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The Conversation: Co-operative learning

Fallibroome High School is using a new form of group work that ensures pupils join in. Peter Rubery, the head, tells Roger Pope how it works

Q: What exactly is it that makes co-operative learning different from ordinary group work?

A: The research shows that group work is less effective than "traditional" teaching, which is quite a startling revelation for most teachers. The unseen problem is that someone will usually dominate debate in a group, while others may not participate at all.

The co-operative structures increase participation and accountability by dictating time and turns, but also bring huge social benefits in building trust and responsibility.

Q: It's difficult to ensure all students are contributing equally to group work. Can you give an example of how one of these structures works?

A: In a "standard" classroom, a teacher may set a group a task and let them get on with it, with no direction about individual contribution. By deploying a structure, for example Numbered Heads Together, the group is given individual numbers and think time, then asked to stand and discuss the answer in a given time.

The teacher then uses a spinner to select a group, and a pupil who will represent the group by presenting a response. By accepting, they could be called to account for their group, which is now relying on its team member.

Pupils have to ensure they all know the answer and coach each other, so reinforcing their knowledge. Levels of participation increase and we have also transformed the climate in the classroom.

Q: It's hard to change the way people teach. How have you set about changing classroom practice?

A: We have used the Kagan co-operative group work training as a vehicle for school improvement and reducing in-school variation.

The structures are intrinsically valuable, but a systematic approach to training and whole-school exposure has given us a shared language to discuss learning, and raised skill levels and expectations in class.

We have a conveyor-belt approach: all staff are either at the early stages of raised awareness or engaged with a regular in-house programme, delivered by our own trainers; or - and this is the draw - attending five days at the Kagan Academy in Florida.

At all stages it's the quality of training that is the key, and we have supported our investment with research validated by the Campaign for Learning and aligned other improvement strategies, such as assessment for learning, to create a coherent approach that has had a measurable impact.

A further key strategic decision was to train students and teachers in our partner primary schools.

Q: I guess Kagan is the guy who started it all. How many schools are using the techniques?

A: We came across Spencer Kagan at the Learning Brain Expo conference in the US. He's a Harvard-trained educational psychologist who has established a model of co-operative work strategies, based on research into how the brain responds to different modes of learning and interaction.

Our partners in this initiative are our six main feeder primaries. We have built a learning community aged 3 to 19 that has allowed us to train primary teachers in the common classroom model.

We have also engaged our three secondary partners in our "leading edge partnership", so this year there will be 15 teachers making the trip, ranging from key stage 1 to 5 specialists. Quite a feat.

Q: Can people who want to know more go to the annual conference that you organise?

A: Yes, our consortium of schools in Macclesfield has replicated the US conference for the past two years under the title of the Learning Brain Europe.

We've brought over the best speakers we've experienced there and combined them with top UK neuroscientists and psychologists to create events that were enthusiastically received by delegates.

Interested teachers can go to our website for more details. We're also happy to welcome visitors to observe the strategies in classrooms, and talk to teachers who have found their practice transformed by exposure to the training. We also have the research papers available on our website.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon. For further information see:

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