Let's Return to Cooperative Learning

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), November 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

Let's Return to Cooperative Learning


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Paul Bodin For The Register-Guard

The knowledge and confidence that students give each other when they work together in groups can be seen everywhere you look - except, regrettably, in elementary school classrooms.

In our push to standardize the ways that students learn and teachers teach, schools have left out one of the most powerful tools for encouraging students to understand concepts and apply skills: cooperative learning.

As children go through drill-and-practice routines that constitute so much of their school life today, the value of group dialogue, problem- solving, collaboration on projects and peer assessment largely has disappeared from the classroom. Meanwhile, outside of academic subjects - in music rehearsals, sports practices and study groups that meet at the library - collaboration often is assumed to be the way that things happen.

The idea that the sum is greater than its parts is all around us. A successful stage production places the importance of a cohesive ensemble above the individual strengths of the cast. The most effective and enjoyable workplace situations involve group problem- solving and conflict resolution. Teachers create exciting curricula by planning together in grade-level teams. And being an active citizen in our democracy implies that individuals often will work together in groups to effect change for the common good.

But what do we see in many elementary school classrooms? Despite the fact that teachers want their students to become part of a trusting community of learners, the reality is that most children spend very little time involved in truly collaborative activities, where the give-and-take of ideas with fellow students becomes as important as teacher lectures, drill-and-practice, independent workbook time, or quizzes and tests.

This is particularly true during literacy or reading instruction - the academic focus for most of our elementary schools today - because the curriculum is so closely linked to individual assessment.

During a typical week of literacy activities, students do participate in various kinds of groups. They are divided into ability groups that move from station to station, each led by the teacher or an instructional assistant, where they discuss story themes and develop comprehension, vocabulary and writing skills. Students are paired to read stories out loud for fluency practice. And occasionally, students are allowed to meet together to go over their worksheets or writing-in-progress.

But what does it mean to truly collaborate, in the same way that players on a well-coached soccer team reinforce each others' strengths and help each other overcome weaknesses? …

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