Cooperative & Collaborative Learning ... with 4-8 Year Olds: How Does Research Support Teachers' Practice?
Vermette, Paul, Harper, Laurie, DiMillo, Shelley, Journal of Instructional Psychology
There is widespread acceptance of formalized cooperative learning (CL) programs in the schools. Research evidence of CL's power has been documented, (Vermette, 1998) but there is still an interesting dilemma for early childhood educators: a great deal of the research on CL has been done at grade levels above those holding children from 4 to 8 years old. Thus, as they consider applications to early childhood classrooms, they may ask, "what does the research say about its use for young children?" This article attempts to answer this question by examining several studies that have investigated five key issues related to the effective use of peer-assisted and/or collaborative structures and which shed great insight into teacher decision-making. Our generalized finding was simple: "cooperative learning works." Vygotsky's dictum "what they can do together today, they can do individually tomorrow" holds up under the scrutiny offered by the formal research process.
Picture this in your mind's eye: a busy classroom, full of purposeful noise, as a swarm of motivated youngsters are working and talking. The students, mostly in pairs or threes, are engaged and energetic, explaining their ideas and constructing their own understandings with the help of their peers.
Now make the children in that picture ages 4-8. How does that alter the vision you have created? In what ways would someone's original picture be different if the 15 year olds in it suddenly became 5 year olds? How would it change if 11 year-olds suddenly became 6 year olds?
Often, teachers think of formal cooperative learning as a strategy for older students and conceptualize early childhood youngsters as too ego-centric for effective partnering for cognitive and social gain.
If you are even a little intrigued by the image of the 5 year olds at "cooperative work", then you, like us, will be interested in the answer to this question:
"What does research say about how cooperative and collaborative learning works for the youngest students?"
Cooperative learning, supported by a mountain of evidence drawn from years of formal studies, "works" when it is well structured and organized and when certain well-accepted conditions are met. However, most of the research support, anecdotal evidence and testimonials have come from classrooms from 3rd grade "up" (Vermette, 1998). Primary teachers do tend to speak of students' "collaborating" and sharing and they talk of these interactions from a lens crafted from Vygotsky's notions of the power of socially constructed meaning. They seldom, if ever, will talk of the use formal strategies, like Kagan's structures or Slavin's STAD or TGT, yet they allow and encourage interactive dialogue or parallel play as a regular feature of their work. Thus, one may well ask: under what conditions does CL work with 4-8 year olds?
This paper seeks to first raise several questions about the use of collaborative strategies with 4 to 8 year olds and then offer some answers drawn from the research literature. We do this in hopes of stimulating other Early Childhood educators to recognize the power and limitations of student collaboration, to provoke analysis of current practice in light of the research base, to spark further inquiry into the topic and to entice teacher dialogue about children's use of language in their work efforts.
Please note that we have not attempted to offer this as definitive summary of all related research; similarly, it is NOT meant to be seen as a meta-analysis of same. The research reviewed is somewhat selected from the perspectives we have crafted from our own practice yet we see it as representative of the studies that are available to help guide both the decisions and the understanding of our colleagues.
Research and Key Questions
#1 Do the students need to have formally structured collaborative experiences? YES
In a fine study using first and third graders from Australia, Gillies and Ashman (1998) compared the use of formal and informal collaboration across ten [social studies] units spread across the school year. Students in the "trained" group understood and used strategies such as offering solutions, anticipating confusions and giving explanations. They learned more [content] while using the newly-learned cooperative behaviors, and while this was more prevalent for the older children, one can assume that the early exposure to the strategies may make their use in subsequent years even more powerful.
This study suggests that it is a valuable investment to teach the youngsters HOW to work together and to give them experience with it. (An earlier study by Gauvain and Rogoff, 1989, had shown the power of what they called "shared task responsibility, sharing decision-making, examining possibilities and explaining thinking".) So making the expectations abundantly clear gives students a model and helps scaffold the learning experience. Finally, having them dialogue and reflect on their experience and practice may make it more likely to continually occur later in schooling.
