How Cooperative Learning Made Me A Better Teacher
By Dan Garrison
Let’s begin with the realization that what we all inherently understand is indeed true: kids are different today than they were when we were younger. You hear this stated by colleagues and, if you’re like me, from your own mouth quite frequently. The fact is, they are. Children today are growing up in a world that only a few generations ago would have been science fiction. The technological boom has, for better or worse, changed society, and our social interactions look vastly different today than they did only a decade ago. Today’s world is one of instant gratification. We don’t ponder, we ‘Google.’ We don’t converse, we text. And we’ve even lost the simple magic of Saturday morning ‘cartoon day’ since cartoons are available 24/7. So, when we educators find ourselves frustrated because a child doesn’t respond the way we expect, sometimes it’s because our frame of reference is greatly different than their own. Still, we must prepare our students for a world that will continue to change, but just as assuredly will continue to require age-old skills such as communication, collaboration, and teamwork. This is where the use of cooperative learning can change your teaching.
Several years ago my administrator informed me that he was sending me to a conference on cooperative learning. I was excited to have a few days where I could eat out and enjoy some adult conversation, but bemoaned the fact that I despised ‘group work.’ Many of us have had experiences with group work and find one person does all the work while the others chat amiably and toss in a few positive catchphrases. Or perhaps you’ve been in a more structured group in which roles were assigned, but the weight of the work was not equally shared. For instance, while you do all of the research and drafting, another is the ‘timekeeper.’ It doesn’t seem fair, and that’s because it’s not. Cooperative learning, as I was soon to discover, is NOT group work.
Effective cooperative learning relies on a few simple premises. Dr. Spencer Kagan has an exhausting amount of research to support his belief that for learning to be truly cooperative, it must contain each of these principles: “positive interdependence,” “individual accountability,” “equal participation,” and “simultaneous interaction.” We educators love an acronym, so we’ll call these PIES. I’ll briefly explain.
Positive interdependence means that my success requires you to be successful as well. Often we fall into the trap of creating negative interdependence, where one’s success is built upon the other’s failure, or at least lack of success. But learning teamwork is a life skill, and with that in mind, we want to allow opportunities where the students learn to operate as a team. Individual accountability eliminates one student hiding behind the work of the others. At the same time, the contributions made by the students must be equal in nature. The roles may indeed vary from one strategy to the next, but there can’t be one who coasts along while the others do the majority of the work. Lastly, there must be simultaneous interaction taking place. Each student is working simultaneously with each other at all times. Granted, sometimes this is actively listening, but as each strategy holds all accountable, this must be distinguished from the passive listening we often see taking place during even our own best whole class instruction.
When strategies are utilized that employ this philosophy, we also have the benefit of true differentiation of instruction. As teachers, we are constantly told that we need to find ways to differentiate our instruction so that we meet the needs of all students at their various levels. This can be overwhelming when the reality is that there is only one of us and 25-30 students. How are we to reach every student at his or her level of understanding? And how can we do this while simultaneously challenging them with higher-level thinking? Dr. Paula Kluth asserts, “When a teacher uses cooperative learning approaches and assigns students’ roles that will challenge them as individuals, he is differentiating instruction.”
So, what exactly does this look like in a classroom? I can’t begin to list all the various strategies available, and honestly, I don’t advise trying to use too many strategies. I’ll briefly describe a couple that I use daily that can demonstrate the principles I’ve described. First of all, although you can make adjustments to adapt to any classroom setting, I have my students sitting in teams of four. They don’t realize it, but they are seated heterogeneously by their skill level (High, Med-High, Med-Low, and Low) so that a ‘high’ is shoulder-to-shoulder with a ‘med-low,’ and a ‘med-high’ is next to a ‘low.’ Not all strategies are dependent on heterogeneous grouping, but some work better this way. If I am teaching a process with a definite strategy, I use what Dr. Kagan calls ‘Rally-Coach.’ Simply defined, this strategy requires one student to ‘teach’ the other the process, while simultaneously the second student is ‘coaching’ the first. The task is put in between the two students and the first begins the step-by-step explanation of solving the task, with emphasis on using the proper vocabulary. The ‘coach’ is actively watching, correcting when necessary, and supporting the first student’s success. Then, roles are reversed. We all know the most effective learning takes place when one teaches another. This strategy takes this belief to heart. Content areas such as math, grammar, and scientific method are well suited for this approach.
In those situations where I am reviewing a concept, or asking higher-level cause and effect questions, I will use a strategy called ‘Round-Robin.’ This uses all four students in the group. Taking turns, one student starts the discussion for a set amount of time. The other students are actively listening and asking open-ended questions if the student falls silent. When the time is up, it’s the next student’s turn. They may add additional information, or build upon the former. They are not allowed to simply respond with “I agree” or “that’s what I was going to say.” If that occurs, the other students prod them to explain why they feel that way. When all have had a turn, you may then ask the question to the class and ensure understanding by either randomly choosing a few students to answer or have the groups decide upon a final answer to share. How does this differ from the traditional “I ask a question and call on a student to answer” approach? Simple, in the traditional scenario you pose a question, and hope that all students are thinking about it, and then call on one student to respond. You can be certain that at least one student is actively engaged. In contrast, using the cooperative learning strategy you are ensured that all students are actively engaged in thinking about the question, even if you call upon one to respond in order to guide your class discussion. And consider this, whichever student you call upon has the security of knowing his/her response is based off of hearing the rest of his/her group. There is no longer the fear of participation because a student is not confident in the answer. This strategy actually builds confidence.
This brings me back to my initial point that today’s students are different than we were. In an age where people communicate via email and text messages, children often times don’t have the skills of verbal communication, eye contact, recognizing tone, and body language. We, as adults, often find ourselves thinking, ‘they know better than that’ when a student rolls their eyes or looks at the ground while talking to you, but the truth is, sometimes they honestly don’t. Today’s students don’t always have that skill set that seems to us that everyone should have naturally. The proper use of cooperative learning addresses this missing skill. And as a consequence of it, we find it promotes better classroom management. Students act out less frequently as they are getting their needs addressed throughout the day. Students who seek attention, receive attention. Students who want control, feel as though they have more control over their learning, and students who simply don’t know how to behave socially, learn how to behave in a social world.
I left my training and reported back to my school with a different philosophy. The very next day I became a different teacher, my classroom became a different learning environment, and I increased my effectiveness. I found that utilizing this approach takes no additional time because it doesn’t replace any content; it’s just a strategy to teach your curriculum. And after becoming more comfortable with it, I found that it fits flawlessly with whatever I am teaching. In fact, I don’t know that I could now teach without it. It’s become who I am as an educator. I have continued to develop my cooperative learning skills and have been pleased to find my students among the highest achievers year after year. I am also pleased to find that I have very little behavior issues to contend with. Is this the answer to all the problems in a classroom? Not even close. There is no single solution to all the obstacles we face in education. And there are always exceptions as children are individuals and have individual needs. But this approach greatly enhances their learning, creates a safe and productive classroom, reaches students at a variety of levels, and at the end, it has made me a better teacher.
Kagan, S. (2009). Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.
Kagan, S. (2004). Win-Win Discipline. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.
Paula Kluth. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2015, from www.paulakluth.com/readings/differentiating-instruction/differentiating-instruction/
Dan Garrison, BSEd., MAT, MA History is a 15-year veteran teacher, teaching 5th grade in the Raymore-Peculiar School District in Raymore, Missouri. He also adjuncts for the University of Central Missouri teaching Social Studies Methods and using cooperative learning. He has experience presenting, teaching, and using various cooperative learning strategies.