example: If you give an elephant a cookie, he’s going to ask for…). Ask all students in each team to finish that sentence. Then, they pass their paper to the right, read the one they received, and add a sentence to that one. After a few rounds, four great stories or summaries emerge. Give students time to add a conclusion and/or edit their favorite one to share with the class.

  1. Numbered Heads Together

Ask students to number in their teams from one to four. Announce a question and a time limit. Students put their heads together to come up with an answer. Call a number and ask all students with that number to stand and answer the question.

  1. Team Jigsaw

Assign each student in a team one fourth of a page to read from any text or one fourth of a topic to investigate or memorize. Each student completes his or her assignment and then teaches the others or helps to put together a team product by contributing a piece of the puzzle.

  1. Tea Party

Students form two concentric circles or two lines facing each other. You ask a question (on any content) and students discuss the answer with the student facing them. After one minute, the outside circle or one line, moves to the right so that students have new partners. Then pose a second question for them to discuss. Continue with five or more questions. For a little variation, students can write questions on cards to review for a test through this “Tea Party” method.

There is so much more to say about cooperative learning but I hope these (few) ideas can fire up your curiosity and help you to enrich your classes.