In this paper I will define cooperative learning as an instructional method in which students work together in small groups planned by the instructor. I will write about the main components of the cooperative group. Including the best number of students and where the ELL student should sit for maximum benefit. I will mention how to avoid some problems with management of the groups. One problem is when one student does all the work. The solution is to have a group grade and an individual grade. Also how the group will be encouraged to help each other. Another problem is when the groups will not stay on task. The solution is to have a strict time allotment and keep reminding the students how much time they have left. I will conclude with examples of cooperative group activities.
Cooperative learning is a teaching strategy that uses small groups of students. James Coleman (1959) identified competition in American schools as a negative factor and designed this strategy to reduce the competition but it was found to be useful in all learning. These groups are usually in groups of four but may be more or less. This is different than just doing group work because of the planning by the teacher as to the participants and goals of the group. Also with group work there is less structure. It may be as simple as getting together in groups of four and finish the chapter. With this type of group work the students get together randomly and finish the assignment. Some will finish earlier and will not have anything to do but get in trouble. Others may take more time than they should. Without strong rules in place and modeling to help students avoid conflicts many times arguments and fights may break out. Slavin (1994) feels there are three concepts that are needed for cooperative learning. One is the team should have a grade and also the student should have a grade. Two the students will be encouraged to help one another. Three the students are to improve their work. In cooperative learning there will be accountability, all will participate, all will understand the learning objective and all will be evaluated. Care is given that it is a mix of students so the group will be not only lower level or higher level or all Ell students. The Ell student will benefit the most from being seated across from the most proficient English speaker. The English used may not be perfect as to a grammatical standpoint but the Ell student will still be in a less threatening atmosphere and learning will take place. Daniel Holt, Barbara Chips, and Diane Wallace (1991) stated ELL need "the maximum amount of time possible for comprehending and using the English language in a low-risk environment". Along with English being learned there will be some socialization being taught if there are guidelines in place and modeling done by the teacher. It should be stressed by the teacher that there are different types of languages. David Noyes (2007) stresses the teacher should explain there is the language we use on the playground and there is the language that we use in a more formal setting as the school room. This is where a lot of monitoring and modeling will take place. The teacher will be roaming the room and making comments about the progress of each group. Also there will be a strict rule about teasing and respect. All comments and contributions should be met with respect and not criticism. Even if it is meant as a joke it is not allowed. All members will listen closely and actively to what other members say and not be doing or looking at something else. We listen by looking at the eyes of the speaker. We lean closer to the speaker and nod our head. The teacher is a guide more than an active participant. Before starting the teacher will clearly set the learning objective to the students. This is done routinely at my school and I think it works well. The learning objective is put on the board and repeated several times during the lesson. There will also be a time limit to the project. I put a clock on the board to show what time the group will break-up and give them reminders when the time is close. It is important that everyone participates and no one is allowed the option to not do anything or saying anything. This can be monitored by the teacher as she roams the room. The students should be made aware that there is a responsibility that everyone learns the objective and that may mean some of them may become teachers. My experience with my first grade class is that they are very eager to teach each other and with very little help from me will take it very seriously. As a teacher I am always worried about the noise level and if other classes can hear my class. I have found I have to put up with a higher noise level if they are interested in the work they will sometimes get a little excited. If the students are talking about the work and not about some social thing I try and let them have some freedom. This is another thing the teacher will assess when she roams the room. The group will be a mix of students as to gender, ability, and language proficiency. Each student will have a job to do. The English Language Learner will benefit from being in this group when the group has a mix of language abilities. The ELL student will hear English spoken by native speakers and will also feel less threatened because it is a small group. There is always the fear that the stronger students will take over and the weaker students will not work or be shoved to the side. One way to avoid this problem is to give each student an individual grade and to also grade the team. Another problem that may come up is the student that will adamantly refuse to work with another student. Patiently explain to the student that the groups will change and they will have a chance to work with someone else. Also this is the assignment and it has to be done. Part of the work is we have to become practiced in working with all people. As we grow up we must be able to get along with everyone. This is also the same response to give to the student that does not like cooperative groups but always wants to work alone. Stress that there will be other assignments and this has to be done now. Part of the grade and part of the learning objective is the ability to work with others without having a temper tantrum. I often have trouble with the unmotivated student. I avoid this by commenting on it when I am roaming the room, frequently using a clip board with a rubric for grading, and also by keeping a time limit and reminding them how much time they have left.
Besides language and socialization skills are there any other reasons to build cooperative learning activities in your lessons? One reason is to help the class feel more together as a unit. One I like to use at the beginning of the year is called "Find Someone Who". I give the students a list of questions and they have to find someone who can tell them the answer. The person who answers it initials the paper or even writes the answer. One question can be find someone who travelled to another country over the summer. Another questions is find someone who has more than two brothers. This activity could also easily be a review for a completed chapter. For instance a question could be find someone who knows the function of the leaves of a plant.
With this activity the students get to get up and walk around so the kinesthetic learners benefit. They talk to one another so there is modeling of language particularly for the ELL student. They are all accountable to finish the sheet of questions. The learning objective could be something like answer questions about the plant cycle. They are all participating in the activity. Another activity of cooperative learning that I particularly like is Mixed Pair Share. It reminds me of musical chairs. I adapt this to first graders by using pictures instead of questions the first time I use it. There is a lot of modeling done before we start the procedure. Every student has a picture and they walk around the room greeting each other formally. I do not allow any slang so there is a lot of modeling as to how we greet each other. I also explain in length what is active listening so when they discuss the picture to one another they use active listening. The greeting goes on for a minute or two and then I shout "stop". The last person they greet they share an explanation of their picture. They will tell the other person I have a picture of and explain whatever it is. Then the other person, who has been actively listening, will paraphrase back what that student has said. Then they switch roles. The accountability is each student must explain the picture to each other. They are dependent on each other to explain the picture so they can paraphrase it back. They all participate because they all have a picture. The learning objective can be to learn to paraphrase and to practice active listening skills. These are only two examples of cooperative learning using the whole class as a unit. Now I would like to show three examples of cooperative learning two using small groups of four and one using small groups of two.
"Around the Room" is one of the cooperative activities that allows some movement of the students. This will help the kinesthetic learners in the class. The teacher uses chart paper and tapes it around the room and writes different topics on it. For example if the class is studying weather the teacher may put different types of weather terms on the chart paper. Then the groups of four go around to the different topics and write what they know on the chart paper. There is a very short time to write this and every group has only one marker to write with. Each time the group goes to a different topic the marker goes to a different student. After this is done the teacher goes around and frames the most pertinent knowledge to show the class what is important. The accountability is every student must do some writing. The equal participation is everyone contributes to what is being written. The learning objective is to list facts about weather. Another activity is "Find the False Statement" this is organized by putting the students in groups of four. Then the teacher writes four statements on the board and the groups must decide which is the false statement. When the teacher gives the signal then the group holds up a number of the statement that is false. Each student decides which one is false then they must come to an agreement. The learning objective would be to be able to find what statement is false. The next activity does not involve a group of four but a group of two. This is useful in that it can be a quick way to use cooperative learning. The ELL student will talk over the answer with the other student quickly and they will both come up with the answer. This will help the ELL student because there will be some give and take but in a very small two person group. The accountability is they all have the question. Then they depend on each other to check out their answer and the learning objective is to find the answer to the question.
These activities will get all the students talking to each other and the Ell student will hear English spoken by more proficient speakers. Also it will help students learn how to share the spotlight, work as a group and to be accountable for their work and for the group's work.