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NYC Helpline: How To: Develop as a Professional

Cooperative Learning: Preparing students to take their place in a democratic society
Theresa London Cooper

“Never underestimate that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

Several years ago, I took a workshop on cooperative learning based on Dr. Spencer Kagan’s model. I learned a number of very important concepts that improved my understanding and implementation, thereby refining my way of thinking about the cooperative learning approach. Cooperative learning focuses on processes as opposed to roles, and Kagan refers to these processes as “structures.” The structures focus on the following: teambuilding, class building, mastery of information, thinking and communication skills and sharing information. Assigning roles to students often made it difficult to involve all of the students. Concentrating on structures/processes helped all students engage in the activities. This article will highlight some of the salient points that changed my practice.

What is it?

Cooperative learning is not group work--allowing some students to do most or all of the work while others do minimal or none of the work. According to Kagan (1999), cooperative learning activities embody four elements, referred to as PIES: Positive interdependence, Individual accountability, Equal participation and Simultaneous interaction.

Positive interdependence focuses students on the same goal(s), allows for group rewards based on the contribution of each individual, and requires the input of every member of the group. Teachers and/or students have opportunities to assign roles based on what is needed for the project.

Individual Accountability centers on personal responsibility for achievement, participation and listening. Using team points based on individual participation and color-coding individual contributions are two ways to hold each student accountable for his contribution.

Equal participation emphasizes the importance of each student’s interaction with the content and his or her peers. So, instead of a turn and talk, a timed-paired-share affords each student an equal amount of time to communicate his thoughts on a designated topic.

Simultaneous Interaction involves high levels of student engagement for all students at the same time. If we refer back to the example in equal participation, a timed-pair-share allows every student in the class to participate at the same time. Another example that invites simultaneous interaction is the use of individual dry erase boards. I found it to be an effective way to informally assess students’ mastery. The teacher poses a question and each student responds using his dry erase board. I also used it during my math lesson when teaching time. I called out a time and each student used his or her clock to demonstrate the time stated. I circulated around the room and quickly assessed who understood and who did not.

As I created activities for my students, I considered the four elements noted to increase student engagement and improve student learning. It works for all types of learners – children and adults.

How does it benefit student learning and achievement?

Cooperative learning builds learning communities as students become skilled at how to get along, how to care for themselves and for each other and how to manage their own behavior as they work toward a common goal. Research tells us that one of the main reasons employees lose their jobs is not because they don’t know what to do, but they are unable to get along with their peers (Kagan, 1999). Getting along is a life skill that is essential for many of today’s careers.

Additionally, it gives students opportunities to compose and ask questions. It encourages thinking, accountable talk, and problem solving. It improves student engagement which can lead to deeper learning and invites even the quietest student to participate.

Lastly, as teachers, we must not loose sight of our ultimate goal for students: to prepare them to function as responsible citizens in a democratic society. Cooperative learning plays an integral role in our work as we move students toward this goal.

How do I implement the Cooperative Learning Approach?

First and foremost find out as much as you can about each student. Have students complete a survey that will allow you to identify each student’s challenges, strengths, interests and learning style. Discover who their class friends are. Begin by selecting non-threatening activities that build community. Prepare a class library that reflects their interests and will be used for partner reading.

Next, choose an activity that’s fun and will allow everyone to be successful. A good way to begin is by making sure that each student in the class learns every other student’s name. Use the data from the survey to compose a People Bingo card and allow students to uncover some of their classmates’ interests and see what they have in common. In addition, use the data to construct various groupings--pairs, trios, and quads--based on interests.

Remember students require explicit modeling, time for role-playing and guided practice before being sent off to do independent work. It is imperative that routines are established and students understand what to do and how to manage themselves. Using the “fishbowl” technique is an effective way to model for students. (See VIDEO) After I model, I identify those students who have mastered the skill, I have them sit in the center while their classmates observe. Then, in a timed-pair-share, students discuss what they noticed. You cannot rush this process. The time required is whatever is needed for students to master the essential routines.

It is also important to identify and implement a conflict-resolution procedure. I took my procedure from the Success for All (SFA) program. Students used I-messages (use the Internet to learn about I-messages) to communicate their dissatisfaction with each other’s behavior. Teaching students to use I-messages is a proactive way to prevent major altercations and identify a healthy way to resolve conflict. Whichever technique you decide upon, take the time required to teach your students. Role-playing is effective in helping students understand what the process looks like, sounds like and feels like.

The following are some structures I’ve found helpful; you may already use some of them.

Numbered Heads Together is used to increase mastery of information for all students. Students form groups. The group receives an assignment. Each student gets a number. All students must help each other learn the information or skill. When time is called, the teacher selects a number and that particular student must respond. Since the students don’t know whose number will be called and who will represent the group’s thinking all students must learn the material. In most instances, students don’t want to let their group down so they are motivated to learn.

Think-Pair-Share helps students refine their thinking skills. The teacher poses a problem or a question. Students are given a certain amount of time to ponder a response. They form pairs to discuss their thoughts. The teacher picks different students to share their thinking or their partner’s thinking with the entire class.

Talking Chips provide students opportunities to refine their communication skills as it allows them to focus on speaking and listening (NYC Standards). Teachers form groups of three, four, or five whatever meets the needs of the students. Each student receives a designated number of chips. When a student wants to speak, he must place a chip in the center of the table. The student may not speak again until everyone has placed his chip in the center of the table. When all the chips have been used, the process starts again. Talking Chips is a very effective structure as it provides boundaries for the extremely vocal student; it encourages the reticent student to speak; it makes students more reflective about what they say as they hear other perspectives and their opportunities to speak are highlighted and limited; and it gives the teacher an opportunity to monitor student participation and collect data on noteworthy observations. The data will inform future planning and teaching.

Read Alouds are powerful as they supported my desire to build student knowledge and understanding on community, cooperation and conflict resolution. Some of the books I recommend that come to mind are Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting and Oh, How I Wished I Could Read and The First Forest by John Gile.

The most critical lessons I learned regarding the Cooperative Learning Approach are the value of building positive relationships with and among students to foster a sound and risk-free learning environment; the importance of spending the proper amount of time to lay a strong foundation; and the necessity of embedding the essential routines.

I highly recommend Cooperative Learning by Dr. Spencer Kagan. I have used the book for many years in my practice. It lists and describes numerous structures that aid in team building, class building, mastery of information, communication skills, information sharing, division of labor design, mastery designs, project design, and multi-functional frameworks. You might want to visit the Kagan website at www.KaganOnline.com. All the best as you cultivate committed, thoughtful, caring citizens for tomorrow’s world using the Cooperative Learning Approach.

Do you have a question or comment about this article? E-mail Theresa.


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