Houston, we have a solution

ONCE UPON a time you divided your class into groups and gave them a task to complete. It was the thing to do if you didn't want to be seen as an old dragon who never gave her pupils any responsibility for their own learning.

But how do lazy little individuals suddenly metamorphose into eager bustling beavers in the group situation? The truth is they don't. Teachers hover round the groups and sense an anaemic commitment to getting on with the job in hand. Higher on the agenda will figure the penalty shoot-out from last night's football game or who had a hot date after the last school disco.

The reality is that there is nothing productive about random group formations in the classroom. Co-operative learning requires us to wrestle with some pretty big questions and a linking of theory and practice in a unique melange.

I was fortunate enough to attend a week-long course on co-operative learning run by Jim Craigen and Chris Ward of the Durham school board in Ontario. Don't salivate with too much envy: the course was in Forres (yes, of Macbeth fame), not Canada. A key component of the week was the active demonstration of the difference between traditional group learning and co-operative learning. I can do no more than share a few practical ideas but, maybe more importantly, convince you of my enthusiasm for what turned out to be the best week in my teaching career. Raise a cynical eyebrow if you like but hear me out, please.

The group size is important. Partner work is ideal. It is difficult to be left out of a pair. Three is also fine, especially if the teacher has chosen the group carefully. Tasks that demand a diversity of skills and expertise are best done in threes and fours; any more makes for dating agencies and irrelevant talking shops.

What art then should you employ in determining the composition? The technical term is heterogeneous; an appropriate mix is the key to success here. Another factor in the equation is where they sit. At the risk of indulging in psychobabble, the best arrangement is when pupils are "nose to nose" which allows for uninterrupted interaction.

It is vital to give any group a chance to settle down and conquer problems. Adults themselves can take ages to thrive in a group, so why should we expect so much more from young people? Fluffed notes, after all, are part of life, Learning to co-operate with others can cause nasty bouts of all sorts of things.

Pupils are more likely to work towards accomplishing their task if they feel that they need each other in order to complete the task. It can be excruciatingly tedious listening to a teacher droning on about simile and metaphor but if we have to ensure that our group understands these terms we will focus on our goal and trim the trivialities to the bone. Pupils are individually accountable and feel linked by the involvement within their groups.

Too many teachers are like the biblical children of Israel sentenced to 40 years in the wilderness. But there is hope. My pupils have reacted in a variety of ways with comments ranging from "I really enjoy this way of learning" to "she's weird". It is early days for a scientific study but I am hoping that, for instance, my Higher English class will achieve better grades and enjoy English more than they might have done with straight classroom teaching.

Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating that all teaching should be telescoped into co-operative learning. My observations have waxed enthusiastic but I know that it cannot be champagne all the time. This way of teaching can only be a thread in the vast tapestry of the tools at our disposal but it is certainly a golden one. When I feel stranded in the classroom I sometimes think of these famous words: "Houston, we have a problem." It's happening less now.

Marj Adams teaches English and religious education at Forres Academy.

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