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Cooperative Learning: Just a Fancy Way of Saying Group Work?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Thomas Galvez

Every time you call on one, you can call on everyone.” Dr. Spencer Kagan, February 2013

So, what did you learn today over the past 30 years?

Vygotsky suggests that “learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and other experts. Consequently, teachers can create a learning environment that maximizes the learner’s ability to learn through discussion, collaboration, and feedback.” Learning Theories Website

It may have been Vygotsky’s research, or the misrepresentation of it, that lead to the group work bandwagon in the mid 80’s.  This prompted many of us (including me) to change our classrooms from rows of isolated students, to clusters of desks where students worked together in groups. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out for me as intended.  It lead to… a student or two in the group dominating the task while others sat back and let the learning take place around them ; some students finding more engaging tasks to occupy their time; a lot of noise that wasn’t always productive. Because “group work” didn’t produce the results I had expected, I decided that pairs would be the extent of my students’ group work experience, where they could work with their assigned partner some of the time.  Unfortunately, my classroom was a “learn by yourself most of the time; work with your partner when I say it’s okay” environment.  Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

At the time, I didn’t understand Vygotsky’s research AT ALL and I didn’t know about the brain research that helps explain why cooperative learning helps students process their learning.  These 2 quotes in Eric Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, have helped clarify this research for me:

  • “Either you can have your learners’ attention OR they can be making meaning, but never both at the same time.” p 36
  • “What doesn’t make sense is constant one-way learning.” p 55

I also didn’t know about the teachings of Dr. Spencer Kagan or The Critical Thinking Consortium, but now I do…

Cooperative learning moved to the forefront of my professional growth in February of 2012, when a colleague and I attended the 4 day Kagan Cooperative Learning Institute. Spencer Kagan and his wife Laurie, a former school teacher, have developed a multitude of Cooperative Learning Structures that can be used to support student conversation that enables them to process their learning and articulate their thinking. Kagan’s research suggests that in order for cooperative learning to truly be occurring, 4 basic principles must be in place.

The 4 principles of cooperative learning, also known as PIES, are:

Positive interdependence- 

  • Positive= one doing well helps others
  • Interdependence= task completion depends on everyone doing their part

Individual Accountability- Students can’t hide; your success influences the success of others; everyone must perform the task

Equal Participation- Participation is approximately equal

Simultaneous Interaction- Highest percentage of students as possible are performing at any given time

The Critical Thinking Model also embraces cooperative learning. When we began our work with the Critical Thinking Consortium in 2009, I hadn’t realized that cooperative learning would be playing a role. I did know that when critical thinking is embedded into teaching and learning, students are engaged in solving a problem and as a result, they learn the content in a much deeper way. I also now know that one of the strengths of the model is that many of the Thinking Strategies that support critical thinking have students learning cooperatively. This can happen through students justifying their decisions to their peers in light of pre-established criteria. It can happen through peer coaching, where students provide specific feedback to each other in light of the criteria. It can also occur through Thinking Strategies that provide structures where students each express their own ideas, and then listen to the ideas of others in order to re-evaluate and expand their thinking.

What I love about the Thinking Strategies is that they are structured to push the thinking further; they go beyond just having students articulate their thinking, but are encouraged to allow the thinking of others to push their own thinking as well. Some powerful Thinking Strategies on the website that align with the principles of cooperative learning are: Four Corners Discussion and Placemat Activity  .

A current approach to teaching that many teachers are embracing is “collaborative inquiry”.  How can we ensure the PIES principles are in place as students learn “collaboratively” through inquiry? Perhaps we could explicitly teach the PIES principles while providing students with experience in Critical Thinking Strategies or Kagan Structures that embed the principles. Through a scaffolded approach, eventually students would have the skills to determine themselves ways of ensuring the principles are in place in any collaborative inquiry projects in which they engage.

I have come to realize the reasons why cooperative learning wasn’t successful in the way I had attempted to implement it. In my classroom, group work was about demonstration of learning in the form of a summative group project after independent learning; it wasn’t about learning together. In my classroom, group work was unstructured; I expected the students to know how to work together cooperatively when I hadn’t actually set them up for success in doing so. In my classroom, class discussion involved asking one student at a time to share their thinking. I now understand what Dr. Kagan means when he says, “Every time you call on one, you can call on everyone.”  Class discussions take on a different meaning when they are treated as cooperative learning opportunities and structured accordingly.

