(How can I get my students to cooperate?)
(How can teachers collaborate more with each other?)
One reason many students find school so tedious is the isolation they feel during their 6 hours in school each day. They are often told to work individually to “look at your own paper,” “mind your own business,” “do your own work.”
Authors of The New Circles of Learning, Cooperation in the Classroom and School present convincing evidence of the value of cooperative learning as a way to help counteract this sense of alienation as well as exploring the psychological, social and academic toll this has taken on them, their families and on our society as a whole.
They show step by step the advantages of students working together at any educational level to learn almost any subject; they demonstrate how this method can improve morale, learning and critical thinking skills, break down the depressing aloneness many students feel in their efforts to learn by teaching them how to help one another and to give each other encouraging support; it is more fun and exciting to study when you can talk to each other, debate issues and work toward a common goal:
“Since the 1950s, over 80 studies have compared the relative impact of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic experiences on self-esteem. Research demonstrates that cooperative experiences help students believe they are intrinsically worthwhile and viewed by others in positive ways, compare their personal attributes favorably with those of their peers, and judge themselves to be capable, competent, and successful…. (They) perceive themselves and others in a differentiated and realistic way that allows for multidimensional comparisons based on complementarity of individuals’ abilities. Competitive experiences tend to be related to conditional self-esteem based on whether one wins or loses. Individualistic experiences tend to be related to basic self-rejection.” 1
This doesn’t mean that all competition is bad and should be avoided; however, for maximum mental health and academic success, the need is for cooperation to predominate.
For any teacher wanting to use this methodology effectively, The New Circles of Learning will provide a secure base from which to begin. For example, it describes step by step in detail how to prepare students to work effectively together and procedures for structuring cooperative learning into your curriculum. This information is essential because cooperative learning will not happen naturally. It must be taught and practiced.
An organization that helps teachers improve their ability to implement cooperative learning effectively is The International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education (IASCE). Its membership of teachers and education researchers come from many countries. Over the years, their research and classroom practice has focused on:
- “setting the stage for cooperative learning, class climate and team-building
- establishing the task structure and positive interdependence
- structuring the discussion and interaction
- identifying and teaching interpersonal skills
- attending to group processes including issues of grouping, roles, status, observation, and intervention
- developing a balance between individual and group accountability and the implications for assessment.” 2
They explore how to make cooperative learning successful in heterogeneous and multi-cultural groupings. They see this way of learning as promoting higher academic achievement because “when students are engaged in a creative, open-ended task, the more they talk and work together, the more they learn.” 3
They also say that cooperative learning can lead to more collaboration and support among teachers and administrators thus making success more possible, more respect among students for one another, greater interracial harmony and democratic practices that can translate to more cooperation in society as students become adults.
Author and educator Elizabeth G. Cohen has advice for teachers embarking on cooperative learning strategies: “I would urge you to move slowly and carefully in attempting to make changes in the mode of instruction. Go step by step with adequate opportunities for observing each other’s classrooms and for reflection. Start with trying out some of the recommended skill builders and/or team builders in preparation…Work together to create or adapt some group tasks that center on important concepts in the curriculum. Try them out, critique them, and keep notes on how to revise them. The stance of the staff developer and teacher should be both self-evaluative and self-critical. Take advantage of the extensive research that has been carried out on cooperative learning and its implementation. Take advantage of the curricula that have been developed specifically for cooperative learning.” 4
To learn the latest on this research and classroom pedagogy, visit their website: http://www.iasce.net/ There you will find videos of experts speaking on these issues, links to their newsletter, research, conference reports and papers, and to other organizations involved in cooperative learning.
Examples of Cooperative Learning at the Elementary Level
Kathy Matson, retired 5th-grade teacher, was inspired after attending workshops in cooperative learning to give her class specific lessons on how to work together. For example, she created groups of 3 or 4 children and invited them to talk about monsters with each other, specifically how they look. Then she gave them an assignment to create a monster together with the art materials provided.
Everyone had to contribute, and everyone had to agree on each part of the monster. If they reached an impasse, for example, on what color it should be, they put the suggested colors in a hat and picked out one. When they were finished, each group selected one person to describe its monster to the class.
