What One Middle School Teacher Learned about Cooperative Learning

Article excerpt

Abstract. There is an abundance of research to support the idea that cooperative learning benefits students in many ways. Moreover, about two out of three middle school teachers use cooperative learning as an instructional strategy. However, cooperative learning is not always implemented effectively, and its use poses certain challenges and dilemmas for middle school teachers. This paper examines what one middle school teacher learned as she directed her students to complete a structural engineering task as a cooperative learning activity. She found that students were on task and collaborated to accomplish the goal, but that teachers' decisions about how tasks are set up, carried out, and completed affected students' interactions in cooperative groups. This study provides middle school teachers with research by teachers and helps to bridge gap between research and practice.

Cooperative learning provides a setting that suggests wonderful ideas to children-different ideas to different children--as they are caught up in intellectual problems that are real to them (Duckworth, 1996, p. 7). As a result, the use of cooperative learning as an instructional strategy is on the rise. Slavin (1996) reports that 62% of middle school teachers make use of cooperative learning. There is a dearth of research by teachers, however, that explains their dilemmas and successes in setting up and implementing cooperative learning tasks at the middle school level. Using cooperative learning in middle school is particularly challenging because middle school teachers may have several classes totaling up to 150 students, making it difficult to know which students will work well together in cooperative groups. The authors present a case study of one middle school teacher's classroom research, which enabled her to learn about her own pedagogy and how her students interacted and learned in cooperative small g roups. In order to place this research in context, a brief literature review on cooperative learning is presented below and is followed by the action research study.

Using Cooperative Learning in the Classroom

Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy that has the following characteristics: face-to-face interaction, positive group interdependence, individual accountability and responsibility, appropriate use of interpersonal and small group skills, group processing, and an emphasis on having heterogeneous group composition (Tomlinson, Moon, & Callahan, 1997). One outcome of using cooperative learning is higher student achievement (Slavin, 1996; Tomlinson et al., 1997; Webb, Troper, & Fall, 1995). Additional benefits of using cooperative learning include improved cognition, time on task, long-term retention, self-esteem, peer acceptance, and positive relationships between students and teachers (Tomlinson et al., 1997).

Cooperative learning is not a panacea, however. Not all cooperative learning lessons lead to collaboration (Blumenfeld, Marx, Soloway, & Krajcik, 1997; Cohen & Lotan, 1995). Moreover, heterogeneous grouping may not benefit all students. Minority students have a higher risk of being excluded from group activities because they are seen by some majority students as being less competent (Blumenfeld et al., 1997). This situation is exacerbated in high-status subjects such as mathematics and science (Hollins, Smiler, & Spencer, 1994). Success of cooperative learning groups is determined by the cohesiveness of the students in the group, their willingness to complete the task, and the quality of the task itself.

Forming Cohesive Cooperative Groups

Group composition is an important factor in organizing cohesive small groups. Cooperative groups should not be composed willy-nilly, but teachers must carefully decide who will work together in order to maximize student interactions. Mulryan (1995) reports that changing the group composition regularly encourages high levels of participation. …