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Inquiry and The Value of Cooperative Learning

January 10, 2017

By: Dan Wyrick K-8 Elementary Program Consultant and Director of Nature by Design Acampo, CA

In the first year of my teaching career I learned the value of having students work together in groups. I have to admit that this was not my first choice. Initially I used groups in order to position the desks of my 39 students in a way that made student and teacher movement easier and increased student work space. The downside of the group arrangement was noise level and occasional chaos. These problems did not completely disappear, but I learned successful strategies that provided a learning-friendly classroom.

When talking with my former students, they often tell me that some of their fondest remembrances are of cooperative group projects that they worked on while students in my classroom. Students enjoy working together on homework and studying for quizzes and tests. It is exciting to see the level of intellectual work that is occurring. Students’ seriousness and concentration are evident. Questions and explanations bounce around from student to student as they work together to learn.

Cooperative learning requires student interaction. To accomplish their goals, students must exchange ideas, plan solutions, and work together to carry out their plans. Students need to be able to present ideas and explanations, in ways that their group members can understand and make sense of. To accomplish the group's task, students must exchange ideas, make plans, and propose solutions. Thinking through an idea and presenting it in a way that can be understood by others is intellectual work that promotes intellectual growth. The exchange of different ideas, viewpoints, and solutions enhances that growth and stimulates broader thinking. As teachers, it is our job to encourage these exchanges and structure class activities so that students stay focused and productive. 

Studies show that there are two elements that enhance student achievement. One is group goals. Thus, groups should be interdependent, working together to accomplish a common product. If the students are not sharing ideas and strategies, they are missing the point of cooperative learning. Individual accountability is the second important element. Assignments should be structured so that each member accomplishes a specific task. Try to provide opportunities for every group member to make a unique contribution. One or two active members should not complete all the work while passive members sit back and watch. 

Some points to consider when constructing cooperative learning experiences include the following:

-Establish some rules for group behavior that promote equal exchanges among members. Here are some examples:

-Contribute your ideas—they may be the key to the question.

-Listen to others' ideas.

-Be tolerant of ideas that are different from yours.

-Give everyone a chance to speak.

-Ask all teammates for help before asking the teacher.

-Use consensus to settle disputes.

-Use a variety of combinations when making up groups.

-Students with different abilities

-Students of different ethnic backgrounds

-Students with different learning styles

-Students with different personal interests

Inquiry science is a perfect setting for cooperative learning. Doing inquiry science encourages students to be actively involved. Activities can be designed to encourage the interdependence and cross-student support of cooperative learning. Studies have provided evidence that cooperative methods are particularly effective in grades 2–9. The earlier and more often students participate in cooperative groups, the more comfortable and skillful they become in working with other people. All team members can share leadership responsibilities; each can have a job to do. The By Design Science program provides many activities that work well with the implementation and goals of cooperative learning. I encourage you to take maximum advantage of these opportunities.