Ultimately, it has taken me the better part of my career to fully appreciate Vygotsky’s work. It has taken much continued professional learning and deliberate reflection to develop my current understanding that “learning is a social process”. I am now able to articulate ways that we can build classroom environments and implement teaching pedagogies to capitalize on this foundational knowledge. And my learning is not over yet! I continue to learn from the teachers with whom I have the opportunity to work. Several teachers in Parkland School Division have recently participated in Cooperative Learning PD opportunities, and have shared some of the impacts they have noticed. I have documented their responses in this google doc.

So what have I learned over the past 30 years? Cooperative learning is NOT about putting students into groups to create a product to demonstrate their learning after the teaching and learning. It IS about putting students together to LEARN TOGETHER, and having structures and thinking strategies in place to facilitate the learning. Cooperative learning stimulates thinking; it is the means through which the learning takes place, and when cooperative learning is combined with critical thinking, oh… it makes my heart sing!!


Critical Thinking as a Way of Teaching

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein

What should I write about for my first post, the post that by the very nature of its hierarchical position, indicates that the topic is of utmost importance to me right now? It would be remiss of me to write about anything other than critical thinking!

Critical thinking has been identified by researchers as one of the competencies that students need in order to be successful in the 21st century. In its Framework for Student Learning publication, Alberta Education has identified critical thinking as one of the 7 Competencies for 21st Century Learning.

With so much talk about critical thinking, it seems odd that there is still so much confusion around how to teach students to be critical thinkers. “Critical thinking” conjures up such misconceptions as teaching students to criticize, or to look for flaws in everything they read and view. When you come to know critical thinking, you realize that it has nothing at all to do with criticizing!

When people discuss critical thinking, it tends to have as many definitions as there are people in the discussion. The definition I have come to champion is that critical thinking is about “making a judgement in light of relevant factors or criteria.”  I love how Roland Case, co-founder and CEO of The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2), defines critical thinking in the first minute of this video clip from

Critical Thinking as an Effective Way of Teaching

A misconception of the critical thinking approach is that it is about teaching skills rather than content. In fact, the critical thinking approach is about teaching and assessing both skills and knowledge outcomes, along with the thinking tools, resulting in students learning the content more deeply.

Over the past three years, Parkland School Division (PSD) has embarked on a journey to embed the TC2 Critical Thinking Model into teaching and learning. At first, it did not come naturally for us to teach using the model; it was a huge shift in our way of teaching… in our way of thinking. When we are teaching students to think critically, we are no longer transmitters of knowledge, but instead, designers of learning experiences; we ask questions and design tasks that have children make judgments in light of relevant criteria that we co-create, and we have them support their judgment with evidence from the content.

Are we all experts in the critical thinking approach at this point? No, absolutely not, and we’re not expected to be; we’re all at different places in the implementation journey, and that’s absolutely okay. I concur with the advice Roland Case gives us in this video clip:

Advice to Teachers

Through my work in supporting implementation of the TCCritical Thinking Model in PSD, I have seen several significant shifts in practice:

  1. Increased use of criteria to help make judgements
  2. Increase in intentional collaborative work as a way of learning
  3. Shift from reliance on pencil and paper tasks, to teachers posing authentic problems to engage students in learning subject area content
  4. Shift in assessment practice; greater focus on self-assessment and peer coaching
  5. Intentionally teaching the tools of critical thinking

Along with changes in teacher practice comes growth in student outcomes. Our teachers are reporting these things:

  1. All levels of thinking are supported through the Critical Thinking Model
  2. Less academic students are experiencing noted success and are becoming leaders in classroom conversations
  3. Vocabulary development is enhanced
  4. Students are more creative and more willing to take risks
  5. Assessment for and as learning are becoming more prevalent

Upon considering the huge potential this approach has in supporting the educational shift – moving from the left side of the continuum where teachers “cover the outcomes”, over to the right side where teachers engage students in “uncovering the outcomes”-  how can one NOT be excited about critical thinking as a way of teaching!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with teaching critical thinking. Do you have any gems to share or any lessons learned?