When students became used to working together, she expanded cooperative learning to social studies, science and other subject areas. She would give a small group a reading assignment or a research project. She reminded her class how to work together successfully by a chart she created placed prominently on the wall:
WORKING TOGETHER COOPERATIVELY
- There will be one paper per group.
- Each member must agree with the group answers and indicate this by signing the completed assignment.
- Each group member has a say.
- Assist all members to understand the material.
- Express your ideas and don’t change them unless you are logically persuaded to do so.
- Complete the task and do it well. There is no Reward for finishing first!
As students applied themselves to their work, Ms. Matson found they learned more and enjoyed the work more.
She didn’t only use cooperative learning, for she felt students learn in many different ways. Sometimes she directed a whole class lesson or assigned reading to do alone. She did a lot of art in groups or individually, as did a colleague, 6th-grade special education teacher Ruth Daniels. They felt that art is an important part of any curriculum.
They both agreed that children who have experienced difficulty in reading and writing can raise their morale through varied art projects in which they may feel more successful. This is possible since in art most students haven’t experienced failure. They enjoy working with their hands and often feel comfortable talking about their work. It also gives them another avenue to help them learn.5
Gloria Carlson, another retired 6th-grade teacher, used cooperative learning in her classroom. She says, “In today’s media society, one teacher standing in front of the room all day teaching doesn’t work.” She describes a successful project her class completed:
“In cooperation with the Prospect Park Urban Environmental Center [in Brooklyn, N.Y.], my class met with a guide in the park three times to study marshes, lakes and ponds. When we got together with the guide the fourth time, it was in our classroom. She presented this problem: Make believe there are plans to build an amusement park in Prospect Park. How would the following groups react to this: construction workers, community residents, small businesses, legislators and environmentalists?
“The class broke up into groups representing each constituency to answer “Will your group want the amusement park? Why or Why not?
“The children, who had been learning the skills necessary to work in a group, had to decide on a position, write it down together and make a poster to represent their point of view. When they were finished, one child in the group was chosen to present their point of view. While this was going on, the guide and I circulated around the room giving suggestions where needed.
“The class was totally absorbed in this undertaking. They listened carefully to each group’s speech. Their discussions and presentations gave them a deeper understanding of the needs of people, animals and plants. They taught each other.”6
Students can be encouraged to teach each other on a one-to-one basis. For those who are successful in their schoolwork, a tutoring role helps them to feel responsible for others by sharing what they know to help their classmates catch up. In this way they get double recognition: one for their achievement and one for helping a classmate.
The student who is being tutored is also aided in two ways. He or she begins to understand the schoolwork better and receives positive support and friendship from a fellow student.
This certainly was true of Theresa and Karen.
Theresa entered my elementary school class two months after the term started. She didn’t understand much of the work and mechanically copied things into her notebook. She rarely smiled and didn’t participate in classroom life.
I asked one of my most advanced students, Karen, to help Theresa with her class work. Karen undertook her task with enthusiasm and great seriousness, reporting to me regularly on Theresa’s progress and showing genuine pride when Theresa did her work well. I pointed out to the class what a good teacher Karen was, how attentive her pupil was, and how proud I was of both of them.
Karen’s interest in Theresa spilled over into the playground, where she made sure she was included in games with the other children. Theresa became a happier child, and because of Karen’s concern, other children began to notice her and invite her to play with them.
Encouraging students to help one another doesn’t always work, as when one child claimed her classmate/teacher had called her “stupid.” In that case I had a talk with both parties and decided to change the instructor. The offending pupil/teacher was given another chance and another student.
I always kept careful track of who was teaching whom, and I would check to make sure that the information being taught/learned was correct. (Of course, tutors have to be clear about what it is they need to teach their classmates. This means that the teacher has to take time out to show them ways to explain a subject so that the child they are working with will learn.) At the elementary level, when there was a successful relationship going and progress being made, I would mention this to the class.
It is a good idea, however, to see to it that no student is always on the receiving end. Attempts must be made to discover something they are good at or something positive they have done which they can demonstrate to others, or a way they can help another pupil. The general rule I followed was to encourage students who did well in math, for example, to try to help other children learn it. At the elementary level, rewarding moments would come when, after observing tutoring in action, children would ask, “May I be a teacher?” or say, “I need someone to help me.”
