Generation Z, Meet Cooperative Learning

By Igel, Charles; Urquhart, Vicki | Middle School Journal, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Generation Z, Meet Cooperative Learning


Igel, Charles, Urquhart, Vicki, Middle School Journal


Properly implemented cooperative learning strategies can increase student engagement and achievement.

Generation Z, also known as "Gen Next" or "Gen I," includes people born between the early 1990s and the early 2000s (Posnick-Goodwin, 2010). Some consider members of Generation Z to be smarter, more selfdirected, and more able to quickly process information than previous generations; but there is one thing they may not be-team players. And that just might be the best reason to pay attention to new research about cooperative learning.

Middle level teachers generally strive to create ideal classroom environments in which their students feel part of an inquisitive community of investigators- posing and probing significant questions and sharing what they learn (National Middle School Association, 2010). They often invest considerable time planning lessons that ensure their students are clear about what they should know and be able to do. Many teachers may find the idea of using collaborative learning to achieve learning objectives appealing; after all, working toward a common goal should be a satisfying experience for students, and working together is a way to motivate and engage students. However, even though Generation Zers are notoriously social, they prefer texting to talking. Furthermore, although neuroscience suggests that cooperative learning is "good for the brain" (Willis, 2007), not all young people know how to learn in cooperative groups, and not all teachers know how to apply best practices when creating cooperative learning activities. This article provides a rationale for using social learning methods in middle level classrooms and offers specific recommendations for using one set of methods: cooperative learning.

The science(s) of learning

Knowledge of effective teaching practices is better now than it was a century ago, thanks to advancements in an array of disciplines (e.g., sociology, psychology, and neuroscience) resulting in a remarkable and growing consensus about how humans learn. A central theme that emerges across this work is the social nature of learning. Humans are social creatures and our brains are designed accordingly.

Social learning

Current research suggests that social learning experiences-often called group or cooperative learning in the classroom-can have positive effects on young people. Social and constructivist learning theories assert that humans acquire and extend knowledge through interaction with one another. Probing one another's beliefs and ideas, explaining one's own beliefs and ideas, and challenging weak theses allow learners to grapple with high-level material (Bandura, 1986; Vygotsky, 1978). Psychology speaks to the emotional benefits of social learning, particularly for those students who would otherwise struggle in isolation. For many people, learning with others attaches positive emotions to what may otherwise be a negative and isolating experience (Hinde, 1976). Neuroscientific research suggests that this relationship between affect and learning may have implications beyond students' emotional states. Brain imaging studies have shown, for instance, that the amygdala, a portion of the brain associated with emotions, plays an active role while we learn. During periods of anxiety, an overactive amygdala may actually impede the processing and storage of information, thus making learning more difficult (Toga & Thompson, 2003). Prolonged levels of anxiety may even lead to permanent loss of neurons in areas of the brain responsible for long-term memory (McEwen & Sapolsky, 1995).

Why learning together is important

Researchers at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) conducted a synthesis of 20 recently published, high-quality studies on the effects of cooperative learning. Each of these studies used experimental designs and sophisticated statistical techniques to analyze the data. From this work, the researchers found that well-designed cooperative instruction had a consistently positive effect, accounting for an average 17-percentile-point gain in student learning. …

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