Cooperative Learning is Not Group Work

The look on his face is still burned into my memory. He's still standing at the board without a word to contribute. I thought he was a safe bet. He always raised his hand to respond to discussion questions. What was different?

That was five years ago, and it's apparent to me, now, that his speaking skills were better than his writing. Throw in the fact that I put him on the spot in front of his peers, and it was a recipe for embarrassment. 

Most unfortunately, making him share without ensuring that he has something to contribute could have led to a loss of confidence. It definitely compromised the trust we built during the first weeks of school, even if for a moment. 

Something to Contribute

Since my choice to place a good participator at the front board wasn't working, I had the class work in smaller groups. That would be better, right? Nope. 

They stared at each other long enough for me to lose half of them right away while the other half of the class poured their pity looks in my direction. This all but discouraged me from trying group work, again. 

I think it was the week before Thanksgiving when I realized that if each student responded to a problem on their own, they would have something to share with the group. This wasn't necessarily cooperative learning, yet, but it was a start. 

We Want to Share

We all want to participate and not ride the coat tails of our peers, right? If you don't believe that, like I do, then you at least agree that we want respect. 
Working individually before working together gives every student the opportunity to bring something to the table. 
The beauty and magic of cooperative learning shows itself when you can see the students become excited that they learned something from how some responses are similar and others are different, even though they might all be plausible.  

Another thing to consider is how well certain students perform alone as opposed to in groups. Susan Cain's TED talk on introverts is a must watch. It got me thinking about how we all have a little introvert in us and that working individually before working together differentiates for introverts, both mild and extreme. 

Not "Group Work" 

Some of us had group work when we were in school. You know – when one kid did the work and we all got a good grade. 

I actually never base grades on cooperative learning, practice, or homework. Grades are always based on individual assessments done in the classroom.

Lastly, cooperative learning does not have to be done in groups of three or four. It can be the whole class doing a choral response, think-pair-share, line-up games, carousels, gallery walks, or synthesis writing (writing one part before passing the paper). It's about thinking beyond what a group produces and focusing on what individuals are learning with others.