Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Meaningful Cooperative Learning

I've noticed over the years that I tend have my friends do a great deal of cooperative work in all subjects.  It isn't something that I've done intentionally, but it is something I am very comfortable with and find it to be a very valuable learning experience for my friends.  However, it took me a long time to do it right.  Or, at lest what I consider right for me.  Below are some methods I use when having my friends work in cooperative groups.

Tactical Pairings
Some of my cooperative work involves pairs while other times I will have groups of up to four friends.  It depends on what they will be working on.  However many I group, I generally practice what I call Tactical Pairings.  I have a learning objective, and I need to create the best team possible to achieve that objective.  Sort of makes me feel like a Navy Seal commander!  :-D

Truthfully, random pairings seldom make an appearance in my room.  When I first started teaching, I used things like partner clocks where I could just call out a time and they could refer to the name on their chart/clock and partner with that person.  Over time, I came to realize that this sort of random pairings was not providing optimal learning opportunities.  Now, there is always some thought behind who works together.  My pairings can be higher and lower ability students, a linguistic learner with a visual learner, or two students with similar strengths.  The possibilities really are endless.  Most often, I look at learning styles.

When making cooperative groups, the first thing to take into account is the activity requirements.  For example, when we were working on owl pellets, part of the project was to create a teaching poster.  This was a perfect opportunity to pair a linguistic learner with a visual learner.  The poster project allowed them to combined their strengths to create an effective final product.  Another example would be an assignment that requires your students to build something.  This is a perfect time to partner your visual/spacial and logical/mathematical learners with your linguistic or kinesthetic learners.  To learn more about Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, you can click here and here.

This may seem like a lot to manage, but I have a fairly simple way to do it.  At the beginning of the year, once I get to know my friends a bit, I take a class list and jot down each students' learning styles.  I also make a quick note if there are any students who should not work together.  I revisit this list at the beginning of each marking period and make any necessary changes.  Then, when it's time to group my students, I just grab the list and call off pairs or groups.  Again, you have to keep in mind what the requirements of the project will be to create the most effective pairings.  Having the list ready to go allows me to make tactical pairings or groups quickly without any real planning before hand.
Agree or Defend
Talk is not encouraged in my cooperative groups, but conversation is required!  I want my friend conversing on the topic at hand.  Earlier this week, I paired my friends to work on a social studies project using elevation maps.  They had several questions to answer.  My friends know they have to discuss the answers before they can write the answers.  This means they have to both agree on the answer or defend their answer to their partner.  It makes for meaningful conversation.

 I should mention that the rule in my room is that when working in cooperative groups where each member produces their own work, they can have the same answers or they may choose to go with what they think is correct even if it doesn't agree with their partner.  Ultimately, they are responsible for their own work.  However, having to agree or defend their answer before writing it down forces them to explain why they think they're correct.   Not only do they have to be able to support a reason why they are right, they have to be able to articulate it to their partner.  This is higher level thinking at its best! Also, if they are incorrect, it is usually realized in the course of the conversation and fixed.

Key Words & Phrases
When we start an assignment, I will often write some key words and phrases on the board.  These are the words I would expect to hear in their discussions as  I walk around, as well as written in their work.  These words will be a few important vocabulary words pertinent to the lesson,as well as some words meant to help the lesson flow.  For example, in addition to vocabulary words I might add a few new transition words and phrases.  When they are using these words and phrases, they come to own them.  They will incorporate them into their own oral language.  As I walk around and listen in on my groups, I will often stop and prompt them with questions such as:  Is there a key word you could add to what you just said?  Hmm, I see the word *** on the board, how does that fit in with what you are doing? It allows me to guide them in their thinking as well as forcing them to use stronger vocabulary.

Offer your friends more than one way to complete an assignment.  An example would be the elevation maps my friends were using.  They had to create an elevation map.  There was no getting around that.  However, they had the choice of creating a map in several different ways:  flat contour lines, raised elevation using stacked paper, color physical maps, or maps using patterns to denote elevation.    Having choice makes for a happier student who is more willing to learn.  Also, your friends will almost always select a choice that fits one of their learning styles.

