It may be fluffy, but it's necessary
One principle of co-operative learning that sometimes fails to convince teachers, when they first hear about it, is that social skills should be taught alongside subject knowledge.
Secondary teachers have more trouble with this idea than primary teachers, and maths and science teachers tend to be the most sceptical. Their arguments are similar to those with which many responded initially to A Curriculum for Excellence: "There's barely time to teach vectors, calculus, logs and exponentials. When are we supposed to teach social skills? Other people have more training and ability in that area than we do. It's not our job."
These seem like sound arguments. They have their proponents even among the teachers taking part in the workshop delivered by Ian Cassells at North Lanarkshire's annual conference on co-operative learning. One maths teacher from North Lanarkshire refers to teaching social skills as "the fluffy part" of co-operative learning.
But it's really not an optional extra, says Mr Cassells, principal teacher of mathematics and currently seconded to the authority as quality improvement officer. "Research shows that the benefits of co-operative learning include improved attainment, increased retention, greater motivation, better attitudes to school and teachers and more integration of students with additional needs."
Children and young people need social skills to access these benefits, however, and many of them are coming to school with very few. They are not being taught them at home, so if they don't learn them at school, they don't learn them at all.
On the other hand, Mr Cassells concedes, some of the techniques he recommends for the maths class might meet more resistance among pupils and teachers in the west of Scotland than elsewhere.
"Praising your colleagues isn't something we're comfortable with. Just the opposite in fact - insults are often a form of humour and a way of bonding. Maybe we should develop a type of co-operative learning based on friendly insults just for this part of Scotland," he smiles.
But for the rest of the world, he tells the class, praising team-mates is one of the key social skills that should be taught and practised in co-operative learning.
"For this next activity we're going to be mentally calculating the areas of rectangles. That's the academic part. The social tasks built into it are greeting each other, praising with no put-downs, helping and encouraging and thanking each other."
This is a lot to tackle in one activity and it is only being attempted, he tells the class, because they seem to possess some social skills already. With less advanced classes, one skill per activity is quite a good idea initially.
It is rare enough simply to name a social activity, Mr Cassells explains. Teachers should show the pupils what they look and sound like. "So you would tell them - and write up on the board - that praising looks like: smiling, nodding, making eye contact, thumbs up, etc. And it sounds like: 'Uh huh', 'Well done', 'Cool', 'I agree', and so on."
The co-operative learning activities demonstrated during this session seem simple and effective to those taking part in them. But they obviously need preparation and a little practice, so several teachers, for whom this is their first encounter with co-operative learning, raise a key question: how much professional development is needed before these activities can be confidently delivered in the classroom?
While reluctant to deter teachers from going away and trying out what they have just learnt - which is indeed the main message of most of the workshops at the conference - quality improvement officer Alison Cameron urges delegates also to delve a little deeper.
"North Lanarkshire teachers all take part in a three-day course on co-operative learning which we now deliver ourselves," she says. "Teachers from beyond the authority can also attend - and many do."
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ACTIVITIES FOR MATHS CLASSES
mathematical jigsaw for group formation
fan and pick
round robin share
group and covert processing
mental arithmetic with group support
inside-outside circles with flash cards
find the fiction
how well are we working together?
numbered heads together
think, pair, share.