Cooperative Learning - A Worthy Labor of Love

Maggie Bruski

One of the most effective instructional strategies I implemented in my high school math classes was cooperative learning. Students were actively engaged, struggling together to work out solutions to challenging problems. It was organized chaos - everyone had a role and played a part in the collaboration, but boy, were those kids digging deep and thinking. Hard. Sounds great, right? It was great, but it took time and lots of hard work on my part, and the part of the students, to get to that point.

When I first introduced my students to cooperative “study teams” (a term coined by College Prep Math, the publisher of the textbook resource used in my class), it was a struggle. They didn’t know how to effectively communicate or properly support each other. Students would give up if they didn’t easily settle on an agreeable solution, reverting to passive participant roles and slipping out of mathematical dialogue to talk of dates and movies.

Perseverance was critical. Expectations were made clear, every student played a part in their team, and structure was provided to encourage accountability and higher order thinking. We modeled all of this openly again and again. It payed off. But that didn’t mean I could sit back at my desk and just let the class carry-on without me. No, as a true “guide on the side,” I had much to do. I was constantly working the classroom, checking in with teams, asking probing questions, pushing their thinking. True, the students were finally working harder than me, but it wouldn’t do to sit back and watch it all go down, I had to be an active participant as well.

As I recently pondered the potential of this powerful practice, I came across an article we used in one of our Teacher Learning Communities that now resides in the SEED PAK: Making Cooperative Learning Powerful. Author Robert Slavin shares “five key practices” that are critical for successful student cooperation:

  1. Form interdependent teams.

  2. Set group goals.

  3. Ensure individual accountability.

  4. Teach communication and problem-solving skills.

  5. Integrate cooperative learning with other structures.

If you’re interested in how to bring about successful cooperative learning to your classroom, Slavin’s article would be a great resource as you begin your efforts. If you’re a teacher in the northwestern Colorado BOCES region, and you would like to earn contact hours for reading his article, I encourage you to login to the SEED PAK and respond to the reflection questions. Above all, if you would like to implement cooperative learning in your classroom, don’t give up if your students stumble. Their struggles, and yours, are worth the effort.

Begin with Slavin's practices, think about what I shared above, seek out support and additional resources as new challenges arise, follow through, and your efforts will pay off enormously. Not only will your students benefit, but the teacher evaluation system in Colorado expects teachers to “provide students with opportunities to work in teams and develop leadership qualities.” Cooperative learning fits with that expectation perfectly. Teachers are also charged with the task of developing students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Paired together, these requirements might be met through the effective use of cooperative learning, and the potential for student achievement is boundless.