I find in literacy, there are numerous way to provide choices that fit different learning styles.  I have paired students who have similar learning styles and just from that know exactly what project they will pick.  This happened recently when we were doing a character study.  I grouped my friends who had similar learning styles.  Then, I offered  the same assignment that could be done by writing and singing a song, drawing and labeling a life-size picture, writing a letter to the author, or acting out a scene from the book.  Something for everyone!  Not only did they have fun with this, but I had active learning and participation happening while everyone was working in their strength. 

And. . .

In addition to the strategies above, I have my friends interacting when just sitting at their desk for teacher directed lessons. Let's face it, not every lesson can be a project.  Sometimes, we just have to teach.  There are many ways to keep them actively involved, but one of my favorites and most effective is. . .

Turn & Teach
When teaching a new concept, particularly in math, I will often stop midway through and have one student turn and teach the concept to the other students.  My friends sit in groups of four, so they are always partnered.  I will ask them to turn and teach their partner how to do ***.  They have to pretend their partner knows nothing at all about it. However, if they do make an error, the partner is allowed to stop and help.  I then walk around and listen in. It lets me see who has it and who doesn't.  You have to know it to teach it!  This really only takes a minute or two, and then we move on with the lesson.  The next time we do it, the roles are reversed.
So. . .

Overall, it might seem like I put a lot of (too much?) time and thought in my cooperative groups.  Well, I do and I don't.  I do in that I always try to make sure my groups are put together with purpose.  I don't in that the tips above are second nature to me at this point.  Having the list of my friends' learning styles makes it easy to make pairs and groups.  Once my friends are used to having to discuss, not just talk, with their partners, it becomes habit for them.  A good one!  I don't have to put much time consuming thought or planning into my cooperative groups.  And, as teachers, we never have time to waste!  Nor do our students.  This is why having cooperative groups that provide a real learning opportunity for our friends is so important.


  1. Love this post. Thanks for sharing some strategies for cooperative learning. I especially love the key phrases and words. I partner my kids a lot and very rarely do I let them choose partners or do a random grouping. But I like the idea of having a list to refer to with their learning styles. You gave me a lot of food for thought.
    Ms. Kerri and her Krazy Kindergarten

  2. I partner my 6th graders A LOT, but I honestly haven't put much thought into who partners with who. LOVE YOUR ideas!!


  3. Loved reading how you use cooperative learning in your classroom. Have you read Kagan's Cooperative Learning? I use a ton of what is in this book and was introduced to it through my ESL endorsement classes.


  4. I love cooperative learning! We often do Think-Pair-Shares or talk to a "shoulder partner," but I learned a few new things I want to implement in my classroom. Thanks!!

    Mr. B's Beach Brains

  5. I was so inspired by your post, that I made one of my own (giving you credit, of course). Thank you!

  6. I love your blog! I have awarded you the "One Lovely Blog Award"

    Head on over to my blog to check it out: ThirdGradeIsAHoot

  7. I love cooperative learning and use it a lot, but I hadn't thought about pairings by learning styles. What assessment do you use to determine student's styles?

    1. Hi Barbara. Sorry it's eight years later that I'm getting back to your comment! I don't use any particular assessment to determine their learning styles. I've been teaching long enough and am familiar enough with the styles that I can pretty much just know their particular learning style after working with them a bit and observing them a while. If you aren't so familiar with the characteristics of the different learning styles, just Google the topic with the words "traits" or "characteristics" and the word "checklist." You will get some hits for easy checklists you can print and use for your friends.

  8. Would I be able to print this post and send it to some teachers interested in Cooperative Learning? I live in Vancouver, BC. Please let me know.

  9. Great post! It's a really great idea to pair kids properly by learning style. I do e learning with adults and sometimes we forget that adults are just big kids too!

    1. Brian, your comment made me laugh. If you have ever tried to do a workshop with teachers you know we are all just big kids! I think teachers talk during workshops more than any other group, and we should know better! :-) Glad you liked the post. Thanks for reading!

  10. I wish I had a teacher like you, sigh.