A Common Cause; the buzz that is cooperative learning

The buzz right now is “Cooperative Learning”; staff are on courses for it so students can do it! Our own school’s whole school staff CPD has encouraged us [teachers] to be collaborative and cooperative learners. Recently I was interviewed by a student teacher for her dissertation – Cooperative Learning in the Workshop. And it got me thinking!

Reflecting on this I concluded: We throw the phrase about, but what does it actually entail? What should it actually be and look like?

Here’s my take, my wee bit of CPD reading and research.

Some definitions:


Let’s start with: What is Cooperative Learning?

Well, it’s more than having students working in groups, more than working together in the workshop or on a class project. The teacher is required to structure interdependence and independent learning among students within a cooperative structure. The teacher’s role changes from that of giving information to facilitating learning; the rationale being that everyone succeeds when the group succeeds. Interestingly, the SQA support this hypothesis:

SQA quote1

Ross and Smyth (1995) describe successful cooperative learning tasks as intellectually demanding, creative, open-ended, and involve higher order thinking tasks. I find that Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) minor but significant modifications to Bloom’s (original) taxonomy a useful rubric to inform my lesson structure in this regard.

Johnson et al. (2006) assert the structure for cooperative learning involves five key components which can be employed in a variety of ways and is more than simply putting students into groups to learn. There are also different types of cooperative groups appropriate for different situations.

Five Key Elements (Johnson et al., 2006).

Positive Interdependence: This can be achieved by way of mutual goals, division of labor, materials, roles, or by making part of each student’s grade dependent on the performance of the group. You’ll know when you’ve succeeded in structuring positive interdependence when students perceive that they “sink or swim together.” Group members must believe that each person’s efforts benefit not only them, but all group members.

Individual Accountability: The essence of individual accountability in cooperative learning is that of “students learn together, but perform alone.” This ensures that no one can “hitch-hike” on the work of others. A lesson’s goals must be clear enough that students are able to measure whether (a) the group is successful in achieving them, and (b) individual members are successful in achieving them as well.

Face-to-Face (Promotive) Interaction: Important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics only occur when students promote each other’s learning. This includes oral explanations of how to solve problems, discussing the nature of the concepts being learned, and connecting present learning with past knowledge. It is through face-to-face, promotive interaction that members become personally committed to each other as well as to their mutual goals.

Interpersonal and Small Group Social Skills: In cooperative learning groups, students learn academic subject matter (taskwork) and also interpersonal and small group skills (teamwork). Thus, a group must know how to provide effective leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict management. Given the complexity of these skills, teachers can encourage much higher performance by teaching cooperative skill components within cooperative lessons. As students develop these skills, later group projects will probably run more smoothly and efficiently than early ones.

Group Processing: After completing their task, students must be given time and procedures for analyzing how well their learning groups are functioning and how well social skills are being employed. Group processing involves both taskwork and teamwork, with an eye to improving it on the next project.

Via serc.carleton.edu

Brown & Ciuffetelli Parker (2009) and Siltala (2010) discuss the 5 basic and essential elements to cooperative learning:

  1. Positive interdependence
  • Students must fully participate and put forth effort within their group
  • Each group member has a task/role/responsibility therefore must believe that they are responsible for their learning and that of their group
  1. Face-to-Face Promotive Interaction
  • Members promote each other’s success
  • Students explain to one another what they have or are learning and assist one another with understanding and completion of assignments
  1. Individual and Group Accountability
  • Each student must demonstrate master of the content being studied
  • Each student is accountable for their learning and work, therefore eliminating “social loafing”
  1. Social Skills
  • Social skills that must be taught in order for successful cooperative learning to occur
  • Skills include effective communication, interpersonal and group skills





Conflict-management skills

  1. Group Processing
  • Every so often groups must assess their effectiveness and decide how it can be improved


What becomes apparent as I read through these ‘essential elements’ to cooperative learning is that the phase ‘Life Skills’ comes to mind time and again. As an ex-engineer I’m more than aware that teamwork is essential in modern workplaces. Most projects need different kinds of experts, or at least a division of labour. All jobs require the ability to communicate, cooperate, assess, and delegate. Even outside of work, it is generally necessary to get along with and communicate with other people.

