Learning to Learn Together

By Rebecca North

In our highly individualistic society it seems children (like adults) know better how to compete over self-centered concerns than to work together toward common Goals. Often within a classroom students seem at war with each other. Name calling, over-competitiveness, inability to help each other can sour the classroom environment and drain energy from learning.

In my own classroom I have found that cooperative learning techniques offer a healthy antidote to student conflict. Cooperative learning places the responsibility for learning with the student, increases academic achievement, and improves student attitudes toward school, peers, and learning. It gives students social skills which will help them maintain healthy relationships as adults and makes both teaching and learning more fun. 

Students can experience competitive, individualistic or cooperative styles of learning. In both competitive and individualistic learning approaches teachers try to keep students away from each other. Cooperative learning focuses on how teachers can effectively structure student’s interactions with one another. Students work with a partner or in a small group to learn the assigned material. They help one another and encourage each other to work hard. Individual success is closely tied to group success. The message is “Sink or swim, we’re in this together.”

Many teachers already utilize learning groups in their classrooms. However, there is a big difference between group work by students who have not been taught how to cooperate and group work by students who have learned how to contribute their own ideas, encourage others to participate, express support for others, and summarize and coordinate the efforts of all members of the group.

Careful Planning is Key

Cooperative learning is appropriate for any subject and any age. It demands careful teacher planning of both content and structure. To illustrate the cooperative learning structure let me describe some possible classroom scenes.

A class of kindergarteners is working with numbers. Groups of two are counting and recording sets of blocks. While one student counts aloud the other student touches each block and then writes the final number. They change roles so each one has a chance to speak, listen, touch and record.

In a primary class students are working in groups of four over one large piece of paper with a big circle drawn on it. They have read Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag and recognize the pattern of the story is a circle; the story ends where it begins. The teams illustrate and record the sequence of events in the story on the pie wedges of the circle. They discuss and agree upon eight major events they wish to record. They share one box of crayons for their illustrating and read and reread what each one has written offering suggestions for improvement. When satisfied, they sign their name to the work indicating they agree and can explain all parts.

Intermediate students are working on a science lesson in a class which includes “mainstreamed” children. Cooperative learning thrives on heterogeneous groupings. The teacher has placed a learning disabled student in each group of three students. The lesson requires the groups to conduct some experiments. One student reads the directions, a second performs the task and the third records the results. Some learning disabled students have difficulty reading and writing. The teach may purposefully assign roles so they are the ones to perform the experiment. The students state and restate their conclusions to make sure all understand. Each member signs their name to the one set of conclusions, indicating they agree with and can support them if called upon. To insure individual accountability the teacher gives a quiz. Each student must respond individually. If need be, learning disabled students are allowed to response orally.In a high school history class a discussion group of six students work over a single set of questions. Last night’s homework has prepared them to answer one set of questions together. Each person takes a turn at summarizing and recording the group’s response. The lively exchange of ideas ignites some heated arguments. The group addresses the problem of how to criticize ideas and not people before resuming their task.

During each of these lessons, the teachers monitor how well students are handling the task and using cooperative behaviors. Occasionally, the teacher asks a student to explain one of the group’s written responses to emphasize that each group member should be able to explain the answers. When asked by students to solve a problem, the teachers often respond by encouraging the students to solve it themselves or consult another group.

After the lessons, the classes talk over interaction in the groups. As each group shares its self-evaluation with the class, the teacher models good processing techniques by sticking close to actual observations and stressing the positive. The processing is an important part of the lesson so the teacher always leaves time for it. Without this time for evaluation, groups tend not to improve in their working behavior; with it groups and individuals make significant gains. Processing establishes a true dialogue between students.and teachers and an opportunity for critical reflection.

First Attempt a Disaster

My first attempt at a cooperative lessor was a disaster! My students made it cleat that they did not have the social skills necessary to work together, and I had no clear idea how to teach those skills. I held off further attempts at cooperative learning until I had gained more expertise through a workshop conducted by Roger Johnson ol the Cooperative Learning Center, University of Minnesota, and a summer class taught by Susan Gruber of UWM’s Exceptional Education Department.

I learned that in addition to structuring solid academic goals and objectives I needed to teach several social skills. It is impossible to teach all these social skills simultaneously. I have learned to take one at a time, directly teach it and then have students practice it in their groups. I find I need to begin with affirmation activities because my students come to school with a wealth of vocabulary words to “put down” one another. Together we examine the reverse of “put downs,” affirmation statements that we call “put ups.” We write “put up” words and phrases on a chart which helps us learn new vocabulary that encourages working together. Even young learners quickly see that people work together better when they ate affirmed.

Some other social skills I have found I need to directly teach my primary students include: talking in quiet voices, staying with their group, listening, sharing materials, keeping hands and feet to themselves, calling each other by the names they like, looking at the speaker, encouraging everyone to participate and taking turns. Unfortunately, students often don’t acquire these skills as they get older. Too many classrooms are marked by excessive individualism and competitiveness. When older students first attempt to work in groups they find their efforts thwarted by their lack of social skills.

As students become more mature in their basic social skills, more sophisticated ones are added. These include; expressing support and acceptance, asking for help and clarification, describing one’s feelings when appropriate, summarizing out loud, seeking elaboration, criticizing ideas without criticizing people, and integrating a number of different ideas into a single position. These skills are not limited to any certain grade level but the age of the students will affect the language they use when performing the skill.

David and Roger Johnson (Cooperative Learning Center, University of Minnesota) have suggested five guidelines to follow in teaching social skills. First, help students see the need for the skill. Second, make sure that students understand what the skill is (role playing can help here). Third, Set up practice situations. In the beginning these situations need not have a direct connection to an academic lesson. Fourth, at the end of the lesson have students discuss what worked and what did not and identify areas they want to improve in. Finally, ensure that students keep practicing these skills.

David and Roger Johnson have done extensive research comparing the merits of cooperative, individual and competitive learning structures. Their meta-analysis of all the studies between 1924 and 1981 (Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson and Skon, 1981) highlights these findings.

When compared to individual and competitive learning structures, cooperative learning produces: higher achievement, increased retention, greater use of higher level reasoning, increased perspective taking, greater intrinsic motivation, more positive heterogeneous relationships, better attitudes toward school, better attitudes toward teachers, higher self-esteem, greater social support, more positive psychological adjustment, more on-task behavior, and greater collaborative skills.

It is easy to visualize how average and low skilled students would profit from cooperative learning groups. The Johnsons’ work has also dispelled the often repeated myth that high-achieving students are penalized by working in heterogeneous cooperative learning groups. In the studies they reviewed above average students never did worse than their counterparts who worked competitively or individualistically, and often did better. The quality of reasoning strategies used by the high-achievers was superior when they were in cooperative learning situations. The cognitive processes involved in having to talk through and explain perhaps in several different ways) the material being studied seems to enhance retention and promote higher level thinking strategies. An equally important benefit is the development of collaborative, leadership, communication, decision malting and conflict management skills needed for future career success.

Cooperative relationships are not the only way students should interact. All students need to learn to compete appropriately for fun and to have the opportunity to follow a learning path on their own. However, as the Johnson’s research has clearly shown, cooperative interaction is the superior learning structure and it should be the umbrella under which competitive and individualistic learning take place.

Rebecca North is a primary learning disabilities teacher in the New Berlin Public Schools.