#2 Won't students "learning together" end up in damaging conflict? YES and NO
In a great study done by Stevahn and the Johnsons (2000), half of a group of 5-8 year olds were taught how to resolve conflicts that do arise, and they arise about 6 times an hour! A six step process was provided (recognizing conflict, identifying wants, identifying feelings, identifying others' wants, offering solutions and reaching agreement) and it became the object of a formally taught UNIT on friendship. Trained observers confirmed that students could use the taught skills and chose to use them appropriately after the unit was completed. Analysis of the data showed that students understood both conflict itself and resolution concepts and willingly used them. In other words, they learned to deal with conflicts and could resolve problems that commonly arose during CL: this finding is in direct contrast to the more common approach of teachers who seek to keep students apart to avoid any chance of conflict between learners.
This study gives us a sense that the confusion and challenge that leads to deep thinking, dialogue and growth can be channeled away from destructive emotions that hurt classroom community. Conflict is inevitable, but can be made constructive by the nature of its resolution.
#3 Does working in pairs help develop student understanding of [content]? YES
A peer mediated math curriculum called Number Words was part of a series of peer-assisted investigations (PALS) conducted by Fuchs, Fuchs and Karns (2001). Pairs of students following formal structured study strategies came to a meaningful conceptualization of the number line and students from all ability groupings showed achievement gain on a standardized test. Moreover, this study discovered that 19 of the 20 teachers involved mastered the strategy and were able to implement it easily.
One other meaningful note was that observations of learners during this study showed that high achievers were NOT harmed by working with "lower" ability partners NOR were they bored by the efforts to do so. This study suggested that the youngsters were actively and meaningfully engaged in their leadership roles and showed the kinds of helpfulness that Webb and Farivar (1994) linked to conceptual gain (in studies with older students). Moreover, this finding of helpfulness and engagement supports Vivian Paley's (1999) contention that children this age are naturally empathetic and kind: she suggests that keeping them working independently is against their nature and disruptive to their sense of community.
The powerful effect of collaboration has also been shown in writing and reading.
In a qualitative study, a small number of students studied by Wollman and Ayra (2001) revealed that they could easily learn to write FOR a specific audience. This notion of writing to people different from them extends the ability to show empathy and recognize difference; this certainly challenges the ego-centrism that is commonly thought to be the norm for 6 year olds, and which is seen as inhibiting effective cooperation. (Jane Donaldson's 1978 work first challenged the idea of the inability to de-center: she knew then that "students can take another's perspective in a real and reasonable context." Formalized CL provides a real, not abstract, context for thought)
Literacy strategies were investigated by Mathes, Torgeson, and Allor (2001): they, too, used the PALS strategies. Youngsters from 36 first grade classrooms followed collaborative routines (including "story sharing" and phonological practice called "sounds and words") for 16 weeks, with the PALS group showing greater reading growth. (Interestingly, the addition of computer-assisted instruction did not increase scores under any of the experimental conditions, supporting the contention that human assistance and interaction is far more influential on conceptualization than is machine-based.)
Finally, constructivist math strategies, such as those used in PALS, seem to have the greatest hope of success for eventual math understanding. A study in the large set conducted by Cobb and colleagues, qualitatively examined math instruction in a second grade classroom. Large group explanation always followed small group interactive examination and exploration of math phenomena and, as the year progressed, class repeatedly took the form of case analyses drawn from the reality that was being experienced. Thus, math was taught as small group investigation, large group sharing, and then, more small-group work. These 7 and 8 year olds showed empathy, they could reach consensus, and they could internalize peer ideas and use them (transfer) in new problems.
In many ways, it appears that the ability to reach the new high math and literacy standards set for Early Childhood programs necessitates thoughtful use of engaging collaborative interaction techniques such as those offered by the routines embedded in the studies described here.
