Co-operative learning makes me feel happy. It also makes me feel perplexed and challenged but this discomfort is worth it, most of the time. The thing that makes me happy about co-operative learning is the interaction between the values driving this pedagogy and the practical tools it offers us. Through co-operative learning we’re given specific structures to teach in a way which make values of collaboration, respect, co-operation and growth real in our learning communities as well as offering really high quality, deep and challenging learning experiences. In co-operative learning I’ve found a set of teaching behaviours – things to say and do in my classroom – which are in harmony with what I think teaching is actually about.
As co-operative learning makes me happy it’s a part of my practice (and my values) that I always really enjoy sharing with colleagues. I got to do this at the Preston Lodge Learning Festival. When I’m sharing, the main thing I want to share is the actual experience of learning co-operatively. I don’t think the values and power of co-operative learning can fully make sense without actually doing it, hearing it and feeling it. I can make this happen in a room with people. I haven’t yet managed to work out a way to share this on the screen. So, here I offer an invitation to you to seek out the real life experience co-operative learning for yourself. Have a read through my thoughts on the values which I think are at the root of co-operative learning and the way these are then converted into practice in learning communities of any and many kinds.
Value: Learning is a social activity. We learn best in a learning community.
Practice: Co-operative learning is rooted in face to face interaction. If we aren’t talking with the people around us about what we’re learning and what they’re learning then we’re missing out. So, co-operative learning uses a whole range of strategies (many of them also part of the learning tools promoted under the banners of collaborative learning, critical skills or active learning) to make sure that as we hear and read about new concepts we’re also talking them through with people. It gives us structures to make sure that we’re discussing the big questions of our learning as part of formulating our individual responses to these questions – testing out our own thinking and building on what we hear from others. This can be through a think-pair-share, a placemat activity, a graffiti board or a jigsaw activity, with co-operative learning structures giving a framework to direct our attention and our conversations onto learning and then push our thinking further.
Value: When we’re creating learning communities we are committed to creating communities as well as making learning happen. Community means a place where we know that we belong and we feel like we belong.
Practice: In our learning community we talk a lot about our learning. We also talk about ourselves and learn what we all have in common. We learn about what makes us unique in the group. We learn about how to listen well to others and make them feel valued. We learn about how to celebrate success. We form a strong team identity which connects us to people who, before, may have been nameless strangers who have been issued with the same timetable as us. This isn’t done by someone telling us it’s important and then moving on to the ‘real’ lesson. We’re given time to get our voice on the table with short, fun questions and activities to share what’s important to us (usually silly things to start with) and we’re given activities and spaces in which to create a team identity with the people that we’re working with. There are games to play and challenges to overcome. As we achieve together we build our skills of encouraging others and celebrating success. We feel good about what’s going well and are more equipped to respond positively at times when things don’t go well.
Value: We learn with and from everyone in our learning community – this means that everyone in our learning community has something to teach us and we have something to teach everyone too.
Practice: In a co-operative learning group everyone has a clear role so they know what they’re responsible for to make their group work. The work being done is carefully structured so that each of us is developing knowledge and skills which our team mates will need. When we take on a task the activity is chunked to make sure that we all need to be involved to be successful and we can’t be successful if we leave someone out. There will still be differentiation and adaptation, but we all learn with and from each other. (And, also, because we’re investing time in building our community we’re more ready to value the contribution that different people can make and realise the different ways that people learn through life.)
Value: We improve ourselves, our relationships and our learning through deliberate practice and a conscious commitment to development.
Practice: We talk regularly about what we’re learning, how well we’re learning and how to move our learning forward. Alongside talking about our academic learning we talk about our social learning. Alongside our clear learning goals there are social goals. These help us know where we’re going next to make our community a more purposeful, inclusive and harmonious place. This may sound grandiose but in practice it means we’re spending time together thinking about our attentive listening skills, how we encourage someone, how we stay focused on the work, how we take turns, how we include others. Our social goals run through our learning experiences. We collaborate to decide what success will look like. We agree the behaviours that will make success happen and then we challenge ourselves to put these things in action. At the end of a learning experience we take the time to process how our social learning has gone, reflecting on what’s been good, what success feels like and deciding what we need to keep working on to get even better. There is an authentic, caring and often challenging discussion in our learning community about how we treat each other and how we learn together. This means we’re becoming a stronger learning community in which everyone is able to do our very best thinking and realise our full potential.
Having written all this, I still mainly feel that to really share what co-operative learning means I need to be doing it not talking about it (or typing about it). I feel happier that way and I suspect that you might feel happier too. Until we can meet and work on this together, I hope that there’s a learning community of some kind near you who are working co-operatively. That way you can join them and see if it makes you feel happy too.