The class co-op

Co-operative learning is a Canadian idea that is catching on in Scotland. It encourages peer teaching and develops pupils' social and academic skills at the same time. Raymond Ross reports

As the Scottish Executive's national programme to produce a coherent assessment system, Assessment is for Learning, proceeds through its first phase on formative assessment, teaching and learning techniques adopted in North America are finding favour here.

Many teachers find that formative assessment and the "co-operative learning" approach imported from Canada go hand in glove because of their similar emphases. For example, students are encouraged in both to take more responsibility for their own learning; the classroom is seen as a learning community where pupils and teachers work together to take learning forward; self- and peer assessment are promoted; and social skills are developed alongside academic ones through carefully structured group work.

Whether co-operative learning is the answer to formative assessment, as some argue, or whether formative assessment is part of co-operative learning are moot points. But those experienced in both are beginning to see them as inextricably linked.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive Education Department says that to follow the four main principles underlying formative assessment teachers should:l give constructive feedback to enhance and reinforce learning,l share assessment criteria with pupils so that they know what is wanted and what a good model is,l move from closed to open questions, emphasising thinking time (leave 20 or 30 seconds before asking for answers from as many pupils as possible), andl promote much more self- and peer assessment than is presently the norm. This last point in particular links closely with the principles of co-operative learning.

Co-operative learning takes place when students work together to enhance their own and each others' learning. A teacher may teach a particular point, then organise students into small groups with a task which requires all group members to participate for it to be completed successfully.

Proponents of co-operative learning, such as North Lanarkshire, which is training all its teachers to use it, and Moray, which has been piloting it for four years, claim that it results in higher achievement and greater productivity as well as in stronger and healthier peer relationships, thus enhancing the ethos of the school as a learning community.

The five principles of co-operative learning are:l positive interdependence: the individual cannot succeed unless everyone in the group succeeds,l individual and group accountability: everyone has responsibility to contribute to the group's success, thus strengthening individual competence.l face-to-face interaction: pupils promote each other's learning through discussion, explanation, teaching, checking and relating present to past learning,l group processing: going through everything learned at the end of each lesson to assess achievement and reinforce learning, andl social skills: interpersonal and small group skills, such as leadership, decision-making, communication and trust-building skills, are specifically taught alongside academic skills.

Teachers at Forres Academy, in Moray, and its associated primary schools have been piloting co-operative learning for four years. Because of this, the academy has been selected by the authority to pilot the Scottish Executive's Assessment is for Learning programme, says George Alexander, the assistant principal maths teacher and a Moray trainer in co-operative learning.

"Assessment is for Learning is almost like a bit of co-operative learning," he says. "It's getting the pupils to see that learning is what they do and that assessment is about learning from your mistakes, not just getting a mark or doing better than others."

He suggests trying to change classroom culture so that all pupils are encouraged to answer open questions and any mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. "Would anyone like to comment on that answer?" a teacher might ask.

"Both co-operative learning and formative assessment keep reminding the teacher that you are there to get the best out of every pupil and co-operative learning in particular always reminds you that every pupil has a different way of learning."

Imparting social skills is crucial to the success of co-operative learning.

"There is always a social task along with the academic task," says Mr Alexander. "It could be learning to let each other take a turn or encouraging each other. It helps with the academic task because it is participative and everyone feels responsible and involved."

Staff volunteer for training in co-operative learning at Forres Academy and, while not every teacher is trained, co-operative learning has affected every subject, says Mr Alexander.

History teacher Mark Jones says the structured group-work that is central to co-operative learning allows pupils to pass on knowledge in their own way.

"Pupils do pass on knowledge in a way that adults can't and co-operative learning takes account of this. They can break down steps for their peers.

"You might communicate to one pupil how to structure an essay and it may well be that he can pass it on better to his peer than you can as the expert on high.

"It certainly makes me think about my teaching more. It takes a lot more lesson preparation but it gives you more time in the class to work with small groups and individuals, and by building a positive atmosphere it also breaks down discipline problems. There's a better atmosphere," he says.

Mr Alexander agrees, although he says it's difficult to make co-operative learning work in maths because the subject involves so much passing over of information.

"It is difficult but you can really involve the pupils, starting with what they know about a topic. Through discussion they often find they know more than they think.

"If an S1 class is studying 2D shapes they begin by gathering what they already know from primary school about squares and triangles. So they discover they have some knowledge of perimeters and areas of shapes. Then you can help them progress to more complex shapes, such as parallelograms.

"You facilitate and they actively engage," he says.

"For example, I get them to ask their own questions, to which they must already know the answers. They feel empowered by this."

Biology teacher Anne Paterson says co-operative learning definitely has a place in her class. It is "one of the tools we use and it can engage disengaged pupils, but it's not a panacea", she says.

"Assessment is for Learning encourages pupils to assess themselves and their peers and co-operative learning promotes individual accountability within a group, so they fit well together.

"Peer appreciation can sometimes be more effective than teacher appreciation."

