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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!!