News Herald – Juliann Talkington
Cooperative learning first gained traction as an instructional method in the 1970s and was widely implemented in K-12 classrooms by the 1990s. It is based on the premise that collaborative participation creates an enhanced learning experience. Proponents of this teaching strategy site improved student communication, heightened oral skill development, more advanced learning, and enhanced student responsibility.
Cooperative learning, however, is not without challenges. One of the biggest obstacles to effective cooperative learning is a negative group dynamic. Conflicts between individuals can reduce a group’s ability to work together and problems are magnified when members are too immature to adequately resolve conflicts. To make matters more challenging, personality mismatches can stall learning even when no overt conflicts are present. In addition, assertive students often move into leadership roles even when they are not best suited to direct a project.
Beyond personality issues, cooperative learning can also result in uneven workloads. When this type of learning is working efficiently, students support and inspire one another. Everyone has a similar workload and everyone learns. In many instances, however, more advanced students take over projects rather than spending extra time to help struggling students. In addition, unmotivated students often rely on more conscientious team members to complete required work. The result is not only an uneven workload but also uneven learning that leaves struggling students behind, permits lazy students to slide by, and allows more advanced students to stagnate.
Also, student evaluations for group assignments are challenging. It is often impossible to evaluate group members individually. This can result in all group members receiving the same grade regardless of how much they participated and contributed. In addition to artificially high or low marks, it is difficult to determine gaps in student understanding. This proficiency issue is particularly problematic in subjects like math, science, grammar, and writing where learning is cumulative.
It is not that the skills associated with cooperative learning are not important, but that the academic classroom may not be the best place to teach these skills. Instead of compromising basic learning in science, language arts, math, history, and foreign language we should consider using electives for collaborative activities. In addition, we should give students credit for sports, theater, makerspace (cooperative technical and art gatherings), and other group activities that occur after school hours. This approach would provide kids with an opportunity to build both basic educational and soft skills that are critical for success later in life.