Co-operative learning makes it easier to keep pupils on task, she says. "It makes learning much more exciting. There's more discovery and less imposition of knowledge.

"Co-operative learning is quite powerful and motivating for both pupils and teachers, while formative assessment makes you analyse learning and teaching more formally."

What is distinctive about co-operative learning is the conjunction of academic and social skills, says Margaret Macfadyen, the depute headteacher of Applegrove, one of Forres Academy's associated primaries, and another Moray trainer in co-operative learning.

"This means that academic pupils who are socially poor - so-called bookworms, for example - can learn alongside academically poorer but more socially skilled pupils. They help each other.

"Pupils weak in both academic and social skills offer a greater challenge and they have to be part of a teacher's planning.

"In co-operative learning the philosophy is that there is no child who can't make progress, but if there's a child who doesn't want to come to the party you leave them out but you keep trying to include them. You have to keep trying."

Like some of her colleagues at Forres Academy, Mrs Macfadyen has experience of pupils for whom co-operative learning seems extremely challenging because of a lack of social skills, but she believes that with the right planning "a clever teacher" will eventually succeed in including all pupils.

Aims to make to every lesson a co-operative learning lesson are definitely long-term, says Mrs Macfadyen, and could only happen in schools where every teacher is capable of sustaining it. However, she believes the benefits are manifold, not least in raising attainment. And in her view, formative assessment dovetails with co-operative learning. "You can't separate the two," she says.

"Through co-operative learning the less academically able pupils are soaking up more in terms of strategies for listening, thinking and problem-tackling.

"They feel more valued and because there is a role for social skills to be developed alongside the academic task, it gives far greater impetus to the learning process.

"Pupils can tackle complex activities more easily and share learning experiences so that all benefit from discussion. All are accepted and praised and each feels they have some level of input," she says.

The principles of co-operative learning go far beyond old-fashioned group work, says Mrs Macfadyen. "All co-operative learning is group work but not all group work is co-operative learning.

"If the teacher really knows the outcomes she wants, she can plan a lesson in such a way as to achieve them in the time scheduled while knowing that each pupil has had the same experience and learned the same things.

"Co-operative learning increases the pace and helps the balance of learning because no child is left out. There are expectations of each one and there will be advantages for every child if the teacher has structured it right. Co-operative learning demands a momentum that has to be kept up."

Applegrove P7 teacher Alison Urquhart, who is also a Moray trainer in co-operative learning, says that it forms 40-50 per cent of her classroom practice now.

"I think it can be used in all classes. I've used it with special educational needs pupils."

As to whether it could become the norm in Scotland, she says: "To take it forward at all levels you would need whole school progression. I do think every teacher could do it with training.

"It enhances classroom management because it gives more control over the class, with all the children involved and on task. They learn more. There's more positive behaviour and, though there's more preparation, you actually get less marking."

She concludes: "To be honest, I'd be lost without co-operative learning now. It adds so much enjoyment and variety."


A Primary 7 lesson Alison Urquhart's lesson Looking at Logos (5-14 environmental studies, mini-enterprise) Outcome: to identify a logo for the class enterprise.

Academic tasks: discuss what is a logo. Teacher gives examples. Class discussion devolves to groups.

Look at company logos. What makes a good company logo? Think, pair, share (5 minutes).

Think of a good name for the class enterprise. Groups of 4 together (5 minutes).

The groups can be split by assigned roles. One from each gets together, shares information and reports back to home group.

Design a logo to go with the enterprise name. Think about all the things that have been discussed about what makes a good logo and try to include these (5 minutes).

Social skill: listening actively.

Complete T-chart (I see I I hear I) (5 minutes).

Group feedback: 3 stay, one pupil strays to other groups to report back their ideas for discussion (5 minutes) Roles: scribe, artist, timekeeper, active listener.

Energiser: snowball game.

Near the end of lesson each pupil writes something they have learned from it on a piece of paper which is then crumpled up into a ball. These are thrown around the class. Each pupil reads out the "snowball" they catch. Colour coding could allow teacher to identify each writer if desired.

A Secondary 2 history lesson

Mark Jones's lesson Ancient Egypt: The Farmer's Year Groups of three formed.

Ice breaker: quick discussions on favourite place visited recently. Teacher questions: Where did X say his favourite place was? Why?

Questions on previous lesson. Whole class.

Skill: listening actively.

Display lesson criteria on an overhead projection.

Academic tasks: each group has a cartoon of the Egyptian farmer's year taken from class booklet; 9 pictures with 3 caption cards to each pupil. Group discuss where each card goes. No progression until all groups complete successfully. Checked by teacher.

Group processing: 1 minute to reread everything.

Quiz: numbered pupils from each group to answer on caption material (individual accountability and re-affirmation of work).

Return to individual work in class booklet (individual processing of information).

(Silent hands: between each stage of the lesson the class is focused. Those silent and focused raise hands. No progress until all hands raised.) Social skills: taking turns; encouraging; include everyone.

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