Is this an end to Scottish reticence?

Henry Hepburn

An innovative way of learning may not just improve attainment in the classroom - it could also help overcome a much bemoaned flaw in the Scottish character.

That is the view of Michael O'Neill, director of education at North Lanarkshire Council, the local authority that has pioneered co-operative learning in Scotland. He spoke to The TESS after the authority put the focus on co-operative learning at its Raising Achievement for All national conference, held in Glasgow last week.

"Co-operative learning has been very helpful in tackling the kind of natural Scottish reticence that we all have, because everyone contributes, everyone plays their part," he said. "That's very helpful, as one of the things we have to get over in Scotland is this inability to be confident and come forward."

Mr O'Neill believes this is particularly important in authorities such as North Lanarkshire, which remains one of the country's more deprived areas, on the basis that people from more vulnerable backgrounds are less likely to articulate their thoughts.

The authority has trained 2,300 teachers - about half its teaching staff - in co-operative learning since launching a pilot project at St Aidan's High in Wishaw, in 1998. In the classroom, co-operative learning involves pupils working in small groups to complete tasks, with equal responsibility on each member of the group. The emphasis is on social skills as well as learning.

Mr O'Neill commented: "Feedback from pupils tends to be that it's much more fun, more active, that they understand more. People walking into schools and departments using co-operative learning would see much more active classrooms, much more pupil involvement in their own learning, more enthusiasm and a more positive ethos - a buzz about the place.

"We also hear from schools and departments using co-operative learning that attainment and behaviour are improving. Experienced teachers are going into classes reinvigorated."

Co-operative learning is proving flexible, and has been used in North Lanarkshire in such diverse settings as staff meetings, tackling sectarianism, and dealing with young people who have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Mr O'Neill stressed, however, that it was not intended to replace existing teaching methods, but was "another tool in the box". He said that, although all co-operative learning involved group work, it was different from group work in that all members should be equally dependent on each other and no individual should dominate.

An inspiration for North Lanarkshire was the example of Durham, in Ontario.

Attainment there was among the poorest in Canada in the 1980s, but the district introduced co-operative learning and now has one of the best records of behaviour and achievement.

So impressed was North Lanarkshire that Chris Ward, who was responsible for introducing co-operative learning in Durham, is now performing a similar role for the authority on a two-year secondment.

A straw poll conducted by The TESS with about 10 North Lanarkshire teachers at last week's conference found unanimous praise for co-operative learning.

The event also attracted teachers from other parts of Scotland, intrigued by the dramatic impact on classrooms. The growing attraction of co-operative learning is also clear in that the cost of seconding Chris Ward is being met by events where she passes on her expertise to people outwith North Lanarkshire.

The conference heard from two of the world's leading figures on co-operative learning, brothers David and Robert Johnson, of the University of Minnesota.

Professor David Johnson stressed the importance of the social element of co-operative learning: "You need to care about others as well as yourself; you need to care about the common good as well as yourself. That's not something you get in a competitive or individualistic situation."

Mr O'Neill elaborated the point that education was nothing without a social conscience, pointing to the example of Nazi doctors who used their skills to carry out horrific crimes. "Co-operative learning, as well as being about learning and becoming good at something, is also about responsibility," he said.


Although co-operative learning requires teachers to take a step back as pupils teach each other, it is also highly-structured and built on a series of basic elements:

* Work is done in groups.

* A group cannot succeed in completing a task unless each member succeeds (one of the most important principles of co-operative learning is known as "positive interdependence").

* Group members should share resources and encourage each other's efforts.

* Each individual should contribute in completing each task.

* Any member of the group should be able to speak on behalf of the group.

* Leadership of the group is shared, and no individual should dominate.

* Each group should have common aims.

* Social skills are taught.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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