Informal Group-work or Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning typically involves students working together in small groups to complete shared academic tasks. However, cooperative learning needs to be far more than just group work, putting students into groups does not necessarily gain a cooperative relationship. Cooperative learning has to be structured and managed by the teacher and students need to have individual accountability within the groups (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1994). Johnson and Johnson (1994, 1999) describe a model of cooperative learning with five elements of practice;

  • positive interdependencecooperative learning
  • face-to-face interaction
  • individual accountability and personal responsibility to achieve the group’s goals
  • use of relevant interpersonal and small-group skills
  • group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness

While the benefits of cooperative leaning have been extensively demonstrated (Hattie, 2009), research also shows that cooperative learning is not effectively implemented and is often informal group work without the key elements of group goals and individual accountability (Sapon-Shevin, 1994; Slavin, 1999).

When I stop and reflect on most of the cooperative learning activities I have in my classes they fall into the informal group work category.  As a science teacher there is a lot of  group work in my classes but most of it lacks clear group goals and individual accountability of group members. It has been a bit of a shock to discover the extent of the research that has gone on in the past and my personal oblivion to it.   I guess that is why Hatties’ (2009) work is so useful to teachers as it summarises a lot of  this past research and gives us a clear measure of what is the most beneficial to invest our limited time on.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1994). An overview of Cooperative Learning. In J. Thousand, A. Villa & A. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and Collaborative Learning. Baltimore: Brookes Press.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Making Cooperative Learning Work. Theory into Practice, 38(2), 67-73.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1994). Cooperative learning and middle schools: What would it take to really do it right? [Article]. Theory into Practice, 33(3), 183.

Slavin, R. E. (1999). Comprehensive Approaches to Cooperative Learning. Theory into Practice, 38(2), 74.


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