Johnson et al., 1998 stress that the most successful individuals in business, research, and school are the least competitive.

These ‘essential elements’ to cooperative learning remind me of something I once saw/read:


In discussing my take on cooperative learning with the student teacher I realised how much my teaching has changed and just how much cooperative learning happens in my classrooms, whether intentionally or by natural evolution.

Cooperative learning is no panacea, it is one of many approaches that needs to be embraced by teachers in the 21st century. It’s also fraught with challenges; not least of which is the spector of failure. That said if you, like me, have a supportive culture (particularly from senior management) in your school, then “To Dare is to Do”!

Having explored what cooperative learning is my next assignment is to look at the benefits and then how my teaching has changed and in this context what happens in my classroom … Watch this blog!


Bloom’s Taxonomy: A Practical Approach for Deeper Learning

“Deep learning is the central principle of Curriculum for Excellence. It involves knowledge and understanding and the skills to apply knowledge in useful ways.” High Order Skills Excellence Group Feb 2011

Deep learning or active learning as described in CfE is an approach to learning that should develop a learner’s genuine understanding. The hierarchy of skills shown in the triangle is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohi’s 2001 adaptation ).

Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives is divided into three “domains”: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. The scope of this blog will be limited to the cognitive.  Taxonomy quite simply means a “classification” of (in this case) the cognitive process – Thinking.

Bloom identified six levels within the cognitive domain. He effectively broke thinking down into different levels, each building on the previous one, from the most simple to the more abstract. These thinking skills have also been grouped into two categories; Lower Order and Higher Order thinking skills. Within this structure learning at the higher levels is dependent on having attained essential knowledge and skills at lower levels.

Depending on the wording used in questions, learners can be challenged at different levels of cognition; from lower order thinking questions to the higher order.

Such a hierarchy is a useful structure for teachers to use for self-evaluation of their practice, developing interactive discussion with pupils and planning assignment questions which promote deep learning. It’s not necessarily that easily understood by pupils though! For that you need the more accessible approach of SOLO Taxonomy.

(Based on Bloom, 1956)                       Anderson and Krathwohl (2001)

Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) have made minor but significant modifications to Bloom’s original.

The altered taxonomy provides me with a structure in which to categorize questions to aid the learning of pupils. It is, therefore, a useful aid in the design, delivery, or evaluation of my lessons, teaching and, more importantly, the learning of my pupils. I use it as a framework or checklist to ensure I’m using the most appropriate approach to pupil learning in order to develop the desired capabilities (or capacities) and outcomes for them.

Here are examples of some of the questions / activities I’ve used (or have penciled in to use):

1. Remembering (Remembering previously learned material)

  • Make a story board showing the main elements in making …
  • Make a mindmap of the topic.
  • Write a list of keywords you know about….
  • bullet point/highlight key words or phrases
  • What tools or instrument were used to make….
  • Make a chart showing…
  • Write a sentence about something you have learned.

2. Understanding (Grasping the meaning of material)

  • Cut out, or draw pictures to illustrate a particular process.
  • Report to the class on …
  • Illustrate what you think the main idea may have been.
  • Classify the different forms of …
  • Make a cartoon strip showing the sequence of events in…
  • Write a summary report of the event / Outline the main points.
  • Prepare a flow chart to illustrate the sequence of events.
  • Explain in your own words…

3. Applying (Using information in concrete situations)

  • Construct a model to demonstrate how it looks or works
  • Write a diary entry
  • Make a presentation about the area of study.
  • Using the software construct your one e-folio
  • Load and edit a program to …
  • Take and display a collection of photographs on a particular topic.
  • Write an explanation about this topic for others.

