Learning to Cooperative

Article excerpt

A Teacher's Perspective

How can teachers learn to use cooperative learning strategies successfully?

How do we include social skills instruction in our students' cooperative learning experiences?

How do we deal with IEP, assessment, and accountability issues?

Is all the work worthwhile?

Many general and special education teachers ask questions like these when first considering using cooperative learning in their classrooms. They may ask privately: The strategy may come highly recommended and may be supported by research, all right-but have any of these researchers actually implemented it? Have they seen my classroom? This article explores these issues and more, presenting the personal experiences of one of the authors (see box), and provides guidelines and recommendations for other teachers dealing with the same dilemmas.

Five Strides to Cooperation

Based on our cooperative learning experiences, we made a list of strides teachers should consider to ease implementation of cooperative learning in their classrooms. Schools do have a responsibility for socializing students in the values of caring, sharing, and helping (Kagan, 1994). Why not use a socially intensive method, such as cooperative learning, to teach such critical values?

Burron, James, and Ambrosio (1993) perceived cooperative learning as a strategy to help students improve both intellectual and social skills. Many other researchers have found cooperative learning a valuable component of classroom learning (Blumenfeld, Marx, Soloway, & Krajcik, 1996; Gamson, 1994; Kohn, 1991; Webb, Roper, & Fall, 1995). Cooperative learning involves holding students accountable for their learning, as well as the learning of their group members (Johnson & Johnson, 1991, 1999; Kagan, 1990; Wood & Algozzine, 1997) and provides students with positive interdependence and individual accountability. Positive interdependence focuses on the group and fosters an attitude of we rather than me.

Individual accountability focuses on the individual and fosters the feeling that each person is individually responsible and needed for contribution to the group project. Both skills are not only necessary, but also critical for social development.

Teachers play a critical role in developing conditions for cooperative learning (Mueller & Fleming, 2001). The following strides illustrate strategies for using cooperative learning while capitalizing on students' progression of social skills.

Teach What You Preach

First, we must teach cooperative learning. Otherwise, students may not know how to appropriately engage in the cooperative learning process. The outcome will be chaotic if students are expected to complete a project as a group, if they never learned or acquired skills necessary to accomplish a task as group member.

You may find it helpful to develop a cooperative learning format (Figure 1).

The format includes "what" the students will be required to do during cooperation, and "how" the teacher visualizes outcomes of a final project.

Answering "When?" and "Where?" questions will allow you to forecast upcoming cooperative learning projects.

These questions will also allow you to help the students better understand what it will take for projects to be successful. Remember, you need to target prerequisite behavioral/social skills for each student before the project's engagement.

Accountability Courts

As stated previously, for cooperative learning to be successful, each group member must be accountable for contributing not only to project completion, but to a high-quality project. You may need to actually teach students lessons on "accountability." For some students, this will seem like a big and scary word; but using your ingenuity and creativity, you can successfully help students master the concept of how to work in groups with accountability. …