Cooperative learning is a technique which is based on ideas by the educators John Dewey, Kurt Levin and Morton Deutsch in the 1930s and 40s. In 1994 David and Roger Johnson and Edythe Holubec published ‘Cooperative Learning in the Classroom’ which set out the fundamental principles of the method as well as instructions for teachers to follow. At the time, the increased multi-culturalism in classrooms as well as having a range of mother tongues and dealing with mixed levels made frontal instruction a challenge. However, traditional group work often led to one or two learners working while the others (the so-called ‘hitch-hikers’) would sit back and let their colleagues do the work.
The basis for cooperative learning is to set up the classroom so that learners are positively interdependent on each other. Cooperative activities are ‘structured group work’ within a framework enabling learners to take an active part by setting parameters and often assigning specific roles. It is also an excellent combination of cognitive and social skills. The teacher is responsible for giving out the instructions, setting up the groups and the task and to help when help is needed. However, the bulk of the work is actually done by the learners who have to help each other to complete the tasks that are set for them.
There has been concern that high and low-achievers will have difficulties working together. In fact, cooperative learning helps the low-achievers by reducing the stress of frontal instruction and giving them more individual help, and high-achievers can solidify knowledge by explaining concepts to classmates and learn to take on leadership or mentoring roles. As an added benefit, the skills learned in cooperative learning activities are exactly those sought by employers who stress team work and soft skills when looking for new employees.
There are certain factors necessary for cooperative learning activities. The learners must sit close enough together to collaborate. Each of the learners has to have a sense of individual responsibility and understand that his or her contribution is important to the team. Groups should be heterogeneous as much as possible and feedback should be discussed within the group and by the teacher. An essential element is good planning to make sure the activity runs smoothly.
In addition, there is a set of rules to follow which will help to ensure success.
- Learners should stay in their own groups.
- Everyone should speak quietly.
- Ideas and information should be exchanged and other people’s ideas should be carefully listened to.
- Group members should help each other.
- The teacher only helps when the group is unable to continue.
- Everyone should stop working when the teacher gives a signal to stop.
These are mistakes to avoid:
- Making groups too large – between 4 and 6 learners is an ideal size.
- Giving unclear instructions – it is important to find out what needs to be done before beginning a task.
- Creating groups that are too homogeneous – members should have different abilities and skills.
- Not setting the right amount of time – too little or too much time can be problematic for successful completion
- Having group members sitting too far away from each other – the groups need to sit close enough to hear each other speak at a normal volume.
- Ignoring the groups – groups need to be monitored to make sure that they are not having any problems.
- Ignoring social skills – make sure that not only cognitive aims are considered.
- Focusing on the negative – make sure that feedback includes positive aspects of group work
- Not using group work very often – the more this is used, the better use learners can make of it.
Some examples of cooperative learning activities:
Put students into a group of so-called ‘expert’s consisting of three or four learners and give each group a different text to read. This can either be a text divided into different paragraphs, different tests on the same topic, or different texts on completely different topics. Number the groups ‘Expert Group 1, 2, 3 and 4 and then ask the learners to read the text and either write a summary or answer specific questions which are prepared in advance by the teacher.
When they have finished the first tasks, assign letters to each person in the group (e.g. A, B, C and D). Then form new groups of the letters making sure that each group has at least one person who has read the original text. This is now the ‘Home Group’ and consists of one ‘expert’ from each of the original groups who tells the others about the text they have read, either relying on their summary or the questions they have answered. Then the teacher asks questions of the class and chooses one of the ‘non-expert’ people in the group to answer it. The answer is discussed by the group with help from the ‘expert’ and then answers the question. The teacher does not say if the answer is right or wrong but instead asks the other ‘experts’ in the class.
This is a sample grid for cooperative learning activities based on a group of sixteen learners. This can be adapted to larger or smaller groups by adjusting the size of the expert groups or the home groups.
|Expert Group 1
|Expert Group 2
|Expert Group 3
|Expert Group 4
|Home Group A
|Home Group B
|Home Group C
|Home Group D
Cooperative crossword puzzle
Create a crossword puzzle with terms to review. Write out four sets of clues for this puzzle ensuring that all the clues are necessary to guess the word. Make groups of four giving each student a different set of clues and tell them they have to solve the puzzle together. Each member of the group has to read his or her clue aloud and then they can guess which word needs to be filled in until they have completed the puzzle. These can also be created by learners for other learners as writing the clues is an excellent learning process as well.
First printed in IATEFL BESIG Business Issues, Summer 2015, Issue 90
[jbox title=”Further Reading”]
Johnson, D.W., R.T Johnson & E. J. Holubec (1994) Cooperative Learning in the Classroom. ASCD, Virginia
Kessler, C. (ed.) (1992) Cooperative Language Learning. Prentice Hall Regents, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
A cooperative crossword puzzle for business English can be found in ‘In Business’ (CUP 2005).