4. Analysing (Breaking down material into parts)

  • Design a questionnaire to gather information on …
  • Survey classmates to find out what they think about a particular topic. Analyse the results.
  • Make a flow chart to show the critical stages.
  • Construct a graph to illustrate selected information.
  • Prepare a report about the area of study.
  • Conduct an investigation to produce information to support a view.
  • Review a design in terms of form, colour and texture…

5. Evaluating (Judging the value of a product for a given purpose, using definite criteria)

  • Evaluate the exam answers of a fellow pupil
  • Evaluate your own exam answers
  • Rank in order of importance …
  • Evaluate a product against given design factors
  • Comment/give feedback on …

6. Creating (Putting parts together into a whole)

  • Design a questionnaire to evaluate a product
  • Design a bridge to cross a gap.
  • Create a new product. Give it a name and plan a marketing campaign.
  • Develop a layout for a new magazine, justifying decisions
  • Design a record, book or magazine cover for…
  • Sell an idea
  • Devise a way to…
  • Create a program for a robot to …
  • Make a film/DVD to show …

To help teachers I have created the Asking thinking Questions poster.

Malcolm Wilson, ICT Curriculum Development Officer for Falkirk Council offers this http://goo.gl/crqGY to support higher order thinking in classroom.

When Children Are left Alone

Following my last post on Active Learning I thought I’d blog an example from my own experience.

Investigate the effects on the environment from the generation of electricity, that’s the challenge our new CfE S1 Technological Inquiry sets the pupils. They are instructed to do this collaboratively in groups of 2, 3 or 4 and to present their findings in a form that suits their group.

As a class we spend a few minutes chatting about their options (recalling what they did in Primary to present findings and what might be possible in my class) I also introduce them to Prezi as one option. In demonstrating Prezi to the class I simply showed them one I had made and one that was on the website. I then suggested that they sign-up and practice at home (flipping the classroom). Of my three classes about a third (5 groups) has chosen to use Prezi,  about half of those pupils have chosen to learn this new software by build their own at home. In most cases they chose a hobby or personal interest, the results were very encouraging.

One group of girls (Joanna, Alice, Dawn and Lois) overcame a particular problem by creating their own facebook group, this is their story in their own words.

“The investigation was about the effects on the environment from fossil fuels and the pros and cons of renewable energy.  We had to do it in groups of 3 or 4 and we had to present our findings in a media presentation of some sort.”

“We used a number of different websites, one of which where you had to build a town which was eco friendly. The other websites gave you lots of facts about renewable energy and fossil fuels.”

“We had used PowerPoint in primary schools and Mr Surgey introduced us to Prezi as one of the options we could use.  Our group chose Prezi.”

“To make the Prezi together, you can invite the rest of your group into the ‘edit together’ feature by sending them an invite then you can all work together on it.  We also phoned each other and we used Facebook.”

“We chose to use Facebook because you can communicate at the time that something isreally happening, if you are both, or if the people that you want to communicate with, are on.   So, we managed to discuss it over Facebook and it does not cost us anything.”

“Since Prezi didn’t allow you to have a ‘chat box’ to write in, to communicate, we went on Facebook so you could create a ‘group’ for the Prezi to talk to.  All of your members could talk with it, and me and Lois managed to chat on Facebook while doing the Prezi. On Prezi there was a little icon for the other person who was on Prezi so that showed you that they were editing.”

There are a number of challenges to collaborating with the limited ITC in school. This did not deter one group who, having decided to do most of the work from home, found the solution to the problem was to create a Facebook group. I was very impressed with their solution as it showed a degree of creative thinking and problem solving, something that probably would not have happened in the classroom environment.

So, here’s the Prezi in question, unedited by their teacher (there are one or two errors:

I picked this group because they stood out, but the rest have done remarkable well too. I’ve been very impressed with my S1 classes this year, more so than in any other. They seem more engaged, switched on and willing to have a go. They are certainly not passive. There is a maturity, in many cases, beyond their years and I can only thank their Primary School teachers!

So it saddens me when I hear comments about our youth, like – “You know what they’re like? If you take your eye off them for a minute…”. Yes, I know what ‘they’ are like and as ‘their’ teacher I would (do) trust them to behave when my back is turned. I would not punish the well behaved majority for the odd indiscretion of one or two, so I would allow them to use Social Media in class – if only I were permitted! You see, the vast majority of the children I teach are well mannered and well behaved and can be trusted. And who, if not me, is going to teach them how to use this tool responsibly, effectively, confidently and successfully?

