Litmus test of team work

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Co-operative learning can help to wake up your lessons and make dull topics fun for pupils, writes Su Clark

Chemistry can be dull. Even Jacqueline Burton, a chemistry specialist at Coatbridge High, in North Lanarkshire, admits it. But since discovering co-operative learning she has found she can make even the driest of topics appeal. As she puts it, the colour of her class has changed.

"Chemistry could be a bit dull sometimes with me standing out at the front of the class talking about the finer points of acid and alkali, but with co-operative learning I've found a way to make the students engage and participate.

"I now get situations where pupils do a topic using co-operative learning without even realising they are learning," she says. "At the end of a session they've asked if they can do it again the following week instead of work."

After 10 years in teaching, Mrs Burton was surprised at how embracing co-operative learning radically changed her practice, after just three full days of training in March last year.

Co-operative learning was identified as a CPD possibility for Mrs Burton through her professional development review. Coincidentally, North Lanarkshire is actively promoting co-operative learning to its teaching force, and is four years into a five-year plan to train every teacher.

Chris Ward, from Canada, a champion of the approach, is with the authority on an 18-month secondment to lead the training.

Along with colleague Jim Craigen, Ms Ward was responsible for introducing the strategy in the late 1980s into the Durham school district, in Ontario, where she worked. At the time, Durham was one of the lowest achieving districts in Canada. Fifteen years later, it has one of the best records of achievement and behaviour.

So far, more than 1,800 teachers in North Lanarkshire have embraced the approach.

"Some people seemed to think co-operative learning is about losing control of the class because the teacher steps back from the front of the class and students are encouraged to talk to one another, but it's not like that at all."

Co-operative learning encourages students, both in primary and secondary, to take ownership of their own learning, says Mrs Burton. The strategies encourage collaboration, investigation, discussion and reflection. One strategy involves pairing and sharing and gives the two pupils an opportunity to think about a given topic. Sometimes the groups are larger, but every time the emphasis is on reaching a consensus that will then be presented to the larger group.

"It is much easier to control the groupings of students," says Mrs Burton.

"You give them a card, which puts them within a certain group. You can carefully arrange who goes where and who works with whom," she explains.

"When we were on the training course, even we didn't realise how carefully we were being grouped until later."

Mrs Burton was determined to put the theory into practice immediately. "It takes time to build up your confidence, but I did it by introducing small elements of co-operative learning into my classes," she says. "Some lessons now rely heavily on co-operative learning and some lessons involve a more traditional approach."

The belief that co-operative learning takes longer is false, she says.

"Nine out of 10, we will gain time because the pupils pick it up much more quickly. They find it so much more interesting now."

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