Elementary Students Working Together

Common Ground: Teaching Kids the Benefits Of Working Together

Anna and Frances, both seven years old, are seated next to one another while they work hard on a storyboard in which they are outlining a book:

Anna: What do you think we should call it?

What do you think of The Mean Girls Club, Frances? Look, I can give them nasty expressions in my drawings.

Anna: Why are they acting so cruelly?

Frances: I can’t say for sure. It’s possible that they were treated poorly by someone.

Anna: Let’s work together to make them nice, but first we’ll make them mean.

Frances: Then, what are your plans for the club’s future?

Anna: It is going to be known as the Nice Girls Club. Take a look at this: we may cross out the word “mean” on the title page and write “kind” in its place.

Right at that moment, the students’ instructor, Mrs. Geni, flicks the light switch, which is a signal that it is time for the students to complete their writing projects and come together in a large group. Frances and Anna are confident that they will be able to continue working on their project tomorrow, so they attach their notes and sketches to the storyboard and then put it away.

In addition to reading and writing, the second grade students in Mrs. Geni’s class in Evanston, Illinois, are learning other key skills for success in the twenty-first century. These abilities include cooperation, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and innovation.

What were once referred to as “soft” skills in the workplace are now considered essential, key to the success of the business enterprise as well as the individual worker. These skills include working on teams, taking responsibility for one’s portion of a larger project, planning for the future, and completing the plan; these are the gears that will drive them in both their personal and professional lives. All of these entail learning along with other people.

Students are broken up into smaller groups and given a shared objective by their instructors in the educational method known as cooperative learning.

The students come to the realisation that not only do they share the same aim, but also the benefits that come with accomplishing it, as they progress through the project and work together toward a common objective. Learning through collaboration goes hand in hand with learning about social and emotional skills (SEL). In a nutshell, the two methods each contribute to the development of a variety of talents, including

Small Part of a Bigger Picture

self-awareness can be defined as the ability to recognise one’s own feelings as well as one’s own interests, capabilities, and limitations.
Self-management refers to the process of taking charge of one’s emotions and actions in order to curb impulsive tendencies and maintain a dogged determination to accomplish significant academic and personal objectives.
Being socially conscious is having an appreciation for the similarities and differences that exist among individuals and groups, as well as a comprehension of the wants and feelings of other people.
Relationship skills include fostering and sustaining positive connections with other people.
Taking responsibility for one’s actions means making wise decisions and making a positive contribution to one’s own school, one’s community, and the world at large.
Studies that use cooperative learning strategies routinely report an increase in engagement and active participation in the learning process. This, in turn, leads to an increase in student motivation, time spent on tasks, and retention times, as well as improvements in cognitive reasoning and the ability to see things from the perspectives of others.

Because it requires them to take on more of a facilitative role rather than a direct teaching one, cooperative learning might make some instructors feel uneasy. Students will occasionally whine that they are unable to collaborate with their pals or that they are being graded incorrectly because another student in their pair or group isn’t contributing their fair share of work.

The question now is: how can we make learning in groups effective?

photo by David Julian; credit due to him
Professors David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, codirectors of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota and authors of more than 400 research articles and book chapters as well as 40 books on cooperative learning, are recognised as world-renowned authorities in the field of research pertaining to the subject of cooperative learning. They conducted a research synthesis on the topic of cooperative learning and looked at the results of 550 different experiments on the topic. From this, they identified fundamental components of successful cooperative learning. One of these aspects is the specific manner in which the groups are organised: How can you strike a balance between your skills and your roles? Developmental strengths and needs? What about race and gender? How long should members of a group continue to spend time together? What should the appropriate number be? Who will take charge of leading the group? When selecting and preparing individual students for participation in collaborative learning groups, competent classroom instructors take each of these considerations into account. (For further information on this topic, see “Cooperative Education: Making It Work.”)

One thing to keep in mind is that the size of the groups you are working with might change at any time depending on the objectives of the lesson. For instance, during one particular two-week period, Anna and Frances work together as a literary team; but, they split up to work on a different science project later on. Alterations can also be made to members’ positions within the group.

Principal Mary Tavegia of Cossitt Avenue School in LaGrange, Illinois, places a strong emphasis on the necessity of matching pupils and roles as follows: “The educator needs to consider, “What, in terms of the children’s development, do we anticipate of them at this age?” What might I anticipate from this one child in particular?’ You wouldn’t want to put a student who has problems speaking in a position where he is guaranteed to fail by making him the group discussion leader from the get-go, would you?”

According to Johnson and Johnson, teachers need to establish the ground rules and protocols for working in groups as soon as possible. They highlight the significance of each individual supporting and encouraging their peers in the tasks that they play so that the group as a whole is able to accomplish something that none of them could accomplish on their own. Teachers should also structure the activity in such a way that each student’s input is vital to the overall goal, and that each student is given the opportunity to contribute to the success of the group as a whole by assisting, supporting, and appreciating the efforts of their peers. In the context of cooperative education, no one is expendable.

After each group’s work is complete, the class should come together for a debriefing and discussion. The students can then consider whether or not their group was able to accomplish its goals, whether or not they got along with one another while working together, and what other tactics they would employ the next time. Students will gain an understanding of this concept as the activity progresses, which is that the success of their group, and consequently their own success as individuals, is dependent on the full engagement of each student. The debriefing process is educational for the instructor as well, since it provides valuable feedback that may be used to shape the subsequent project that involves cooperative learning.