When children are left alone they can behave, so trust them … they may just surprise you!

What do we mean by Active Learning?

This question was posed as a way of ‘advertising’ a CPD session. The shortest answer given was simply a department’s name, the inference being that the department in question was ‘active learning’ – can this be true?

Building the Curriculum 2 (2007) provides the following definition: “Active learning is learning which engages and challenges children’s thinking using real-life and imaginary situations. It takes full advantage of the opportunities for learning presented by:

    • spontaneous play
    • planned, purposeful play
    • investigating and exploring” …. p (5) and so it goes on.

Here’s the problem I have with this definition; it’s far to woolly, indeed that accusation might be levelled at CfE as a whole – but that’s for another day! What seems to be the case from conversations had or overheard is that some have taken the bulleted points, put them in a High School context and now believe that active learning is having pupils moving about, making stuff or acting! Educationally, they could not be more wrong.

The phrase ‘active learning’ in this context is essentially to do with meta-cognition: the understanding and awareness of one’s own thought processes. From an educational (pupil) point of view it can be defined as:

  • any instructional method that engages a pupil in their learning
  • requiring pupils to think about what they are doing
  • pupils learn by engaging in a process of sense-making
  • pupils actively constructing new meaning (being cognitively involved) and in a social sense actively collaborating with others

I know from bitter experience that some pupils put no thought into what they are doing. But, If we accept this definition then we can say that active learning requires more of a pupil than simply doing stuff. It involves pupils actively involved in planning and evaluating their own learning, initiating learning experiences and planning what they hope to achieve. It involves creating an environment in which pupils can think; use their imaginations; test out their ideas and try to solve problems whilst learning from their mistakes. At its very best it should encourage pupils to undertake a range of activities for their own satisfaction and enjoyment, rather than having pre-set outcomes ‘forced’ on them – challenging in our current set-up I admit.

There are many ways to achieve these aspirations, here are some suggestions (not an exhaustive list) that I’ve used in my own classroom:

  • Introduce co-operative learning groups
  • Collective problem-solving; groups come up with solutions and insights that may not come about individually.
  • Providing collaborative work skills; pupils learn to work together rather than just dividing the workload.
  • Peer reviewing; pupils review each others work and suggest corrections or improvements
  • Self-mark/evaluate work; pupils assess own work against agreed criteria (or a marking script)

    S4 GC pupil self-marking

  • Remove all the erasers for the class and have pupils correct their work using colour pencils

    Self correction - no eraser

  • Pupils review the learning experience and make judgements about how well they have learned and what they need to do next

    S3 pupil self-assessment

I’m trying very hard to not just include active learning as an ‘add on’ in my lessons but to make it central to my pedagogy, it has not been easy. Resistance comes from many quarters the most surprising (for me) was from pupils; one pleading “…why can you not just tell me what I need to know” and “…why can’t you just teach the normal way”. Herein lies the problem, if pupils are being taught ‘the normal way’ in most of the rest of the school this way does appear very different to them and puts them out of their comfort zone. That said  I’ve had very positive comments from most pupils on the changes I’m making.

To date the most successful of the suggestions I’ve made and tried have been peer reviewing and self marking. Removing the erasers is starting to work but it’s a pupil ‘goto’ response to a mistake so will take time. And that’s the point here, anything we do different in class will take time to imbed and make a difference, but if you believe in it you need to persevere.

The evidence I’ve looked at suggests that passive pupils sitting listening to the teacher or doing without thinking/reflecting do not retain enough knowledge to instil deep understanding and that for this to happen they need to be actively involved in reviewing and assessing their learning and adapting it to make sense to them. So if you make one change to your pedagogy this year, make it this one.

Readings that helped me:

Grabinger, R. S., and Dunlap, J. C., (1996), Rich environments for active learning: a definitionin Wilson, B. G., (1996) Constructivist Learning Environments. New Jersey, Education Publications Inc.

Prince, M. (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research, Journal for Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231

Watkins, C., Carnell, E. & Lodge, C. (2007). Effective Learning in Classrooms.London, Sage.