Too many teachers stress the competitive aspect of schoolwork with unhelpful remarks like: “Sandra keeps getting l00 percent on spelling tests; what’s the matter with the rest of you?” Thus, Sandra’s star keeps rising while others stand on the sidelines, frustrated, wondering why they can’t get themselves together enough to get l00 percent too.
A better approach is to say: “Sandra has been doing very well, and I’m sure everyone else can do much better too. Even if you just get one extra word right next week, that will be fine. In the next test we will see who is trying to improve.” Then Sandra is given a small group of poor spellers to work with. This approach also keeps resentment from growing against Sandra and puts her on the side of those who may have called her names or worse out of jealousy.
In this way, an atmosphere of cooperation develops in which the children are encouraged to feel responsible for one another. The good students are not continuously getting all the glory while the poorer ones struggle along bringing up the rear, their feelings of inferiority constantly reinforced. Everyone is given recognition because there is always something good to say about each child. The emphasis should not be on individual grades or comparing one child’s work with that of another, but on how the child has done relative to his or her past performance.
Another method of institutionalizing cooperation is for a group of students to be evaluated or praised for how much it improves. For example, if someone in a math group gets more answers right this week than last, and the teacher has noticed that he or she was helped by group members to understand the work, this can be pointed out, and the group can be given a positive recognition for this achievement.
Some teachers may argue that there will be students who don’t do their part for a number of reasons: too shy to participate, not understanding the work, feeling marginalized, not interested, or poor work habits. However, this should not be a serious problem if students are taught from the beginning how to work together and are carefully monitored by the teacher who talks privately with any student who has a problem to ask what needs to happen for them to cooperate with the others. Then a plan can be made on how to achieve this change which could include sharing the plan with the group.
This type of personal attention and eye-to-eye contact almost always gives students hope that they can do better.
A Simple Group Evaluation of an Activity in an Alternative High School
I was assigned a class in a literacy program in an alternative high school. Students, aged 17–21, were reading on a 3rd- or 4th-grade level and they had trouble sounding out words they had not seen before. I got lists of words organized phonetically from the Fortune Society in New York City which used them in teaching formerly incarcerated people how to read better.
I informed my students of the value of these lists; that they had sounds in common to help them learn and remember pronunciations. I assured them that they would benefit from reading these words and explained that the best way to do this was to work in small groups with members taking turns saying the words and helping each other when someone got stuck. They would underline words they did not know or pronounce correctly to review the next day.
This activity would go on for about 15-20 minutes. Since this is not the most exciting classroom activity, and many students were discouraged readers who might resent this drill, I said that I would watch each group carefully. At the end of the session, I would give an A in my grade book to everyone in a group if I saw that all were paying attention, trying to do their best and helping each other.
The idea of getting an A so quickly enabled this daily activity to be accepted by all. One day a student laughed out loud; she said to her group, “I can’t believe I am actually enjoying this!” Since our class rules stressed cooperation in the effort to improve reading skills, no one had to worry that they would be ridiculed if they missed a word.
I am usually not a fan of giving out grades so easily as a tool to get students to focus, but these students had a history of failure and their experience was a lifetime of low grades. This gave them a chance to redeem themselves and to see others making mistakes as they had always done.
This became so routine that after awhile, they did not need the grades. They were hooked on the challenge of developing their word attack skills.
It is well known that when students are asked about their favorite subjects in school they rarely pick academic ones. High on the list are gym, sports, art, “choice time” (in which they can choose what to do in the classroom). All of these are activities in which it is legitimate to talk, interact and cooperate with each other. If cooperative learning can extend beyond these limited areas to subjects like math, reading, social studies and science, there is a good chance that more and more students will include these subjects, too, as their favorites.
(More information on cooperative learning can be found in Chapter 2 entitled The Importance of an Interesting Curriculum, specifically the section entitled “Creating an Interesting Curriculum at the Middle School and High School Levels That Will Assure Engaged Students.”
Also, see my website essays entitled Matt Jones, Inspiring Students with an Invited Speaker and Teen, Senior Oral History Builds Writing and Uncommon Friends .
