Creating a 21st Century Learning Environment Through Cooperative Learning

During the RITE Education Team's recent school support visits to schools in Kelantan and Terengganu, we modeled to teachers and school leaders how Cooperative Learning structures can transform learning instantly. When implemented correctly, the use of these structures delivers an embedded social curriculum that helps learners acquire the much misunderstood 21st century competencies. Structured cooperative learning provides opportunities for collaboration and teamwork, communication as well as creative and critical thinking without the need for technology or expensive resources.  

Cooperative learning can therefore be implemented in all schools - regardless of access to internet of funding for expensive resources. I first encountered cooperative learning as a young teacher in the early 1990s and over the years as teacher, school principal, education adviser, strategist and trainer, have come to believe that this is one of most powerful pedagogical strategies that helps teachers to move away from a teacher-centred to student-centred classroom. Teachers are more inclined to hand over learning to their students when there is clear structure and clarity on roles and specific steps to take. Cooperative learning is brain-friendly. Students learn socially, they feel safe and less threatened, emotional centres in their brains are at ease due to the fact that they also know what to expect, what to do and feel included in teams or working with a partner.
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To implement Cooperative Learning effectively, the teacher has to use management strategies such as managing noise, materials and the composition of teams. They have to ensure that they teach and coach students in the steps of the different structures and that these are used consistently. It works best when structures are used across the school. Once teachers have taught a particular structure, they can use different content across all curriculum areas. They also have to understand that different structures are designed for different purposes: For brainstorming, to review new learning, to process information, to make decisions etc. Teachers can design their own structures, as long as they meet the key principles as defined by Roger and David Johnson as well as Spencer Kagan. 

Structures should encourage positive interaction rather than competition (I can't succeed without my partner or team), individual responsibility/accountability (I have a clear action/responsibility within the activity), effective use of social skills (listen actively, share, ask questions, praise, give feedback, etc) and also equal opportunities for students to ensure that all feel engaged and empowered. 

You have to consider your student's background and interests when designing your structure, and be sure of the outcomes you would want to achieve. A structure like Think-Pair-Share, encourages meta-cognition (students think about what they want to say, discuss or share) and sharing in partners. Teachers can use this to create an opportunity for revision at the end of the lesson, in the middle of the lesson for processing of new learning, and the beginning of the lesson for review of the previous day's learning or to determine students' pre-knowledge.
Teachers often seem to believe that Cooperative Learning is not relevant for "Low Ability" students, that they do not have time to implement this due to exam pressure and due to limited space in the classroom there is insufficient room for movement. On the contrary, however, Cooperative Learning offers excellent and continuous opportunity for differentiation. Students could use the same structure, but with differentiated content, which enables the teacher to engage with smaller teams while others use the structures independently. Students have many more opportunities to engage with curriculum content. They remember and understand better since they are discussing, questioning, coaching and using the learning. Learning is becoming more visible and audible, thus ensuring that misunderstandings can be addressed much quicker without having to spend such extensive time on revision and pre-teaching of concepts. 

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning are well-researched pedagogical strategies. Visit the Sutton Trust Teaching and Learning Toolkit for large scale studies on the effectiveness of collaboration in the classroom on accelerating learner outcomes by up to 5 months.