Share the duty of development

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Co-operative learning is spreading with the support of the Education Minister and is making a difference already in North Lanarkshire, reports Su Clark

When headteacher Tom Fleming first glanced through A Curriculum for Excellence, a wave of relief swept over him. As far as he could see, it placed co-operative learning at the centre of the Scottish curriculum, just as he believed it should. He was sold straight away.

"I would have been devastated if it hadn't," says Mr Fleming, of St Andrew's Primary in Airdrie, who explains that co-operative learning encourages pupils to take responsibility for their own and their peers'


"We introduced it four years ago and we haven't looked back since."

St Andrew's sits in one of the most deprived and challenging areas of North Lanarkshire, but since co-operative learning has been part of the approach, attainment has risen and behaviour improved.

Mr Fleming has become one of the strategy's most eloquent advocates. His teachers use it across the curriculum in every year, and he uses it in every aspect of staff training.

"It works for pupils and teachers," he says. "It gives them ownership by encouraging them to be directly involved."

St Andrew's Primary is not the only school to benefit. Almost every school has some, if not all, of its staff trained to use it, following the local authority's decision three years ago to train every teacher in co-operative learning within five years.

It is almost on target, with nearly 1,400 teachers, psychologists, network support and partnership officers attending summer academies and training days led by Canadian trainers Chris Ward, Jim Craigen and Marie Geelen. But the authority wants to move things forward even faster. It has a backlog of staff clamouring to be trained.

To speed up the training, North Lanarkshire has arranged for Ms Ward, who is superintendent for schools in Canada, to come to Scotland in January for 12 to 18 months. The aim is not just to ensure every teacher in North Lanarkshire is trained, but also to open up opportunities for other local authorities, so that they can introduce it to their schools.

In preparation, Ms Ward, Mr Craigen and Mrs Geelen were back in Scotland this month for North Lanarkshire's annual Raising Standards for All conference.

"It is the first time we've run the conference for teachers from other authorities and we have been overwhelmed by the response," says an ebullient Michael O'Neill, director of education. "We sent out invitations only three weeks ago but we've got nearly 200 delegates."

As he flicks through the list, he reels off other local authorities - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Highland, Moray, Renfrewshire, Perth and Kinross - and even notes some delegates from California.

Co-operative learning has been practised in Israel and the USA for more than 50 years and has been profoundly researched.

"Only spelling has been researched more," says Mr Craigen, who, along with Ms Ward, began introducing the strategy into the Durham school district in Ontario in the late 1980s. 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.

The coup of bringing Ms Ward over to lead the training, plus the interest of teachers and practitioners from many local authorities, suggests Scotland could be the next to turn challenged, underachieving schools around, using co-operative learning.

The first step of getting teachers on board has been achieved. The second step of training them all is not so easy, as every training session is done through co-operative learning. People are keen to adopt the strategy, but the training is time-consuming. Even the conference delegates were soon involved in "think, pair, share", brainstorming over issues to do with learning.

"No matter how well planned, how interesting, stimulating, colourful or relevant to the lesson, if the teacher does all the interacting with the material, the teacher's - not the student's - brain will grow new connections," explains Mr Craigen.

At St Andrew's Primary, the emphasis on an enriched environment, including interaction with teaching materials and other individuals, has made learning more fun. It has also made it more efficient, says Mr Fleming.


* Involves talking, * Is student-centred and interactive, * Has variety, social content, physical engagement, * Gives time to tasks, and * Supports critical thinking.


Mix, freeze, pair

Mix: walk when music plays.

Freeze: stop when music stops.

Pair: partner the nearest person and await instructions.

Neural plasticity activity

Academic task: create a T-chart for discussion.

Social task: build on ideas of others.

Roles: encourager, timer, recorder, reporter.

Individual accountability: each team member must contribute at least two ideas to chart.

Co-operative achievements: creating an environment which is stimulating and challenging and in which pupils' minds are actively involved.

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