Friday, November 27, 2015

Collaborative groups, cooperative learning

In the world of K-12 education, we have popularized the importance of grouping students. In the early 1970s, educators began organizing their students and structuring their teaching to accommodate collaborative groups and cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning could expose students to other points of view and, of course, help them learn how to cooperate.

We know that many students do not how to cooperate or simply are not inclined to cooperate. We have plenty of students who prefer to work alone for a number of reasons and yet, we insist on forcing our students into so-called teams. What we often don’t do is make sure our students know how to listen to each other. We also rarely teach them how to analyze and synthesize what they are hearing, how to ask questions, how to monitor their behavior, etc.

One of the many challenges for teachers is knowing how to group their students. There is no shortage of research and books on grouping students, but what’s interesting to note is how often the focus is on classroom management as well as student learning.

I’m not saying we should integrate collaborative groups and cooperative learning in our classrooms. But as with any other strategy, I think we need to be mindful of why we are grouping our students.

Not too long ago I was in a classroom in which the students were in pods of three, so three desks were clustered together. When I asked the teacher how she determined which students should be together, she had no real response. Another teacher has his 9th grade students in groups as well, the desk organized in groups of four. He has rearranged his students in their groups to try to find the best mix of personalities and learning styles. So it’s not the “low” reader with the “high” reader, but kids who might actually collaborate and cooperate in their learning.

He told me he tries to mix up the groups periodically because he thinks there is some advantage to the students to learn how to work with those who are less like themselves. This teacher has some constraints based on the size of his classroom but he said he toys around with the sizes of the groups periodically as well.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m often asked about strategies to group students and this teacher grasped what I’ve been saying for years: the grouping is about and for the students. If the students are in groups that make sense to them, classroom management may be less of an issue.

Those collaborative strategies can then draw from any students in the classroom at any time because the collaborative structure is not limited by strict grouping parameters.

We should remember too that while we might make fun of think/pair/share as a potentially overused strategy, Kylene Beers and Mike Schmoker both assert that students working in pairs can be effective for short periods of time, especially when used to promote understanding.

Think about how noisy a classroom can get when kids are working together—and let’s assume those groups of 3 or 4 are on task. As the volume in the room increases, the kids counter not being able to hear by talking even louder.

But if you put your students in pairs, they can and will work more quietly and may work more efficiently because there is nowhere to hide—they have to listen to each other. Of course, design task comes into play, but that’s a different conversation. And if you have your students sharing technology, it is more likely that both can and will be participative because not only can they hear and be heard, but they both can see and they both can touch.

Students can learn cooperatively and they can learn to collaborate. Using pairs at the beginning of the school year and then occasionally throughout the school year enables students to practice a number of communication and learning skills, but also helps them discover and practice their voices for learning.

You can find a podcast of this post at

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