Additionally, Tavegia stresses the need of viewing cooperative learning as a “instructional and learning opportunity, not a grading opportunity.” She goes on to say that considering things from this angle removes the worry that collaborative instruction is “It is unfair since only a select few may complete all of the work, but the grade will be averaged out for everyone. When it is utilised as a grading factor, nobody is thrilled about it.”

Chances for group learning outside of the classroom are, tragically, on the decline. Cooperative learning provides alternatives to these opportunities. According to Daniel Goleman, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence,” the number of opportunities for children in the United States to engage in free play without the supervision of an adult and to find meaningful ways to contribute to their communities is on the decline. As a result, children in the United States are becoming less cooperative, less able to work things out for themselves, and less able to control their impulses. He warns that if you act inappropriately in front of others, you won’t be able to get away with it. “A youngster feels pressure from the group, which acts as a driving factor in encouraging the child to want to learn how to get along with others. It’s a fantastic environment for developing your emotional intelligence.”

Students are better able to stay on track and establish strong peer relationships if they are able to get along with one another, are able to see things from the perspective of others, and are able to control their own emotions. It has been found that youngsters who are able to do these things are also better able to pay attention, take in information, and remember what they read and hear. SEL programmes teach these abilities in a deliberate and experiential manner; cooperative learning gives opportunity for practise and reinforcement of previously acquired skills.

Credit for this image goes to David Julian Small. A Piece of a Much Larger Puzzle
Cooperative learning and social and emotional learning (SEL) skills are the foundation for many different teaching methodologies. For instance, one method known as the academic dispute approach has students work in groups to conduct research and give arguments for both sides of a controversial topic. After that, they collaborate with a team that is working against them to produce a report that incorporates the most important aspects of both points of view.

Another illustration of this is something known as the jigsaw, in which each individual student is accountable for preparing and delivering a portion of a lesson to the others in their group. Due to the fact that each child has assumed the complimentary roles of teacher and student, even though each child only prepares a little portion of a lesson (a piece of the puzzle), all of the children receive the full lesson (the entire puzzle).

Project-based learning, in which a group of students investigates a problem from the real world by using the documents and data from the source, also places a significant emphasis on cooperative group learning that makes use of SEL abilities. (For further reading on this topic, check out the article titled “New Skills for a New Century: Students Thrive on Cooperation and Problem Solving.”) The culmination of the group’s efforts is a report that is typically delivered to families as well as the larger community at large. This report may include actionable suggestions for how the issue might be resolved. Students get an awareness for the complexity of real-world situations as well as the intellectual and social-emotional abilities necessary to tackle them when they participate in project-based learning. This is also a potent source of feedback, and it contributes significantly to the learning of the students.

When it comes to teaching social and emotional learning skills, one of the most important supporting instructional methods is the usage of cooperative learning groups. Although the complexity of the social and emotional learning (SEL) instruction will change depending on the children’s developmental level, the essential component of cooperative learning — working together to achieve shared goals — will remain the same no matter what grade level the students are in.

For example, in the earlier grades of primary school, class meetings serve as a venue for collaborative learning of self-awareness, the assimilation of perspectives, and the solution of group problems. The children greet one another by name, discuss how they are feeling, and perhaps give a favourite object from home. They then participate with their classmates in an activity that is not competitive, and possibly check the progress that is being made on a project that involves the entire class.

Students of different ages work together over the course of an extended period of time on academic or service-learning projects in every subject area imaginable as part of the cooperative learning method known as cross-age mentoring, which is used in the upper elementary school grades and the middle school grades. These projects can include language arts, social studies, and art assignments in addition to science, math, and technology projects. (In the classroom, children of varying ages first learn and practise the social and emotional learning skills necessary for them to collaborate effectively.) These kinds of projects provide a wealth of opportunity to put one’s abilities to use and further develop them, to listen to and provide feedback on alternative methods, and to resolve interpersonal issues.

What about the grownups who are in the structure? Cooperative learning that builds on students’ already established social and emotional skills might be beneficial to them as well. Rather of feeling overwhelmed by the constant stream of new knowledge, faculty and staff members who take part in collaborative research, lesson planning, and classroom projects find that the material serves to enliven and inspire them. Changing the atmosphere of the school one person at a time may seem impossible, but when done as part of a group effort, it not only becomes feasible but also brings its participants a sense of satisfaction. Furthermore, teachers who are connected with other adults in the building in ways that are supportive and respectful have a lower risk of burning out and have a greater likelihood of remaining in their positions.

Benefits Explored

According to the findings of research conducted by Johnson and Johnson, cooperative learning is consistently more effective than either individualistic or competitive learning when it comes to promoting student improvement in areas such as intrinsic motivation and effort to achieve, material retained, the quality of interpersonal relationships, reasoning skills used, psychological health, and academic achievement. These learning outcomes were consistent across a wide variety of subject matter areas, grade levels, countries, and decades.

Students get the benefits of cooperative learning whether they participate in it for only a few minutes in ad hoc groups to summarise and reflect on the major points of a lesson, or whether they are members of a group that participates in a yearlong study or a project-based learning group. Students who are socially isolated and adolescents who are emotionally troubled learn social and emotional learning skills more effectively and are more likely to interact correctly with others when they are instructed in cooperative-learning circumstances as opposed to more traditional ones.

Kids are taught that their individual success is not dependent on competing against that of others through the use of cooperative learning, which not only helps students succeed academically but also supports that accomplishment. This is a good preparation for participation in the complicated and contested world that we find ourselves in at the beginning of the twenty-first century.