Status report on cooperative learning in Great Britain

iStock_000016678101XSmallThe recently adopted National Curriculum in Great Britain has drawn attention to the need for research on the implementation of cooperative learning. The National Curriculum mandates that students be able to speak and listen effectively.

“By the age of seven,” according to the goals of the new curriculum, “children should be able to present real or imaginary events in a connected narrative to a small group of peers, speaking freely and audibly, and by the age of 11, the average child will be able to offer reasoned explanations of how a task has been done or a problem solved and to take part effectively in small-group discussion.”

Less off-task behavior

However, despite what would seem to be a prescription for cooperative learning, research conducted by Neville Bennett, School of Education, University of Exeter, over the last eight years, has revealed that most teachers in Great Britain have had little experience with cooperative learning.

Bennett reports that although classrooms routinely group children, students in British classrooms tend to work individually on tasks. Bennett observed cooperative interactions among group members less than 10% of the time, and he concluded that grouping was used mainly for organizational rather than instructional purposes.

According to Bennett, most peer talk involved questions about procedure or answers to specific questions. Rarely did students discuss ideas or give explanations of problem solving. Also, there was very little interaction between teachers and groups. Indeed, group teaching and group supervision were minimal, and, as a result, students were frequently off-task. Most interaction occurred between the teacher and individual students as work was graded. This usually took place at the teacher’s desk while other children waited in line for their turn to see the teacher.

Aware of the increasing evidence from the United States of the benefits of cooperative learning, Bennett carried out a study investigating the effects of introducing cooperative learning into British classrooms. As with much American research, he reported positive results: only small achievement differences between boys and girls, increased task involvement with very low off-task behavior, and a high percentage of instructional talk (talk directly relating to content or ideas), rather than procedural talk among group members.

Bennett also studied the effects of group composition on achievement. Of the homogeneous ability groups, only those of high ability performed well. Mixed ability group performance varied according to its composition. High achievers performed well regardless of the group to which they were assigned, but low or average achievers did not. Groups composed of one high achiever and two or more lower achievers outperformed all other combinations. Low achievers benefitted greatly when one high achiever was included in their group.

In response to teachers’ concerns about where they will find the time and the expertise to meet the new instructional and assessment demands of the National Curriculum, Bennett and his colleagues worked with teachers to study the impact of training on the implementation of successful cooperative learning models. They focused on how group design affected group interactions, group talk, and task outcomes, as well as the teacher’s role in classroom management.

New authority structure

Fifteen teachers of 4 to 12-year-olds were included in this study. All of the teachers had been using the traditional, non-cooperative grouping practices which Bennett had documented previously. Each of these teachers agreed to learn and then teach using one of two cooperative learning techniques: either a jigsaw arrangement in which students worked on one part of a group problem or project and shared results with the rest of the group, or a second model in which all groups members were expected to work together on the whole task.

Jointly, the teachers developed cooperative tasks in the areas of math, language, science and technology, and then spent six weeks implementing cooperative groups models in their classrooms. During this introductory period, teachers also created a new authority structure by establishing a new classroom rule: that all students’ questions or requests for help must first be dealt with within their group.

Only when students could not arrive at an answer themselves or solve a problem cooperatively could they ask the teacher for help. Bennett observed and tape-recorded these groups and then transcribed the tapes for later analysis. In addition, the teachers provided personal reports concerning the implementation of their cooperative learning models and offered their professional judgments about the quality of the student work that emerged from the cooperative groups.

Without exception, teachers found cooperative learning easier to implement than they had expected. Teachers who had been initially skeptical were surprised at the ability and willingness of students to help one another and at the efficient way children worked on tasks, discussed ideas, and solved problems.

Because children answered most procedural and low-level questions themselves, teachers had more time for important tasks, such as instructing, observing, testing, and profiling achievement. Teachers noted that low achievers particularly seemed to benefit from cooperative group work.

Results of Bennett’s study with respect to student behavior were uneven and revealed differences in group interaction depending on the subject.

In math, for example, the group talk tended to be much more conversational than collaborative, and there was no talk about abstract concepts. Discussions during the language period were more abstract and involved problem solving more frequently. It was concluded that more work in designing cooperative tasks was needed. Overall, however, the talk in all subjects was much more on-task and pupil involvement was significantly higher than it had been in traditional, non-collaborative groups.

According to Bennett, the teachers involved in this study determined that cooperative learning had compelling advantages over their previous classroom organization and management techniques. Cooperative learning offered students greater independence and it resulted in better quality work from students at all achievement levels. In addition, cooperative groupwork offered teachers more time for important instructional and assessment tasks.

Bennett does not view cooperative learning as the answer for British education. He does advocate “a better balance of teaching approach than at present between individual, group and whole class teaching, with grouping perhaps taking a preeminent role in problem solving and application tasks.”

“Cooperative Learning in Classrooms: Processes and Outcomes: Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Volume 32, Number 4, pp. 581-594.

Published in ERN January/February 1992 Volume 5 Number 1

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