Cooperative Learning in the Classroom

The skills involved in working cooperatively with peers are some of the most important that students learn in school. However, with social distancing mandates, desk shields, masks, and limited space and mobility, it will be especially challenging to find authentic ways for students to effectively collaborate. Still, after the whirlwind of last year, it’s imperative that we get our students working together again. With a little outside-the-box thinking, it’s possible. Here’s how and why.

It Starts in Pre-School

The term “cooperative play” is probably one you’ve heard before. Children as young as 1 year old start learning about cooperative play the moment they get on the floor with a peer. They learn how to share, how to take turns, how to navigate within each other’s space, and how to interact. When they get older, they eventually begin learning about social norms and how to make cooperative time as pleasant and productive for everyone as possible. 

As students move up through the grades, the cooperative skills they learn become more sophisticated. They practice balancing responsibility, having equity of voice, and disagreeing respectfully. Within a cooperative group, students often need to work together to meet a common goal, for which they are all equally held accountable. Younger students receive a lot of guidance for this. Older students receive relatively little.

Last year threw quite a wrench in students’ development of cooperative skills. Whatever cooperative work was taking place, there was no way for it to live up to the high standards of past years. Perhaps the most productive cooperative groups were those that took place over Zoom or Google Meets. Yes, they were learning remotely, but at least students could (mostly) hear each other. Students can’t really afford to miss out on these crucial skills for another year.

Re-establishing Cooperative Learning in Another Covid Year

It goes without saying that if you are fortunate enough to be in a district where you are allowed to facilitate group work, do so. Have students work in cooperative groups as much as possible. But how about for the rest of us? How about for the districts with stricter guidelines?

As “Zoom-fatigued” as so many of us are, we can’t ignore the tremendous amount of learning potential that is available from screens. While we all want to limit screen time as much as possible, especially for those who were on them last year all day, every day, there are strategic, purposeful ways to use screens in the classroom to allow students to experience cooperative learning when there is no other way.

We know the last thing teachers want this year is to have their students on computers again, but think about the alternative. In schools where small groups are not possible, where students aren’t allowed to move around or get out of their seats, what happens to the students in the back of the room? They are lucky if they can keep up. It would be impossible for teachers to keep track of how those students are doing from day to day, and many of them will inevitably fall through the cracks. Think about how that student’s experience changes if he is able to see you and his classmates in person in the room, but also engage with peers in conversation that isn’t muffled or through plexiglass dividers. 

Zoom breakout rooms, shared documents, and virtual whiteboards like padlet or google jamboard provide students the opportunity to practice those crucial cooperative skills while maintaining social distancing. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a way to start bringing cooperative learning back into classrooms.

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