Why students need cooperative learning

Again and again we hear that teachers value learning side-by-side with other teachers above other forms of professional learning. Educators cite the impact such learning has on their practice and treasure that they can safely try new practices and reflect with trusted colleagues.” (Tracy Crow, Learning Forward)

So teachers value cooperative learning for themselves. But what happens in the classroom? I suspect that cooperative learning is a much more widely accepted classroom configuration in the primary classroom than it is in the secondary classroom.

Primary teachers generally understand the value of cooperative learning and generally use it effectively. Secondary teachers tend to groan at the thought. Often they say it’s just too difficult. That it’s too time-consuming, that some students do little and let others do all the work, that there are some students who are too disruptive to operate effectively in groups, that there are others who are too domineering and that no-one wants to work with them.  And there’s no denying the fact that these challenges exist in many classrooms.

It’s sad to report that a teacher of senior secondary classes in a boys’ independent school once told me that he couldn’t get his students to work cooperatively because essentially they saw themselves as being in competition with others and they didn’t want to share knowledge.

There’s that word: competition. And linked with competition, of course, is the notion of summative assessment.

Using cooperative structures in a summative assessment environment works against the notion of using cooperative structures to foster learning. It’s not impossible – you can devise ways of allotting both a group grade and individual grades where you have clearly delineated the individual tasks of the group members – but it certainly makes it more difficult. It also makes it less likely that students will appreciate the intrinsic value of cooperative learning. It makes it less likely that they will value giving and receiving constructive peer feedback and it makes it less likely that they will develop the kinds of interpersonal skills that are so valued by society as a whole.

We talk a lot these days about evidence-based pedagogy so it’s good to know that research into cooperative learning tells us that ‘ higher achievement and more positive peer relationships (are) associated with cooperative rather than competitive or individualistic goal structures.’ (Roseth, Johnson & Johnson)

Perhaps, therefore, it’s worthwhile consciously planning to separate the cooperative learning from the summative assessment. Plan for students to engage in learning activities in pairs or groups, provide them with both teacher and peer feedback, make use of formative assessment to plan future teaching and learning – and then, where necessary, ask them demonstrate their learning for summative purposes in a separate activity or task.

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