How Can Teachers Cooperate More to Improve Their Teaching Skills? Learn From the National Writing Project!
As mentioned earlier in this book, many teachers operate in isolation which can negatively affect their mental health and self-esteem but, like their students, they can benefit from regular and on-going collaboration. Even though “professional development workshops” are held during the year to help teachers improve their practice, they are often too few, unconnected with one another and don’t stress the need for systematic interaction and cooperation.
Teachers are not given time to process this information, to discuss it in an on-going way with colleagues, to implement what they have learned or to share their experiences with one another to improve their teaching skills.
These workshops are often presented in a top-down way where classroom teachers are passive recipients of educational research, policies, curriculum and practices from universities, corporations and boards of education. The expertise and experiences of the classroom teacher are not incorporated in this paradigm.
An organization that has successfully challenged this approach is the National Writing Project (NWP). It is a model of how a school’s culture can change from everyone on their own to a collaborative one where teachers work together to help one another improve their teaching methods, as well as relationships with their students and each other.
Their core principles include the following:
- “Writing can and should be taught, not just assigned, at every grade level. Professional development programs should provide opportunities for teachers to work together to understand the full spectrum of writing development across grades and across subject areas.”
- “Effective professional development programs provide frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically.”
- “Teachers who are well informed and effective in their practice can be successful teachers of other teachers as well as partners in educational research, development, and implementation. Collectively, teacher-leaders are our greatest resource for educational reform.” 7
The effect of implementing such principles is highlighted on the NWP website in an article entitled Transforming Writing: Teacher-Consultants Lead Change in Their Schools by Linda Friedrich. She quotes a participant in one of their training programs:
“Hopefulness is a rare commodity in today’s classrooms. I’ve learned that it’s the conversations and the shared work that help teachers grow in their practice.”
Ms. Friedrich summarizes the achievements of this organization with these words: “Encouraged by their involvement in the writing project to work collaboratively and go public with their successes, these teacher- consultants adopt a stance of being both leaders and learners. In their own schools, they work to recreate the sense of community and to establish opportunities for the kind of collaborative learning that they experience with the writing project.”
To learn more about the NWP, you can find inspiring stories on their website of teachers who, through collaboration with one another, have been able to nurture creativity, build camaraderie and boost their confidence. The NWP offers retreats that last for long weekends or for weeks during the summer for teachers at all levels and subject areas.
Teachers do not have to be involved with the National Writing Project to begin to collaborate more. For example, you can suggest to one or more of your colleagues who are your friends and whom you trust that you take turns observing each other to improve teaching skills and classroom management. Each teacher can ask that the observer(s) focus on one or more points such as to look at how you are dealing with a difficult student; to see if there are students you have overlooked during the lesson or who were not engaged and what you could have done differently; if they think you reached the goal of your lesson; to tell you the strengths of your lesson.
Your small group can provide moral, emotional and academic support that will make long term teaching and enjoyment of the profession more achievable, especially if you combine your classroom support with readings and resources you share with one another and at staff meetings. Your model of collaboration could spread as other teachers decide to work together more. (An added bonus: to cut down on the hiring of outside consultants, thus saving school funds.)
As you and your colleagues become closer, your concerns could expand to focus on school-wide problems such as standardized testing abuses, which many consider a nation-wide crisis. (Google “standardized testing protests” for more information.)
Teachers who have this kind of support will be less stressed, teach more effectively and be more able to develop positive connections with their students.
1Johnson, Johnson, Holubec and Roy, “The New Circles of Learning, Cooperation in the Classroom and School,” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Va., 1994, p.23.
2Brody, Celeste et al, “The Past and Future of Cooperative Learning: Perspectives from Leaders in the IASCE,” Panel Session at IASCE Conference, Singapore, June 2004; http://www.iasce.net/
3Cohen, Elizabeth G., “Cooperative Learning and the Equitable Classroom in a Multicultural Society,” Plenary Presentation for IASCE Conference, Manchester, England, June 2002; http://www.iasce.net/
5Interview with the author.
6Interview with the author.
7National Writing Project website, “About NWP”: https://www.nwp.org/