Cooperative learning – more than just group work (Issue 8, January 2011)

How often have you planned a lesson involving a well resourced enquiry which requires students to work in teams and things don’t go to plan? The dominant characters bulldozing their way to take over everything, the quiet and shy students too frightened to get involved, the lazy taking a back seat and the disruptives (ever the opportunists) seeing a group activity as their ticket to start the circus?

This was a familiar scene in my classroom during my first term of teaching and I sometimes took the view that cooperative learning was ‘more trouble than it’s worth’. That was until I heard about cooperative learning and was introduced to Kagan’s cooperative learning structures. These easy to implement and enriching strategies have transformed my own teaching practice and dramatically improved the way in which students interact and engage with mathematics and each other.

Activities such as sage and scribe, travelling heads and stand up hand up lead to the development of positive peer relationships. This has become a particular focus of mine whilst working with a low ability year 8 group, and I have used cooperative learning as a way of improving their social skills and providing structure and focus to group tasks. Students are starting to become accustomed to working together in an environment of mutual respect by offering encouragement and coaching as opposed to being isolated within a group. Techniques such as modelling encouraging behaviours including nodding, smiling, giving eye contact and thanking each other have helped to eliminate negative social comparisons.

As an introduction to the Cooperative Learning professional enquiry group we looked at the power of the Kagan structure stand up hand up pair up.

Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up involves students being asked to do just that.

Teacher gives the instructions and students pair up with somebody else in the class. Students do this by raising their hand and giving their partner a high five. This very small amount of physical contact is important, helps break the ice and forms an important part of building peer relationships (some students will take ownership with this, and have all sorts of different greetings, hand shakes and high fives going on). The teacher gives the students a question or topic to consider, for example ‘how many angle facts do you know?’ This can be used at the start of the lesson to find out what previous knowledge students have allowing the teacher to differentiate from where learning is at (as opposed to differentiation by outcome).

After posing the question students are allocated think time. This is very important and the teacher should unpack with the students why we need think time, e.g. to process and interpret the question before formulating a response. Students then discuss the question posed. After this they are asked to thank each other, then sit together and be prepared to share their findings with the class. Whilst students are engaged in learning conversations, the teacher can go around and actively listen in and intervene if students are struggling by pairing them with an ‘expert’ pair. In this case a pair becomes a group of four, with more able students being challenged by having to explain their understanding in a way that a ‘novice’ can understand. This activity then becomes success orientated with students measuring their own success through peer assessment.

This particular activity can be milked for all it’s worth by sharing academic success criteria with the class and allowing each pairing to level and assess their verbal responses.

Angle Facts - Tracking progress level by level

I shared these success criteria with the class. Here students can see where they are in relation to their target levels and see the content they need to access in order to make further progress. In the mini debrief of the activity it is important to draw out the processes experienced and discuss the benefits, e.g. students need to demonstrate good communication skills through using think time effectively, articulating their understanding clearly and actively listening. One particular student asked:

“Why do you always get us to explain stuff to other people?”

I knew in my head what I wanted the students to get out of the activity but did not make this explicit to them. Showing the students visually, using the PET scans images seemed more powerful than any long winded explanation I could come up with. By sharing the benefits with them they engaged more with explaining their reasons in subsequent lessons.

PET scans showing regions of activity in the brain. This visual is very powerful with students quickly seeing how much their brain works when they have to explain their understanding to a partner, as opposed to reading information.

In the How Do We Create Cooperative Classrooms? professional enquiry group we will explore and experiment with a variety of cooperative learning strategies, and the thinking behind them, personalise them to our lessons and our students.

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