In middle school, I dreaded it when the teacher said it was time for “group work”. Unless I was paired with another driven (read: type A, like me) student in the group, it usually meant that I ended up doing most of the work. If we were asked to partner up, it quickly became a popularity thing and I’d find myself alone on the sidelines until one of the groups were “forced” to take me on. Sometimes time ran out and we were asked to finish the project at home. Inevitably we’d end up in the cafeteria early the next morning trying to rush through it because our parents worked long shifts and there was no way we’d risk our butts to ask for rides to a classmate’s house.
I came to know group work as cooperative learning when I reached my pre-service teaching days. It was touted in my theory classes as one of the best approaches in differentiating classroom instruction and promoting more positive social interaction among heterogeneous groups. I was a strong believer of it, but I couldn’t help notice gaps between theory and application as I continued to observe classrooms and later on, teach students.
While most students seemed to do well with cooperative learning in the classroom, there were several problems I saw in my cooperative teacher’s group activities. For example, there was Patrick* who seemed to dominate the discussion in every group that he was part of. In another group, two out of the five students seemed bored and uninvolved. There also were several angry parents, who complained about the “unfairness” of the teacher’s activities. In one case, Tanicia* and her group-mates had spent an entire period talking so the cooperative teacher gave them more time during lunch to finish their poster. None of the group-mates showed up, and Tanicia* ended up bringing it home to complete by herself.
Of course, my own experiences with cooperative learning also increased as I grew older, especially with my exposure to college e-learning courses that relied a lot on group projects. It was tough trying to figure out the project with classmates I have never met in person, and it was even tougher to get everyone online at a specific date and time because of our very different schedules. There were always that one or two people whom we couldn’t get in touch with for days at a time; it was quite stressful especially when our projects were time-sensitive and relied on one group grade. Despite my negative personal experiences with cooperative learning, I knew it was a vital part of my teaching. There has to be a way to make cooperative learning really work and become more meaningful for everyone in the classroom. That led me to asking…
What CONCRETE teacher-tested and teacher-approved methods are there that can be implemented by teachers to make cooperative learning more beneficial and more manageable in the elementary classroom? In a middle school classroom? In a high school classroom?
I would love to have your input and feedback. I hope to find some direction as where to look for additional PD resources and materials for individual reading, and to post up some of my findings, ongoing Twitter conversations, and upcoming resources from next week’s tentative #ntchat on cooperative learning with other administrators, teachers, and mentors.
*Names have been changed.
Flickr Image by Paolo Margari