By Teachers, For Teachers
Cooperative learning can be a powerful tool for energizing a classroom, motivating students, and raising achievement. However, any teacher who’s used cooperative learning knows that it's not always easy to get kids to work together and stay on task. Sometimes it may even seem like your students would rather work alone than work with someone else!
Luckily, when I first began using cooperative learning, I was working with a terrific team of teachers who enjoyed sharing ideas and supporting each other. We had all been trained in the structural approach to cooperative learning developed by Dr. Spencer Kagan so we were using similar methods. If things weren’t going well, we could talk with each other about what we were experiencing, and often another teacher could point out exactly where things were breaking down.
As it turned out, we discovered that some key pieces had to be in place in order for cooperative learning lessons to go smoothly, and if something was out of whack in one area, it often adversely affected another part of the activity.
Prep with Team Building Exercises
For example, I originally thought that it was enough to put kids together in teams and give them clear directions about what to do and how to work together. However, I soon discovered that seating kids together didn’t mean that they were necessarily going to treat each other with respect. When I discussed this with a coworker, she asked me how many team-building and class-building activities I had been using to help students connect with each other personally. I remember replying, “Uhhh…. not many. Who has time for those activities when we don’t have time to teach the curriculum?” She quickly set me straight! As a result of that conversation, I learned that taking a few minutes several times a week to do an icebreaker or class spirit activity helped to ensure smooth sailing with academic tasks.
Strenghten Students’ Social Skills
I also discovered that even though my students wanted to work together, they didn’t always have the necessary social skills to do so. I discovered how to use a simple T-chart to teach a social skills mini-lesson. By creating a large poster of this t-chart, I found it easy to teach social skills such as taking turns, active listening, and politely disagreeing. Immediately after I taught each lesson, I engaged my students in a cooperative learning activity to practice the skill.
Cooperative Learning Checklist
As you have probably guessed, my path to becoming an effective cooperative learning teacher wasn’t always easy. For awhile it seemed that as soon as I resolved one issue, another one would pop up! Thankfully, by asking others for advice and reflecting on how I could improve, I was always able to figure out a solution to each problem.
To assist others who were experiencing similar issues, I decided to create a troubleshooting checklist called Cooperative Learning SOS that lists common problems and outlines the solutions that worked for me. It’s designed as a serious of yes/no questions you can use for personal reflection when things aren’t working smoothly.
Later I created an entire section on my Teaching Resources website devoted to cooperative learning that includes team-building and class-building activities, social skill lesson ideas, management strategies and more. I invite you to check out these resources, and I also encourage you to find like-minded teachers who agree to support and encourage each other as you explore these methods. Cooperative learning is not just for kids!
What would you include on your cooperative learning checklist? Share in the comments section!