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Cooperative and Collaborative Learning: Explanation
- What are cooperative and collaborative learning?
- How do cooperative and collaborative learning differ from the traditional approach?
- How have cooperative and collaborative learning developed since they became popular?
- What are the benefits of cooperative and collaborative learning?
- What are some critical perspectives?
- How can I use cooperative and collaborative learning in conjunction with other educational techniques?
What are cooperative and collaborative learning?
Collaborative learning is a method of teaching and learning in which students team together to explore a significant question or create a meaningful project. A group of students discussing a lecture or students from different schools working together over the Internet on a shared assignment are both examples of collaborative learning.
Cooperative learning, which will be the primary focus of this workshop, is a specific kind of collaborative learning. In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups on a structured activity. They are individually accountable for their work, and the work of the group as a whole is also assessed. Cooperative groups work face-to-face and learn to work as a team.
In small groups, students can share strengths and also develop their weaker skills. They develop their interpersonal skills. They learn to deal with conflict. When cooperative groups are guided by clear objectives, students engage in numerous activities that improve their understanding of subjects explored.
In order to create an environment in which cooperative learning can take place, three things are necessary. First, students need to feel safe, but also challenged. Second, groups need to be small enough that everyone can contribute. Third, the task students work together on must be clearly defined. The cooperative and collaborative learning techniques presented here should help make this possible for teachers. Also, in cooperative learning small groups provide a place where:
learners actively participate; teachers become learners at times, and learners sometimes teach; respect is given to every member; projects and questions interest and challenge students; diversity is celebrated, and all contributions are valued; students learn skills for resolving conflicts when they arise; members draw upon their past experience and knowledge; goals are clearly identified and used as a guide; research tools such as Internet access are made available; students are invested in their own learning.
For more detailed descriptions of cooperative and collaborative learning, check out the books, articles, and Web sites listed on our Resources page.
How do cooperative and collaborative learning differ from the traditional approach?
Cooperative and collaborative learning differ from traditional teaching approaches because students work together rather than compete with each other individually. Collaborative learning can take place any time students work together—for example, when they help each other with homework. Cooperative learning takes place when students work together in the same place on a structured project in a small group. Mixed-skill groups can be especially helpful to students in developing their social abilities.
The skills needed to work together in groups are quite distinct from those used to succeed in writing a paper on one’s own or completing most homework or “seatwork” assignments. In a world where being a “team player” is often a key part of business success, cooperative learning is a very useful and relevant tool. Because it is just one of a set of tools, however, it can easily be integrated into a class that uses multiple approaches. For some assignments individual work may be most efficient, while for others cooperative groups work best.
Research suggests that cooperative and collaborative learning bring positive results such as deeper understanding of content, increased overall achievement in grades, improved self-esteem, and higher motivation to remain on task. Cooperative learning helps students become actively and constructively involved in content, to take ownership of their own learning, and to resolve group conflicts and improve teamwork skills.
How have cooperative and collaborative learning developed since they became popular?
Over the past twenty-five years, the use of small-group learning has greatly increased. Informal collaborative projects have grown into structured, cooperative group work. Cooperative learning became especially popular in the early 1980s and has matured and evolved since.
One evolving aspect of cooperative and collaborative learning involves how the educational community approaches the composition of the small groups. Debates still occur on this topic. Researchers disagree mainly about whether to group students according to their ability, or to mix them so that stronger students can help the weaker ones learn and themselves learn from the experience of tutoring.
Some researchers, such as Mills 1 and Durden (1992), suggest that gifted students are held back when grouped with weaker students. More researchers support diversity in small groups, however. Radencich and McKay (1995) conclude that grouping by ability does not usually benefit overall achievement and can lead to inequalities of achievement. With good arguments on both sides, most teachers make choices based on their objectives.
Or, they simply alternate. Sometimes they group according to the strengths or interests of students, and other times they mix it up so that students can learn to work with different types of people. Just as experts differ on the make-up of groups, they also debate about the most effective size for small groups. According to Slavin 2 (1987), having two or three members per group produces higher achievement than groups with four or more members. Antil et al. (1997) conclude that most teachers prefer pairs and small groups of three and four. Elbaum et al. (1997) suggest that we have dialogues with students about their preferences for group composition and expected outcomes. And Fidler (1999) discusses the value of reflecting in order to correct errors we make in group assignments. Through many mistakes, Fidler learned how to refine the composition of his groups.
As we work through some examples of cooperative learning, you will learn how to devise groups that work best for particular assignments.
Science teacher Janet Torkel at Brooklyn’s P.S. 200 discusses how collaboration between teachers helps her students learn better. Seeing teachers working together helps reinforce the students’ own collaborative work. Most recently, new technologies have added an exciting new dimension to collaborative and cooperative learning. With the Internet, collaboration can occur without regard to distance or time barriers: e-mails can be sent at students’ or teachers’ convenience to practically anywhere around the world, and the recipient can reply when he or she has time. Students can work together to create Web pages or find and share data gleaned from the Net. There is software that can be used with school computer networks to allow students in different classrooms to work together simultaneously or a group of students to collaborate on projects like desktop publishing. For more on using technology with cooperative and collaborative learning, see the topic “How can technology be used with cooperative and collaborative learning?” in the “Exploration” section of this workshop.