#4 Can't students learn as much working with an adult as with a peer? YES
An interesting line of studies examining the effects of peer collaboration on problem-solving have been conducted using expert and novice categories of students: these designations have taken the form of conserver-non-conserver and high scorers-low scorers on a pre-test. One study in this batch (Tudge, Winterhoff and Hogan, 1996) discovered that students working/learning with partners only understood and transferred more than students working/learning alone did WHEN those working alone received no (adult) feedback. Interestingly, this finding may be seen as refuting partnered/collaborative work but one should recall that the capability of an adult to provide feedback at every juncture of learning in an 18 student kindergarten is almost impossible: it is precisely the consistent and continued feedback provided by a partner that makes CL effective. Thus, at times when the adult may not be able to give every student feedback on every learning trial, partners should be provided. (Rogoff (1989), a great champion of Early Childhood education, cites this same point in regards to the thought-provoking PLAY that youngsters engage in: she comments that few adults can meaningfully engage in 3 hours of interactive play with a 3 year old BUT other 3 year olds do it all the time!).
It must also be noted that those studies showing expert-novice differences usually show greater learning by the "more expert. more knowledgeable" and partner. This is evidence that one-on-one tutoring by older children and cross-age experiences are very helpful, and in truth, can be conceptualized as another form of pseudo-peer interaction.
#5 Don't students need rewards to work effectively with other students? NO
The final question explored here takes us back to one of the "classic" studies of the huge set conducted by the Johnsons. A generation ago, prior to their work and that by Alfie Kohn, William Glasser and others, competition was seen by most teachers as the only motivator that would get students to work together (or help each other). A 1980 study by Johnson, Skon and Johnson shattered that myth and was pivotal in a series of studies that examined all types of learners in cooperative, competitive and individualized contingencies. Forty-five middle and working class first graders were split into gender and ability balanced groups and were given complex problem-solving tasks to solve. Students working in cooperative teams had higher posttest scores on reasoning, categorization and achievement than did students working alone or in competitive teams. Students working in the cooperative structure appeared to gain the most from using a strategy called "discuss what I do not understand", further evidence that they were able to analyze their thinking process, could seek and give help and profit from peer feedback and suggestions.
The studies described here show ample evidence that teachers can learn to use well structured collaborative strategies with 4-8 year olds and those youngsters have much to gain cognitively and socially from the experiences. Upper level Bloom achievement measures such as conceptualization and problem-solving (analysis) seem to be especially amplified by peer interactive dialogue, peer social support, peer feedback and assistance. Forman's concept of interaction leading to the "co-construction of knowledge" (1998) is very telling in its accuracy.
Moreover, any concern by teachers that students interacting closely would produce extensive conflict is mediated by the conflict resolution suggestions of Stevahn et al. Scholars of the Reggio Emilia movement (like Forman, above) actually support the use of deliberate provocation to jump-start thinking and others like Flynn et al (2004) and Murray (1982) see the reconciliation on differences and exploration of conflicting points of view to be at the center of the learning work in "good schools".
To create the supportive and caring sense of community and the feeling of belonging that is desired by most teachers of young children, a special place must be carved out of the day for formal collaborative efforts and opportunities to reconcile challenges to thinking. The use of projects, learning centers, reading groups, problem-solving sessions, and computer time can all be structured in ways that build in the power of cooperative learning and which are consistent with standards-based content expectations for this age group.
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Dr. Paul Vermette, Niagara University. Ms. Laurie Harper, Niagara University. Ms. Shelley DiMillo, Williamsville, NY.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Paul Vermette, Professor, Teacher Education, Department of Education, P.O. Box 2042, Niagara University, NY; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Cooperative & Collaborative Learning ... with 4-8 Year Olds: How Does Research Support Teachers' Practice?. Contributors: Vermette, Paul - Author, Harper, Laurie - Author, DiMillo, Shelley - Author. Journal title: Journal of Instructional Psychology. Volume: 31. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2004. Page number: 130+. © 2009 George Uhlig Publisher. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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