Cooperative learning is defined as an interdependent group strategy that relies on cooperation to accomplish tasks that are mutually beneficial for all members of the group (Johnson &Johnson, n.d.). Research has been conducted on this strategy for over 100 years and in multiple countries and suggests classroom use of cooperative learning benefits students in numerous ways. These studies show that cooperative grouping facilitates higher-level thinking, communication, social, and motivational skills in ways that competitive and individual learning cannot. Additionally, cooperation leads to a greater interest in achievement, stronger critical thinking, and positive attitudes regarding school in general. Kagan (1994), states that there has also been a strong positive correlation to minority achievement through positive interdependence when implementing cooperative learning is regularly in the classroom. Cooperative grouping allows students of all ability levels to come together and be a part of something more than what is offered at the individual level.
Dahley (1994) identifies classroom needs that promote a comfortable cooperative learning environment in schools. Using the cooperative learning strategy increases student achievement, social skills, post-school success, and the utilization of resources. Research supports this strategy as an engaging environment for the learner resulting in higher academic achievement and self-esteem in students. This in turn increases the overall satisfaction of learning in students and promotes the desire to achieve, as well as creates practical skills needed in the business world.
Johnson & Johnson (n.d.) advocate the use of cooperative learning in any type of curriculum that group work is feasible. The criteria for effective implementation in any classroom include the modification of existing resources as one of the foundations for this strategy. Moreover, the teacher is required to understand the needs surrounding the curriculum, subject, and students. This will allow for the assessment of effective heterogeneous grouping structures within the classroom. There are five essential components presented for teachers to consider when forming cooperative learning groups. The first is group size. Small groups of two to five are most effective, especially with heterogeneous grouping. The second component is group function. Functionality of a group involves collaboration, problem solving, discussions, brainstorming, and sharing resources to arrive at a mutually beneficial destination. Another important aspect is group norms, which are cultivated over time by creating the groups and holding them to the standards of interdependence for achievement. Next, group skills are required to be taught throughout the process. Teaching and reinforcing the desired skills of teamwork, supporting others in the group, acceptance, positive interactions, and conflict resolution will not only help the students understand what is expected of them in their groups, but these skills also transfer to other areas such as the classroom, school, and community. Finally, goals and rules are to be communicated clearly to the students. This is important for group construction as well as the activities the groups must accomplish together.
Kagan (1994) focuses on engaging interdependence that involves all students cooperatively and not competitively. Grouping should be structured to benefit all group members equally and utilize the different strengths of each member to compensate for any deficiencies. When teachers create a cooperative learning environment to present lesson material to carefully selected heterogeneous groups, the cooperation of students will increase and competitive behaviors become diminished. Even though competition is a normal behavior exhibited by students, excessive use of competition can undermine achievement in the classroom. Cooperation does not exhibit this quality. It enhances learning by creating a structured learning environment that requires the student to be an active participant in the learning process, as opposed to a passive observer in a classroom. Reducing competition in the classroom also provides an opportunity for ELL students to take risks they normally would not. Cooperative learning is motivational for ELL students as it gives multiple perspectives within the group, it leads to deeper understanding of the material, and it allows them to construct knowledge by observing other students applying higher-level thinking (Colorado, 2007).
The effective implementation of cooperative learning entails five elements. The first element, positive interdependence, ensures the reliance on each group member to complete the tasks. Face-to-face interaction is the second, and it requires each group member to interact personally with each member in a positive manner. Next, the accountability of each group member assures that the third element of individual participation is met. The fourth, social skills, builds the environment for learning the necessary skills throughout the interactions of the group as well as enhancing skills brought in from the members. Finally, group processing assesses the group through the positive and negative opinions of the group members (Dahley, 1994, Johnson & Johnson, n.d., Kagan, 1994).
The circumstances that allow for the use of this strategy are limitless. From pre-school to high school, the group interaction creates an interdependence that promotes socially responsible behavior and increased achievement. When this approach is used to improve language skills, the students have the ability to think at a higher level, hear and discuss the opinions of other students, and relate the material to their lives in a more genuine way. An example of an activity involving this strategy is the Think-Pair-Share activity (Kagan, 1994). The students begin by working individually on the questions that are given for a specific topic, such as identification and comparison of characters in a book the class is reading. After about ten minutes, the students are grouped in pairs where they discuss the answers to their questions with each other. After about five minutes, the pairs then share their answers with other teams or the whole group. This strategy helps ELL students communicate what they are thinking to a classmate in a less threatening environment and get the perspective of other students.
Cooperative grouping has many different approaches. Groups can be small as pairs or large as required to meet the objectives of the instructional activity. Ideally, they should contain three to five heterogeneous students for the majority of activities assigned. Homogeneous grouping, or ability grouping, can have some benefits but is generally best to be used sparingly, especially with ELL students. Grouping ELL students homogeneously will not allow for language growth, as they will not have access to the peer modeling necessary to increase their language skills. Randomly placing students in groups can be effective as long as all groups can meet the instructional goals of the activity, and there is a low incidence of ELL students in the classroom. Effective placement in heterogeneous groups requires teachers to be aware of the ability levels and social skills of the students in order to match up complimentary skills.
Cooperative grouping used to help students with written expression helps students gain experience by working through the writing process. This is especially beneficial to ELL students. The teacher can create mixed ability groups where the stronger writers are able to help the weaker ones. Groups can be created to begin the writing process with prewriting, which calls for brainstorming topic ideas. All students can easily contribute to this step. After students have selected a topic, they can write their rough draft in pairs. When it is time for revision and editing, group members take turns reading the papers and adding comments, questions, or corrections as needed until the final draft is completed. This gives students the experience of reading the papers of other students as the writing process unfolds and the opportunity to improve their own writing skills through peer evaluations.
Working in small groups can help ELL students learn how to work together and bring out learning opportunities that may have been missed by independent work alone. When students have a clear common goal to work toward they can use their skills to help each other learn (Gootman, 2001). By encouraging effective communication between peers to solve problems in a safe orderly environment, a teacher is encouraging social growth and learning as well as academic achievement. As students learn to interact effectively with other students, accepting and contributing different ideas from the group as a whole it not only builds confidence in the student socially, it strengthens the sense of achievement in academic tasks. For ELL students, this provides a safe learning environment for them to learn and expand their cognitive language skills within a social context.
Using cooperative learning groups not only develops psychosocial skills in a safe and controlled environment, but also creates situations for ELL students to develop their language skills through peer modeling. Cooperative learning allows ELL students who may not understand a given assignment to get assistance from peers who do. Most students enjoy group work, and when they work in groups it can be a way to encourage them to participate in a task that may be otherwise challenging or difficult for them. The drawback to this is that some students can just allow the others to do their work for them, but if the teacher is watching closely, it should be apparent who is contributing and who is not and the teacher can intervene as needed.
There is a high level of student engagement with cooperative grouping. All of the students have a task and actively focus on doing their part. They can use ideas from each other to come up with a solution to their group problem. Cooperative behaviors occur when the students who are more knowledgeable assist those who are struggling in order to complete the task as a group. This allows ELL students to build their language skills.