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Partner skills to last a lifetime

Learning to co-operate is an integral part of the curriculum at this North Lanarkshire primary, says Su Clark.As soon as Laura Layden, P1 teacher at John Paul II Primary in North Lanarkshire, announces to her class that the next lesson will involve co-operative learning, her tiny pupils are up and off to find their partners. They may be small, but they know exactly what they are about to do.

From P1 to 7, all the pupils at John Paul II have embraced co-operative learning. But it could have been so different.

Speaking at a North Lanarkshire-hosted conference on co-operative learning in Glasgow recently, Mrs Layden and her colleague, Natalie Grieve, were able to show exactly how far their pupils have come.

Two years ago, St Columbus and St Gabriel's primary schools were facing amalgamation and the associated problems of such a move. Early on, staff began looking at cooperative learning, then a relatively new system being championed by the authority, to help the change.

By the time John Paul II primary opened in May 2006, 18 out of 23 teachers were trained in the system. Now the whole teaching staff is trained. But while they quickly picked up on the methods, the children have taken a little longer.

"The youngest pupils work in pairs, otherwise they are tempted to play," says P3 teacher Mrs Grieve. "But as the children get more used to it, we expand the groups. "I tried to use larger groups with my P3 last year but there were so many arguments I had to take them back down to pairs before there were any injuries. But this year, because they had already been introduced to co-operative learning and have focused on social skills, they are finding it much easier to work in larger groups, sometimes even in groups of four."

John Paul II has a brand new building, organised as a semi open-plan L-shape. The seven infant bases are close together. On the face of it the arrangement is not ideal for this learning method, which encourages engagement and constructive chatter.

"Things need to be well planned with a whole-school approach. We co-ordinate maths and other potentially loud subjects, and in the afternoon, when the children seem to be at their noisiest, half of the infant classes are out of the base at ICT, music, PE or outdoors," she adds.

Mrs Layden has only recently returned to the classroom after a secondment to North Lanarkshire to develop the authority's pack on Active Literacy, a programme that incorporates co-operative learning to drive up attainment. Now she is putting the theory into practice.

"I use it all the time to deliver learning and teaching," she explains. "And I use it across the curriculum, from environmental studies to ICT, maths and literacy."

Mrs Grieve has the same approach. But although a lot of the academic work is delivered in group settings, both teachers believe the flexibility of the method also lends itself to differentiation within ability groups.

Mrs Grieve uses the example of the storyboard as a tool for engaging pupils. Less-able children can be linked together to do shorter boards, perhaps four pictures instead of the usual eight. But because storyboards in co-operative learning are filled out individually in sequence, peer pressure ensures all the boxes are filled.

The children at John Paul II are so at ease with the approach, they have even begun to use it beyond co-operative learning lessons.

"I see them using the methods now even when they don't have to," says Mrs Layden.

"A few children were recently involved in designing a building in the construction area. They decided among themselves that one would do the design, another the building and another the presentation to the class."

Attainment is also up in the school. Within a year, its reading attainment was up by 14 per cent, writing by 9 per cent and maths by 6 per cent. Forecasts for this year show another jump.

"Co-operative learning has brought us greater productivity, greater achievement and has helped the children develop social skills that will set them up for lifelong learning and the work environment," says Mrs Grieve.

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