Does this scenario sound familiar? The teacher assigns a group project, outlines the task, and gives a deadline for completion. Students are expected to work together and participate equally, but we all know what happens. The self-appointed leader takes over, makes all the decisions, and does most of the work. Other team members may contribute, but some do nothing or even become a distraction to the real work. When the final project is turned in, everyone gets the same grade no matter what they contributed to the project.
But what I just described is NOT cooperative learning. The scenario I described above is nothing more than unstructured group work, and there’s nothing research-based about it. No wonder it still gets a bad rap in some educational circles!
But if that's not cooperative learning, what does cooperative learning look like? I discovered the answer to this almost 20 years ago when I was first trained in the "structural" approach to cooperative learning developed by Dr. Spencer Kagan. In this model, academic tasks are structured or divided so that everyone participates equally and all students are held accountable. Dr. Kagan developed a wide variety of structures that have since been adopted by teachers all over the world, strategies that take the "group work" out of cooperative learning. I began implementing these strategies in my own classroom and found them to be extremely effective.
How to Foster Effective Team Discussions
Introducing accountability and rules of equal participation can be as easy as changing to a new team discussion format. Remember the scenario I mentioned above in which one person on the team does all the work? The same thing often happens in a team discussion when a teacher asks students to “talk it over with your team.” The assertive students dominate the discussion and the shy ones never have an opportunity to talk. To avoid this problem, try one of these strategies:
- Place students in teams of 4 or 5 and have them number off in order around the team. After you pose a question, students take turns responding in numerical order. To provide even more structure, give each team member a certain amount of time to respond such as 30 seconds or a minute.
- Pair students with one discussion partner and have them first discuss a topic together, and then share their ideas with the whole team.
- Use objects such as plastic chips or craft sticks to equalize participation. Dr. Kagan suggests chips, but I use craft sticks because those chips roll everywhere! Give each student 3 sticks to hold during the discussion. When a question is presented, students who want to respond place a craft stick into a plastic cup. When students run out of sticks, they have to be quiet and listen to the rest of their teammates until all sticks are in the cup.
Another way to promote more effective discussions is to create question task cards to keep the discussion focused and moving along. Stack the cards face down in the middle of the team. The discussion leader flips over the top card, reads the question, and opens the topic for discussion. You can use question cards in almost any subject area. For examples of the types of questions that work well, take a look at my Talking Sticks Discussion cards shown here. I also created a set of Talking Sticks cards based on Common Core Reading Standards for each grade level, 2 through 5. You can explore those questions from this link to the Talking Sticks Common Core Combo pack.
Do you see how easy it is to make a few simple changes that will drastically increase accountability and participation? When you learn a few of the basics, you’ll be amazed at how simple it is to change group work into cooperative learning. If you are not familiar with Dr. Kagan's structural approach to cooperative learning, I highly recommend his book, Kagan Cooperative Learning, as the definitive resource on this topic. In addition to learning more about effective team discussions, you’ll discover a wealth of cooperative learning structures to bring order to what might otherwise turn into chaos in the classroom. I also recommend receiving several days of training from Kagan Professional Development to help you learn how to implement these strategies. One thing I loved about the training was the opportunity to experience the strategies and practice them during the workshop. The time just flew by and the whole experience was nothing short of transformative. I went from being burned out on teaching to fired up in the classroom! In fact, I embraced these strategies so fully that I ended up writing 5 cooperative learning books that were published by Kagan. You can see all of my books below and click here to find them all on the Kagan website.
Believe it or not, many educators are still skeptical about the benefits of cooperative learning. However, it's not cooperative learning that's the problem - it's poor implementation that turns teamwork into "group work." I used cooperative learning in my classroom for over 20 years and found it to be the very best way to actively engage students and keep them focused on instruction. As I worked with Dr. Kagan’s structural approach, I began to apply the principles of accountability and equal participation to my own instructional practices to ensure that each cooperative task was a learning opportunity for all. As I internalized these principals, I was able to create my own effective cooperative learning strategies. If you are one of those skeptics, I invite you to explore some of the resources in this blog post to discover the benefits of teamwork in the classroom. You can also explore the resources on the cooperative learning pages on my Teaching Resources website to discover strategies that are engaging as well as extremely effective.