The State of Teamwork
When the McREL report What Works in Classroom
Instruction was released in 2001, the researchers identified a set of
Best Practices that lead to high levels of learning in the classroom.
One of those practices is cooperative learning. Although it is one of
the most commonplace instructional strategies in use, most teachers agree
that cooperative learning is also one of the more difficult practices
to use successfully.
In light of these two intersecting perspectives,
we decided to give group work another look. This month, we revisit
cooperative learning and map out several strategies for making it work
in the classroom.
A Long History
Cooperative learning has been around for a very long time—long before
John Dewey and progressive education extolled its virtues in the early
Documented more than 3000 years ago, students
of the Talmud paired up to engage in lively debates. Later, in the United
States, the practice of group learning was a natural extension of the
one-room schoolhouse. It was a prominent component of John Dewey's experiential
classroom and was present in most American classrooms until the early
1940s, at which point it fell out of favor for about 30 years.
Why We Need It Now
Since the early 1970s educators have been citing numerous reasons for
promoting group learning. Many point to the need to train youngsters for
a world of work, where they will be expected to function in a team-dominated
work force. While that may be true, a school's primary objective is not
to train future workers, but to teach standards-based skills and knowledge
relating to core subjects.
The real reason you should give cooperative
learning another try is because when it works, it engages students in
multiple tasks that ultimately enhance higher order thinking skills. Specifically,
it can help build problem-solving strategies and analysis, in tandem with
a host of social skills, including communication, leadership, and decisionmaking.
Why It Often Fails
Cooperative learning is often at odds with the messages that most students
get about collaboration in the classroom. Students are instructed from
first grade on to "do your own work" and "keep your eyes on your own paper."
Most "collaboration" is treated as a form of cheating.
Hence, it's not surprising that few students
"get it" when we ask them to work together on projects. It isn't that
they don't know how to accomplish things in groups. Students do plenty
of cooperating outside of the classroom walls when they play games and
take part in other extracurricular activities. Most students simply don't
know how to share knowledge and research when their goal is learning.
Their requirements are simple:
- well-designed group activities that have
specific learning objectives and procedures
- training and experience making groups work
- motivation to succeed
How to Make Cooperative Learning Work
how to cooperate. Cooperative learning defies what most students
have been programmed to do—work as an individual. You can help
by focusing on explaining and modeling the specific skills they will
need in upcoming activities, whether it be listening, sharing information,
or reaching consensus. Be sure to give students the chance to evaluate
their group's success using criteria that is based on the group skills
that were taught. Remember that students' group skills will build
over an entire semester—not just one 45-minute period. Download
the two free group skills training activities we've developed for
||Use the subject and task
to guide the type of group you will use. Cooperative learning
is most successful when the size and organization of the group fits
the type of work that needs to be accomplished. For example, two-person
peer reviews may be appropriate for honing editorial skills in an
English class; whereas, a group of three or four might be more appropriate
for a debate team in an American Government class.
||Assign students to heterogeneous
groups. By choosing the composition of the group yourself rather
than allowing students to do so, you can deter students from socializing
too much. You also can help create a successful group dynamic. Most
experts agree that groups should contain a mix of different ethnicities
and genders. You also should take into consideration how each student's
personality and social skills will contribute to the group. Occasionally
change group composition to allow students to experience different
explicit instructions their group activity to jump-start cooperation.
Write on the board the first three or four steps they will take once
formed into groups. This will help get students on task immediately
once they get into their groups. Monitor their progress throughout
the class to make sure they know what they should be doing and to
answer questions. Make yourself available by circulating from group
to group during the activity.
||Hold each individual student
accountable for participation and learning in group work settings.
This can be achieved by assigning both a group grade and an individual
grade. Make sure students know that they will each be held accountable
for the material learned in the group work. Have students document
their participation in the group and hand it in to you.
Preparation and Focus
When teachers make special preparations for cooperative learning situations and simultaneously manage to remain focused on clear learning objectives, cooperative learning has a greater chance at making a real difference in the classroom.
More About Cooperative Learning
Essential Elements of Cooperative Learning in the Classroom
Read this article to find out more about the essential ingredients to
successful cooperative learning activities.
Association for the Study of Cooperative in Education
Connect with others who are interested in studying and applying the principles
of cooperative learning. At this site, you'll find information about membership,
conferences, newsletters, and additional Web resources.
Works in Classroom Instruction
Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
Discover the nine most reliable strategies for classroom instruction from
this report. McREL researchers sifted through thousands of educational
research studies to identify which methods proved to be most successful
at achieving results. Cooperative learning is one of the nine strategies