What is Cooperative Learning?

Working together for better learning
Working together for better learning

I always knew that group work was the answer. It just never worked. It was obvious that pupils learning together as a team should be the most effective way of learning. I knew this from research, experience and my gut. But it never worked.

I’m sure most teachers have experienced this: in a group of four children, two did all the work while the other two watched, chatted and got bored.

I’d seen it work for others: huge operations with envelopes full of individualised slips of instructions and roles. The amount of organising and planning was enormous and impractical. But good news! Someone else has already designed effective group-work routines, and they aren’t hard work.

The practical solution is a bank of routines which the teacher uses to teach specific content or skills. There are hundreds of published routines (or structures or clips), some of which serve highly specialised purposes and others can be used daily. They work because they satisfy the following conditions:

  • Positive interdependence: the activity doesn’t work unless everyone does their job. No one can dominate and no one can cruise.
  • Students take responsibility for each other’s learning. When group members need support, the group supports them.
  • Individual accountability: each individual’s work is clearly identified, so that any misunderstandings; lazy work or misbehaviour can be traced and progress and effort identified.
  • Social skills are taught and reinforced – they are part of the routines. Students learn how to work in groups, politely, considerately, effectively. Surely this is the skill that will get them jobs?  

You don’t need more than a couple of these routines to make a significant impact on the learning and culture of the class. Or you can collect them like stamps. Take a look at Kagan’s mad Barbie style web-page for examples.

There is plenty of evidence that cooperative learning is highly effective. Students make excellent progress; it is

straightforward to run and it’s fun. It may not be the only answer, but it’s a pretty good one.

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