What are the benefits of cooperative and collaborative learning?
Benefits from small-group learning in a collaborative environment include:
Celebration of diversity. Students learn to work with all types of people. During small-group interactions, they find many opportunities to reflect upon and reply to the diverse responses fellow learners bring to the questions raised. Small groups also allow students to add their perspectives to an issue based on their cultural differences. This exchange inevitably helps students to better understand other cultures and points of view.
Acknowledgment of individual differences. When questions are raised, different students will have a variety of responses. Each of these can help the group create a product that reflects a wide range of perspectives and is thus more complete and comprehensive.
Interpersonal development. Students learn to relate to their peers and other learners as they work together in group enterprises. This can be especially helpful for students who have difficulty with social skills. They can benefit from structured interactions with others. Actively involving students in learning. Each member has opportunities to contribute in small groups. Students are apt to take more ownership of their material and to think critically about related issues when they work as a team. More opportunities for personal feedback. Because there are more exchanges among students in small groups, your students receive more personal feedback about their ideas and responses. This feedback is often not possible in large-group instruction, in which one or two students exchange ideas and the rest of the class listens.
In Part 1 of this video clip, Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, who teaches grades one through three in Clayton, Missouri, talks about adjusting the make-up of cooperative groups. In Part 2, she discusses how even shy students can blossom when assigned to the right kind of group.
Beneficial, cooperative-learning situations are not easy to set up. In many situations, particularly those in which people must work together on a problem, conflicts prevent learning. As a result, cooperative learning requires teaching kids to work well with others by resolving these inevitable conflicts. In the next section, we will present specific techniques for dealing with group conflicts.
What are some critical perspectives?
Critics of small-group learning often point to problems related to vague objectives and poor expectations for accountability. Small-group work, some claim, is an avoidance of teaching. According to these critics, dividing the class into small groups allows the teacher to escape responsibility.
Vicki Randall (1999), who has taught elementary, high-school, and college-level students, cautions against abuse and overuse of group work. According to Randall, the many benefits of cooperative learning sometimes blind us to its drawbacks. She identifies the following practices as common weaknesses:
Making members of the group responsible for each other’s learning. This can place too great a burden on some students. In mixed-ability groups, the result is often that stronger students are left to teach weaker students and do most of the work. Encouraging only lower-level thinking and ignoring the strategies necessary for the inclusion of critical or higher-level thought. In small groups, there is sometimes only enough time to focus on the task at its most basic level.
You can find information about this and other critical works we cite on our Resources page.
Some critics cite the mix of students as a source of potential difficulties, although they disagree on which types of groups are problematic. Other dissenters highlight the overuse of cooperative groups to the detriment of students who benefit more from learning alone. Yet others recommend that we negotiate more with students to determine how they learn best and apply these ideas to the way we structure classes.
Recommendations from advocates of cooperative learning to address issues that critics raise include:
.making sure to identify clear questions at the outset and to show how these questions relate to students’ interests and abilities and the teaching goals;
.resolving small-group conflicts as soon as they arise and showing students how to prevent trouble in future;
.creating rubrics 1 at the beginning of any assignment and using these for guiding the learning process and for assessing final work;
.helping students reflect on their progress on a regular
.expecting excellence from all students and letting them know that you believe in them and their ability to produce excellent work.
Another possible problem with cooperative learning involves racial and gender inequities. Research (Cohen 1986; Sadker et al. 1991;
Linn and Burbules 1993) shows that in science, and perhaps in other areas of the curriculum as well, group learning may be LESS equitable for girls than autonomous learning. Group learning may reinforce stereotypes, biases, and views of science and math as a male domain. Male students may discredit females, and the classroom may become a microcosm of the “old boy” network that has frequently discouraged women and minorities from participating in certain curricular activities. Specifically, according to Sadker et al. (1991):
The different and contradictory findings of the relatively few studies analyzing cross-gender performance in cooperative learning organizations suggest that, by itself, the implementation of cooperative learning groups does not necessarily lead to a more equitable and effective learning environment for females and minorities.
Group formations that avoid diversity—e.g., all female or all racial-minorities—may be useful in these situations, but these groups also have drawbacks of their own.
How can I use cooperative and collaborative learning in conjunction with other educational techniques?
Since cooperative-learning techniques revolve around the use of a particular tool—small groups—they can be used with almost any other educational strategy.
Many of the other teaching techniques detailed in previous workshops include small-group learning activities. The cooperative-learning techniques described here will help you and your students make the best use of these small-group activities. Some types of cooperative learning (like those demonstrated in this workshop) have been developed in concert with the theory of multiple intelligences, so they work very readily with this strategy. In small groups, students can share their strengths and weaknesses and use the group activities to develop a variety of their intelligences.
Cooperative activities involve the construction of new ideas based on personal and shared foundations of past experiences and understandings—so they naturally apply some of the principles of constructivism. Learners also investigate significant, real-world problems through good explorative questions, and as a result these groups can easily be used for an inquiry-based approach. They can also help students meet national, state, or local standards. Cooperative and collaborative activities can have many different objectives, ranging from mastery of basic skills to higher-order thinking. Because the specifics of a cooperative-learning project depend on the objectives of the particular teacher, the teacher can easily orient the project toward meeting these standards.