Group work is by no means the norm in every school classroom. Research has shown, however, that working together has a positive effect on children’s learning. Education researcher Claude Bollier talks about the conditions for cooperative learning and the advantages of this approach.
Eveline von Arx: Could you give us a practical example of cooperative learning in the middle school years (9- to 12-year-olds)?
Claude Bollier: In a class on “Society and the World Around Us,” for example, students might work in groups to learn about “The Roman Empire.” This topic lends itself particularly well to group work because it can be divided into subtopics (construction of roads and cities, the Roman house, the army, administrative structures, etc.). Each group might focus on one subtopic for a period of several weeks. The goal is for each student to become an expert on the group’s topic and to be able to explain what the group has learned. New groups are then formed consisting of one expert on each subtopic, and those experts report on the findings of their original groups. This method leads to more in-depth learning and understanding.
EvA: Why is that?
CB: To explain a topic to their classmates, students first have to understand it. And they discover how what they have learned relates to the topics covered by the other groups. A meta-study by John Hattie has shown that learning is more successful when children cooperate than when they learn on their own. They are more likely to recognize and understand how things fit together.
EvA: How can teachers evaluate the success of group work?
CB: Pre- and post-tests are one option. In the example I mentioned before, students might answer 8 to 10 written questions about “The Roman Empire” before starting their group work, revealing what they already know about the subject. Afterwards they take the same test again. A competition is also a possibility: Which group can answer the most questions correctly?
EvA: What role does the teacher play in cooperative learning?
CB: Teachers are there primarily to offer support, which can be a challenging task. They need to have a good grasp of the class dynamics. They provide the setting and the conditions for learning, but they don’t need to present all of the material. Assignments should be designed to encourage a more in-depth look at the topic, taking into account the children’s capabilities.
“Assignments should be designed to encourage a more in-depth look at the topic, taking into account the children’s capabilities.”
EvA: What if groups encounter difficulties or get into arguments? What if they can’t agree, or if some students feel that they’re being given all of the responsibility and doing all the work?
CB: In that case, the teacher – who also serves as a role model in a social sense – needs to address these issues and help the students find solutions: What can we do if some members of the group aren’t contributing their share? Through cooperative learning, children not only acquire knowledge of the subject matter; they also gain social skills. They learn how others view and respond to them, and they become more aware of their own strengths and capabilities.
These issues, too, are something the teacher can bring up for discussion. Perhaps there is a girl in the class who doesn’t want to participate; she would rather just listen. Is it possible to change a student’s role? If a boy doesn’t like to talk in front of a group, maybe he can be encouraged to give it a try. Cooperative learning forces children to interact and negotiate. Both teachers and students have to be able to deal with conflict.
EvA: What if some of the kids are overwhelmed by this approach and find it impossible to work in a group setting?
CB: That sometimes happens – perhaps some of them are dealing with a difficult home situation or struggling in school. These students, usually about 20 percent of the class, can be taught by the teacher separately while the rest of the class is engaged in group work.
EvA: Should students also be involved in evaluating their own learning?
CB: That’s a very important point. The students’ feedback is crucial, as they review the learning process: What went well? What could we do better next time? That’s how both students and teachers learn.
Prof. Claude Bollier is a primary school teacher and education researcher who teaches in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Applied Sciences of Special Needs Education in Zurich, Switzerland. His areas of interest include cooperative learning, coaching children with special needs, organizational consulting and conflict mediation.