Monday, January 24, 2011

Cooperative Learning

I was reading last week that of all teaching strategies cooperative learning has the greatest potential for teaching the greatest number of students.  The article went on to list the reasons why this is the case:

  • Inclusive - all members of the group are expected to participate and often each student has a different role to play in the group so that there is positive interdependence.  The success of the group depends on each student being responsible for his or her contribution to the work.  All students are thinking and working.
  • Students have more face-to-face interactions - more dialogue - and more thoughts and ideas are shared.
  • In classes where many students are still learning English, cooperative groups give students the opportunity to use and practice their language in a more social setting.
  • Interpersonal and small group skills are promoted.
  • Members of the group give feedback on how well the members are working together and can suggest ways the performance or effectiveness of the group can be improved.
With all the benefits of cooperative learning, my question is why do we see so little of it?  I've taught all ages from Pre-School up to Grade 12, and I have certainly seen more of this in the primary classes - perhaps because it is easier to organise when the same students are with the teacher for the whole day.  I think some secondary teachers may also be concerned that while group work may lead to deeper understanding, it would result in less coverage of the curriculum.  In other cases it may just be that cooperative learning looks messy - it's noisy, students move around more, there appears to be less control.

As an IT teacher sometimes I've found it difficult to have students work in groups in an IT lab - often with computers arranged in rows or around the edges of the room - especially if each student is expected to come up with some sort of product/presentation by him or herself.  Working in a classroom with a set of laptops is often better for group work - perhaps with students using one laptop per group.  Thankfully now there are more opportunities for collaboration to happen online - with Google docs for example many students can be working on the same presentation, document or spreadsheet at the same time.  Prezi Meeting is another tool that allows a group of students to all create together.  I conscious that the traditional set up of computer labs may work against cooperative learning, and I'm trying hard to find ways around this, for example by giving students different roles.  Our recent skype activities have resulted in a number of "experts" in the classroom - some students now have a better understanding of how to take good photos, others know how to turn these into slideshows and others know how to make movies.  I'm hoping these "experts" will  have the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills with the other students in their classes when we move onto other units of inquiry during the rest of the year.

Photo Credit:  CK-CO126 World Bank from the World Bank photo collection


  1. I think there are a number of reasons collaborative learning models are few in K-12. The first that comes to mind is many of us grew up in schools where "group projects" were the norm and we remember being the only one in the group who did the real work. Because everyone in the group got the same grade, only those who really wanted the grade were motivated to do the work. How we remember that experience may influence whether we assign group work today. Yes, there are better ways of managing collaborative projects today, but doing it effectively requires a lot of work, more work than many teachers believe they have the time, energy or even skills to accomplish. Convincing K-12 educators to take the leap and reinvent the "group project" so that it becomes relevant and effect learning experience is no small task.

  2. Hi Chris, I think you are right, some of us had bad experiences of having to carry the responsibility for the success of the whole group - I have sometimes heard this complaint from my students too. However I think if we use a rubric and assess the contribution of each student - and if each student has a different role in the group - we can avoid this issue. It is a lot of work, of course, but so much more rewarding - and perhaps if we work in collaborative teams as teachers we can share some of the work around.