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. …