Section 1: From traditional to cooperative learning: Principles

What sort of teacher are you?

Before providing a definition of cooperative learning and exposing the principles behind it, we would like you to reflect on your own style of teaching. The following are two of the most common classroom practices: 1) Questioning, and 2) Guided Practice. Teacher A and teacher B represent two different teaching models that face the former two practices in a different way.

Which teacher, A or B, do you identify the most with? Be as honest as possible!

1. Questioning
Asking questions to the class allows us to check understanding, create active engagement, and review content. Depending on our teaching style, we handle questions differently.
Teacher A asks a question to the class, allows those who want to answer to raise their hands, calls on one of the volunteers to answer, then responds to the answer.
Teacher B asks a question to the class, often says something like “Talk it over in your groups” or “Turn to a partner and discuss it”, then calls on some speaker of each of the groups to answer, then responds to the answer.
2. Guided Practice
After modeling a skill, we want students to practice that skill by applying it to different problems, often on a worksheet of some type. The two styles also play out diffrerently during practice time.
Teacher A passes out individual worksheets and has students practice the skill alone. During worksheet work, the teacher admonishes the students: “Keep your eyes on your own paper”.
Teacher B has the students in small groups or pairs and tells them to “Help each other”, or “Solve the problems as a group.”

The styles of both teachers A and B may affect the way students experience school and even their education outcomes. The following are possible consequences of both styles, perhaps a bit exaggerated, that focus on three important variables: 1) Social Skills, 2) Participation, and 3) Engagement.

  • Teacher A represents TRADITIONAL INSTRUCTION. 1) Social Skills. Students who leave teacher A's classroom have not worked with others on a regular basis. They may actually learn to hope for the failure of others; if a student misses a question or does poorly on a worksheet, it gives the other students an opportunity to shine by comparison. 2) Participation. If a teacher calls only on volunteers to answer the questions, predictably there will emerge a group of students who almost always raise their hands and another subset of the class who seldom or never do. Teacher A ends up calling most on those who least need the practice and calling least on those who need most practice! Volunteer participation in a heterogeneous group almost always results in very unequal participation. 3) Engagement. Traditional instruction is terribly inefficient for promoting engagement. Only one student is actively participating at a time.
  • Teacher B represents GROUP WORK. If we are not careful, students in group work may learn even less than in Teacher A's class! 1) Social skills. Students are working in small teams which is the ideal situation for social skills. Often, however, there tends to be those students in each group that do most or even all of the activity. Those left out learn little or even nothing. Since it is impossible to equalize participation among group mates, resentments often build up. The high achiever feels "I had to do it all". The low achiever feels "My ideas weren't included; I wasn't respected". 2) Participation. As mentioned, few students do most of the work while others do little. Group work does not ensure individual accountability, as students may hide behind the work of group mates and choose not to participate at all. 3) Engagement. There is much more engagement in Group Work than in Traditional Instruction. When teacher B asks a question for groups to discuss, at any moment one person in each group is responding. However, due to the problem of active and inactive students in the group, engagement by all learners is not assured.

If the consequences of both Traditional Instruction and Group Work are so negative, is there another way of teaching? The answer to this question may be YES, there is COOPERATIVE LEARNING

What is Cooperative Learning?

Several definitions of cooperative learning have been formulated. The one most widely used in higher education is probably that of David and Roger Johnson from University of Minnesota (1993). According to the Johnson & Johnson model, cooperative learning is instruction that involves students working in teams to accomplish a common goal, under conditions that include the following principles:

  1. Positive interdependence. Team members are obliged to rely on one another to achieve the goal. If any team members fail to do their part, everyone suffers consequences.
  2. Individual accountability. All students in a group are held accountable to complete their share of work and comprehend all material set out in the lesson objectives.
  3. Face-to-face promotive interaction. Although some of the group work may be shared out and completed individually, some must be done interactively. Group members provide one another with feedback, challenge reasoning and conclusions, and perhaps most importantly, teach and encourage one another.
  4. Appropriate use of collaborative skills. Students are encouraged and supported to develop and practice trust-building, leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict management skills.
  5. Group processing. Team members set group goals, periodically assess what they are doing well as a team, and identify changes to implement as to become more effective in the future.

Cooperative learning is not simply a synonym for students working in groups: students don't just get into groups and then, BOOM! start cooperating brilliantly. Indeed, sometimes working in a poorly functioning group can be worse than working alone. A learning exercise only qualifies as cooperative learning to the extent that the five listed principles are present.

The following presentation gives you some clues of the potential of Cooperative Learning and its benefits and limitations.

Cooperative Learning 2 by joan_alberich

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Exercise 1: From Traditional to Cooperative

Here you have a list with eight statements that can be classified in two groups: Traditional Instruction and Cooperative Learning. In addition, each statement in Traditional Instruction can be linked with a statement in Cooperative Learning.

Classify the statements into Traditional and Cooperative, match the counterparts of the two groups, and add a couple of new statements to each of the two groups.

  • A good class is a quiet class.
  • Get up and look at what others have done.
  • Talking is cheating.
  • Keep your eyes on your paper.
  • Learning involves healthy noise.
  • Verbalize to learn.
  • Sit quietly.
  • Help your partner solve it.

FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions

Research has shown that by participating in Cooperative Learning, students can benefit in the following areas:

  • Improved academic achievement.
  • More active involvement in learning by students.
  • Increased motivation to learn.
  • Increased student responsibility for their own learning.
  • Improved relations among students.
  • Improved time on task (sometimes dramatically improved, compared to whole-class, teacher-led instruction).
  • Improved collaborative skills.
  • Increased liking for school.
  • Increased ability to appreciate and consider a variety of perspectives.
  • Greater opportunities for the teacher to observe and assess student learning.

However, is everything positive with Cooperative Learning? The following questions may arise in your first contact with this way of teaching. We hope that, at least some of them, can be answered througout the following sections of this module.

  1. I use traditional instruction or group work, and it works prety well. Why should I shift to cooperative learning?
  2. I am a CLIL teacher: I have to deal with English, scaffolding, Bloom's taxonomy, Cummins' matrix… Now, I also have to work with cooperative learning. Isn't that too much?
  3. Doesn't preparation of cooperative learning lessons take too long? If I have to plan complex cooperative lessons, I will have to spend my days teaching and my nights planning.
  4. If I call on a student, I hear that student's answer. I can check for understanding and offer correction if necessary. If students are all talking in pairs or teams at once, how can I check for understanding and offer corrective feedback? Won't wrong answers be shared?
  5. Some of my students don't like school. They don't even work alone. How can I get them to work in teams?
  6. How can I cover the whole curriculum if I allow time for student discussions, teambuilding and classbuilding?

Exercise 2: More questions

Can you think of two extra questions you may have concerning cooperative learning?