Skip to main content

The golden goose that raised the stakes

I was intrigued to read in The TESS (October 13) that North Lanarkshire is pioneering co-operative learning in Scotland. I don't doubt (and, indeed, admire the scale of the initiative) that it is investing heavily in co-operative learning, but I wish to remind readers that co-operative learning was brought to Scotland by the late headteacher of Forres Academy, Alistair McLachlan.

While in Canada, he met up with and was so impressed by Jim Craigen and Chris Ward of Durham, Ontario, that he invited them to Moray. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first teachers in Scotland to experience an intensive co-operative learning course in June 1998.

Enough quibbling. I'm delighted that co-operative learning is very much alive. The pupils of North Lanarkshire are fortunate that half their teachers are trained in these techniques. There was excitement in my local authority when co-operative learning arrived in the late 1990s. Experienced teachers and probationers warmed to the ideas.

Many of us, while not throwing the baby out with the bath water, ditched traditional group working in favour of the principle of "positive inter-dependence", where pupils are equally accountable for the successful delivery of the group task. Little wonder the director of education for North Lanarkshire, Michael O'Neill, coins the word "reinvigorated" when describing the attitude of the teachers who have been introduced to it.

Jim Craigen and Chris Ward are inspirational trainers who have the unique ability to make every second of an in-service session count. Their script is brilliant and, eight years after first encountering these techniques, I have yet to find any other teaching and learning strategy which remotely touches the coat-tails of co-operative learning - and there have been a plethora of endless initiatives paraded before us like apparitions from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

This year I attended a critical skills course. This programme began in 1981 in New Hampshire in the United States as a partnership between education and business communities. It was mildly interesting for those who had never experienced co-operative learning, but a colleague described it as "the very poor man's co-operative learning".

Worryingly, a lot of the material in the manual read like the Scottish 5-14 documentation and it is therefore dated.

On the course, we watched a video snippet of an English teacher teaching a poem through group tasking. I was shocked that this was being presented as innovative when I knew that colleagues in my school's English department had been teaching this way for years. But most of them had experienced co-operative learning courses and been initiated into the best ways of delivering an interesting curriculum.

So why is this golden goose so golden? Unlike other strategies, co-operative learning fully engages all members of a group in such a way that a task cannot be completed unless each member succeeds. This raises the stakes to a high performance level, because everyone is responsible.

Significantly too, the teaching of social skills is in tandem with the academic task, thus maximising the potential of all students. Brain theory, in exploring how pupils learn, is also important. Co-operative learning harnesses everything.

As a reflective practitioner, I regularly ask my pupils for feedback on what happens in my classroom. Frequently, the pupils pinpoint the co-operative learning techniques as the best strategies for helping them to learn, and this includes the senior pupils who are dealing with the burden of Higher work.

It is pleasing to receive affirmation of one's gut feeling that co-operative learning pushes all the important buttons. North Lanarkshire teachers are very lucky to be receiving such high-quality training. Yes, it's only one tool in the box - but it's impossible to exaggerate its effectiveness.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy in Moray

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you