Transform Classrooms with Training in Cooperative Learning

by Stan Friedland

Undoubtedly, your school district has taken on as a goal for the new school year the raising of academic standards and expectations for children at all grade levels. You plan to exhort the faculty at every opportunity to make this a top priority.

But assuming your staff already is hard working, will pushing them to do more of what they're already doing achieve the desired results? What new element should be added to the mix that really will make a significant difference?

Consider cooperative learning. Since the most important place of instruction will continue to be the classroom, its transformation into a place of greater energy, interest, and time on task is essential for achieving higher learning levels by all students. Cooperative learning, the most heavily researched of the three instructional strategies (traditional and individualized being the others) in use today, not only contributes to improved academic outcomes, but also better developed socialization skills, reduced disciplinary problems, and other important benefits.

I've trained more than 800 teachers in cooperative learning over the last five years as part of in-service skills development. I also have surveyed for results. Those who use cooperative learning with some consistency report significant improvements in their student’s learning which mirrors the research.

A Possible Sequence

Cooperative learning is neither difficult nor costly for a school district to develop. Here’s how I suggest a district train its teachers, based on the sequence I followed while working recently with the faculty in a 3,200-student Pennsylvania school district.

* First, provide a positive introduction to cooperative learning. Let the faculty know that research shows this instructional format raises student learning levels considerably. With some 425 articles on the topic from which to choose, I provided several to the faculty, along with an invitation to attend an in-service program on cooperative learning.

* Emphasize that the cooperative format does not replace, but rather supplements, the traditional classroom. Teachers are the sole determinants of how and when to use this instructional strategy in their respective classrooms. In other words, make participation voluntary in the in-service activity and in subsequent use. A good in-service program is its own powerful stimulus.

In my district, the first group of volunteers were 32 teachers, spanning the K-12 grade levels and subject areas. We met for three successive days in late June, which was their contracted period for in-service work. Two days is the minimum for providing the necessary base of introduction and skill development that will enable teachers to get started successfully. A two or three-day foundation will enable teachers to take small introductory steps in their classrooms. Early success is vital to continued momentum.

* Monitor these steps throughout the year. I use a bi-monthly newsletter. Teachers write to me about their efforts and problems in cooperative learning, and I respond with substantive suggestions and strong encouragement. The resulting mix usually makes for a stimulating newsletter, which is distributed to each member of the group.

* Conduct in-service sessions in a cooperative format. I assign participants to teams with three other peers with similar grade-level or subject-area responsibilities. Each team is given a full mix of cooperative learning structures and exercises in different subject areas, encompassing the full five elements that make up the complete cooperative learning sequence. They learn by doing. The contributions of brothers David and Roger Johnson, Spencer Kagan, William Glasser, and Robert Slavin, all major originators of cooperative learning, are recognized. Kagan’s Cooperative Learning serves as an excellent, daily resource.

* Provide additional, follow-up training. I returned to the Pennsylvania district in January of the subsequent school year for one day of review and reinforcement. The quarterly newsletters continue throughout the entire first year, which completes the in-service program.

Major Gains

In this case, the results were impressive. The number of teachers in the district who asked to learn about cooperative learning doubled during the following years, so an additional two groups received training. Teachers found the use of cooperative learning essential to the high school’s move to a block schedule of four 80-minute periods. Both faculty and students felt the cooperative format made a significant difference in realizing the potential of the double-sized periods. The block schedule allowed the high school to gain an additional week-and-a-half of instructional time over the school year.

Finally, significant improvement in learning outcomes, paralleling the research, was reported by teachers and students at the end of the year.

In the hands of trained and enthusiastic teachers, cooperative learning can transform a classroom, enabling students to learn more effectively and to develop invaluable socialization skills as well.

Stan Friedland is a former high school principal in Bayport, N.Y. He is president, Principal Services, Syosset, New York