Cooperative learning can include varied settings and formats, but we are going to use it to broadly cover interactive group activities – namely, those in which groups of students work together to solve problems.
If you are picturing a free-for-all setting, like Lord of the Flies, don’t worry. Good teachers remain engaged throughout the process to keep an eye on the work and offer feedback on individual and group performance. Offering clear expectations and guidelines early on will allow students to understand the boundaries and allow more freedom and autonomy to explore the problems inside of these parameters.
Allowing students to work together, take an active role in their learning, and have the flexibility to help define their scope will encourage students to enjoy the act of learning and keep them dedicated to furthering their knowledge of their favorite subjects.
There are a lot of education theories and studies into the most effective way for students to learn. We are going to examine how one of those theories, namely how Cooperative learning can help curate and sustain a lifelong love of learning and character formation – things that most parents want for their children.
Learning in Groups Fosters Creativity and Autonomy
Cooperative learning gives autonomy back to students because they, as a group, can control the destiny of the project. They develop their own goal-based strategies and work towards succeeding together. Students respond well to holding the key to their own learning because there are no perceived attempts to ‘force’ them to learn or misplaced focus on outperforming their peers on paper. This can get some of the creative juices flowing and allow them to focus more of their energy where they already have a natural interest and inclination – removing these fears essentially gives them more ‘head space’ for the things that matter.
It also helps them smash through any perceived ‘thought ceilings.’ When students are stuck on a particular problem, it can lead to isolation. In a collaborative environment, temporary difficulties can be transcended through group effort. Although we aren’t saying that students should never struggle in order to learn, students do tend to dislike subjects where they do not excel. Similar to weightlifting, struggling with a topic will make you stronger – however, if proper technique is not followed, it can also lead to injury. We have all seen our children struggle at times; sometimes it leads to growth, but sometimes it leads to frustration, despair and apathy.
TAKEAWAY: Allowing students more control over what and how they learn is going to foster this mentality much more than encouraging adherence to a rigid top-down approach to learning.
Working in Groups Helps Teach Empathy
One bonus benefit of learning in groups is that it teaches empathy. As we collaborate with teammates and discuss solutions to a common goal, our perspective is expanded and we can see angles that weren’t previously visible. We start to ask why other people see the problem differently and we look outside of ourselves.
Acknowledging and exploring different viewpoints strengthens empathy – students begin to internalize this strategy of problem solving. As odd as it may sound, empathy is actually an incredibly beneficial tool for properly defining and understanding a problem. In the corporate world, for example, empathy is seen as irreplaceable. It offers context to the problem and helps pin down what the problem is; after all, if you can’t see the problem from the perspective of a customer, client, or teammate, how are you going to come up with a solution that meets their expectations?
We are natural born problem solvers because we are built to find meaning – not only educationally, but socially and emotionally as well. Working with others can help connect the subject or problem to our lives and make solving a problem feel more like an exercise in enhancing our knowledge than scoring high on an exam.
TAKEAWAY: A lifelong love of learning is the goal – We learn best from and with others. Contextualizing problems and solutions in a social environment can make us not only better problem solvers, but better people too.
Group Learning Supplements ‘Lecturing’
There have been plenty of studies about different learning methods; while none of them are conclusive, many have proven to be controversial. Suffice it to say, your child can learn in vastly different ways and it never hurts to have a multifaceted approach.
Proponents of ‘active learning’ often point to lecture-learning as a problem because of the ‘teach for the test’ mentality. We are all familiar with this; teaching that removes the most interesting parts of a topic, distills testable knowledge into soundbites, and ensures that students can spit back responses to questions like Pavlov’s dog, all while learning nothing. Sure, this is an issue; but it speaks more to sub-par teaching than the method itself.
Lectures do place students in a passive role and typical classroom learning is a passive endeavor – the students may be learning, but without engaging with the topic they may not retain or internalize the information. It is hard to fall in love with an abstraction, but much easier to fall in love with a subject that students are actively involved with. This is backed up by empirical evidence that showcases improvement in grades and information retention when active learning is effectively utilized.
So, to be clear: we are not saying there is no place left in the American classroom for lectures, knowledge-based tests, or individual writing assignments. Some of the best collaborative learning experiences supplement more conventionally taught material, often by focusing on proposing problems with practical solutions. Students given a concrete goal to work towards with teammates tend to find learning more rewarding and motivating.
TAKEAWAY: Students will not remember every fact from every lecture. They will, however, use collaborative, social, and problem-solving skills throughout their life. It is important to learn how to learn.
While open group discussions can offer a platform for exchanging ideas, they may not challenge students enough on their own to maximize classroom time. Placing objectives for the group to work towards, whether it is creating a robot that turn off the light or solving a complex math proof, forces kids to draw on previous learning and work together to achieve the goal.
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