Cooperative Learning: It Doesn’t Have to Be Hell…with My 12 Best Tips and Tricks
Cooperative learning has long been heralded as a way to eliminate behavior problems. In my experience however, it doesn’t so much solve them as highlight them. Effective cooperative learning takes a high level of classroom management and commitment to norming. I’ve seen teachers try and give up on cooperative learning (often in the course of one afternoon), not because it is not effective, but rather because they had not laid the foundation which would allow students to effectively participate. Make no mistake, cooperative learning means giving students increased independence and control over their learning, but it doesn’t mean that the teacher’s role is any less important or that the teacher is less present. Giving students that freedom however, without strict norms in place, is a great way to create the classroom from hell.
Norming, if you are not familiar with the word, is the explicit teaching of procedures and routines to a level of automaticity. It is, in a sense, over-teaching desired behaviors. In order for effective cooperative learning to take place children must know and practice specific classroom procedures. Take for example Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up. For this most basic of structures, children must have procedures for how to stand and push in their chair, how to walk around the room, and how to locate a partner. They must practice these procedures repeatedly, be monitored and given feedback, BEFORE cooperative learning is even attempted.
In my classroom students quietly stand, push in their chairs, raise their hands and walk (usually to music) around the room. When the music stops they high five the person closest to them and pair. They’ve heard beforehand, “There is no one who stinks so bad you can’t have a 30 second conversation with them. You don’t have to marry them, be their best friend, or invite them to your birthday party, but you do have to be respectful of them.” That means no trying to get away from another student, rolling your eyes, or sneering at your pairing. I’ve modeled what the behaviors I don’t want to see look like. I make it funny, but I mean it seriously. Moreover, I expect pairings to take place within five to seven seconds. If we are using music to walk around the room and mix up beforehand, I expect everyone to walk in a random pattern (feel free to stop the music when you see students you want to be paired close to each other or those you do not want to be paired are far away). If you cannot keep certain students apart consider using clock buddies or iphone contacts (Check out this article 15 Quick and Creative Ways to Group and Partner Students by Scholastic). Only allow each student pair up with another one time and then avoid calling the time of the pairing you do not want.
When partners are pairing, be vigilant and walk around the room to make sure that students are on topic. Students will come to expect that you will be there listening in and be more likely to keep to the subject at hand. Monitor which groups are finished. Don’t wait for every group to finish talking before moving on. If you wait for every group to finish, you will lose students and conversations will go off topic. When three fourths of the groups are finishing up, move on to the next pairing or question. You and your students can master cooperative learning with a little practice. Consider these additional twelve tips:
- Use calm classical music if your students are excited easily. I enjoy Motown, but some groups of students cannot handle the upbeat tempo. You can also count or chant as they walk.
- Model what you want to see, as well as what you don’t, beforehand. Leave no room for misinterpretation.
- Have a Lost and Found, such as the rug in the front of the room, where students go if they cannot find a partner within a few seconds (just in case you miscounted, someone is in the bathroom, or have students who like to wander)
- Have a backup plan. Someone is not going to follow the procedures precisely. What happens then? Does the whole class have to go back and start over? Does the student lose the right to choose a partner or perhaps have to be the teacher’s partner? Does the student have to write his/her response instead of sharing it with a partner? It is inevitable, so make sure you prepare for it. The last thing you want is to send the student back to their seat were s/he misses out on learning. Those that can least afford to miss learning opportunities are often the most likely to do so.
- Practice (repeatedly) at the beginning of the year with get-to-know you activities, so that you can focus on teaching the structure and norms. You will get more out of your content instruction later if you take the time to do so early on. And don’t forget after any long breaks from school to revisit those norms.
- If you are using music, spike the sound right before you turn it off to get students’ attention.
- If your students cannot handle standing, have partners sit on the floor or at tables.
- Pre-teach quiet signals. Whether a cheer, clap, bell, or song, students need to know ahead of time how you will be regaining their attention.
- Timers are a great way to create a sense of urgency where there is none. I use online -stopwatch.com.
- Consider writing the questions/discussion points on the board, just in case someone wasn’t paying attention.
- Provide sentence stems or a word box for targeted talk.
- Resist the urge to go finish paperwork, straighten or do other tasks. Your presence and interest indicates to students that what they are doing is important to their learning.
Cooperative learning is totally doable, even with a class that struggles with behavior, if you put in the time to explicitly teach and practice desired behaviors. Norming will ensure that students know what to do and how to do it and keep you from feeling like you’re in teaching hell!