Practices for Student Cooperation, Part 4: Communication and Problem Solving Skills

Maggie Bruski

When I asked my daughter, who is going into the sixth grade next school year, how she felt about cooperative learning she shared that her group-mates gave her “lots of different ideas I hadn’t thought of and lots of different ways to see things.” When asked about the steps her teachers took to make cooperative learning work for her class she said, “my teacher helped us become comfortable as a team and we were all a part of something and a part of a community.” In my book that is a huge victory! The last two blogs in which I’ve written about student cooperation highlighted the fact that many students aren’t fans of “group work.” As demonstrated by my daughter's enthusiasm for learning in a collaborative community, this dislike is not universal. When implemented with careful consideration and planning, student cooperation can be a highly successful instructional strategy, welcomed and embraced by students.

The fourth practice from the SEED PAK PD Market resource on student cooperation, Making Cooperative Learning Powerful, highlights communication and problem solving skills. Slavin shares that students “...need to learn about, practice and refine key interpersonal skills” (2014). When partnered with the expectation that “all team members are actively participating in the thinking parts of the group’s tasks” (2014), students are well on their way to meaningful learning opportunities through student collaboration. So that each aspect of this fourth practice gets its time in the spotlight, I’m going to split this practice into two blogs. This first one will focus on communication.

As discussed in the preceding three blogs (click for part 1, part 2, part 3), the first steps towards powerful cooperative learning are to create a classroom culture and climate where students embrace the value of learning together and from each other, and where each child knows their part- what’s expected of them and what’s expected of the team. Moving forward to round out these strategies, explicitly teaching students communication skills is not only a necessary ingredient for successful cooperative learning, it is a crucial 21st-century skill. In the article, Making Cooperative Learning Powerful, the author highlights interpersonal skills, including active listening and explaining ideas and opinions both of which are necessary for effective communication.

Active Listening

Oxford Learning does a good job of describing active listening:

Active listening means giving full attention to the speaker and trying to understand the complete message being sent. Active listeners show verbal and nonverbal signs of listening. Positive reinforcement, remembering, and questioning are all verbal signs of active listening. Non-verbal signs include smiling, head nods, posture, and avoiding all distractions. Active listening also involves encouraging positive conversation. This means acknowledging the other person’s point of view and being able to repeat back what was said in your own words (2017).

Not only would this skill enhance cooperative learning, it can lead to higher levels of student engagement. Students might need a good deal of practice as they learn how to actively listen. The Edutopia blog, Say What? 5 Ways to Get Students to Listen has some easy strategies to guide teachers as they encourage active listening among their students. Pay Attention, Pause, and Paraphrase is one of these strategies and includes having students talk in either pairs or small groups, where there is only one speaker at a time. The speaker responds to a prompt, the others listen as their next steps will be to paraphrase what the speaker said, after which listeners can follow the paraphrase with an “I” statement. Helpful sentence starters for this last phase could include “I see what you mean…” or “I’m not sure I agree…”. In order for this, or any other active listening scaffold to be effective, it is highly recommended that the teacher models these strategies for their students (Alber, 2013). For more ideas on how to teach active listening skills to your students check out the two following lesson plans that can be found in the SEED PAK: Lesson: The Power Of Active Listening and Active Listening (for grades 3-6).

Explaining Ideas and Opinions

Returning to Making Cooperative Learning Powerful the author elaborates on what the expectation of explaining ideas and opinions means for students: “Explaining must go beyond single-word answers; students must be able to identify sources or reasons for their personal opinions or conclusions” (Slavin, 2014). When considering how teachers might go about supporting students as they explain their ideas and opinions my thoughts go straight to Socratic Seminars as one way of many to structure communication. Often rooted in a text (though students can use other anchors from credible sources to provide evidence), the focus is on student thinking around a rich question. To learn more about Socratic Seminars I highly recommend reviewing the following set of resources in the SEED PAK’s PD Market: The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching, and Learning and Socratic Seminars Strategies for the Second Grade Classroom.  Again, much like when teaching students to be active listeners, it is imperative that teachers model what explaining ideas and opinions looks like for their students, even at the secondary level.

Communication is a cornerstone of the 21st-century skills, and with the digital age well underway, it is absolutely vital that we teach students to be effective communicators. How students communicate has certainly changed over the years, and instruction needs to change with these times. When teachers, like my daughter’s teachers this year, take the time to create collaborative structures so that students can freely share ideas and thoughts, the opportunities for learning are boundless.   

Citations

Alber, R. (2013, August 30). Say what? 5 ways to get students to listen. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/five-listening-strategies-rebecca-alber

Oxford Learning. (2017, June 13). Tips & activities to improve your child’s active listening skills. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearning.com/improve-active-listening-skills/ 

Slavin, R. E. (2014). Making Cooperative Learning Powerful. Educational Leadership,72(2), 22-26. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct14/vol72/num02/Making-Cooperative-Learning-Powerful.aspx