Where individualism rules

25th January 2008 at 00:00
In the last of our series, Douglas Blane looks at co-operative learning structures for success in science for five to 14-year-olds.

Teaching is the best job in the world, according to Don Plumb, who came to Scotland last month from Canada to present several seminars at North Lanarkshire's annual co-operative learning conference.

It is also the most important, he believes. He writes textbooks and delivers workshops, but still teaches every week, so what he has to say is aimed at teachers in the classroom, "to help make (their) jobs easier and more effective. The first point," he says, "is that if the teacher is the person working hardest in a classroom, something is wrong."

This sounds great until the class realises they are taking part in one of those professional development sessions that model the methods they aim to convey. "That's right," the Toronto teacher and educational consultant confirms. "You'll be working hard for the next hour. We'll be trying out a variety of cooperative learning structures suitable for science lessons."

The action begins with "Take off, touch down", which sees individuals standing up and sitting down in answer to the teacher's questions. "Not only does this give you lots of information about your kids, but it gets them active. If they're already off the wall, you wouldn't use this one. But it's good if they're flat and leave-me-alone."

Half of the class, this exercise reveals, are secondary teachers. Half are attending their first co-operative learning course. No one watched Big Brother in the past week, and Sean Connery was the best James Bond.

The action continues with a group-forming exercise and a team-builder, during which participants quickly get to know their colleagues. It continues with timed round robin, rally table and quiz, quiz, trade.

A particularly useful feature of the session is that, between participative activities, Mr Plumb shares some of the insights he has gained from decades of using co-operative learning in the classroom. Group work is wishful thinking, he is convinced. "Research on student test performance, after different teaching approaches, shows that direct instruction is more effective than group work."

This comes as a surprise to some first-time participants. "Co-operative learning, however, is more effective than direct instruction," Mr Plumb continues. "So what does that tell us? Group work is not co-operative learning."

Undesirable aspects of the former are that individuals don't feel accountable, the group can operate without contributions from everyone in it, and one student often dominates. Features that identify a genuine co-operative learning activity - of which far more than 100 have now been devised and tested in classrooms around the world - are summarised in the acronym PIES, explains Mr Plumb.

"It stands for: Positive interdependence, Individual accountability, Equal participation and Social skills (see panel). Without any one of these you get group work, not co-operative learning."

Mr Plumb's classroom experience prompts him to go further. "I used to do projects in which the kids worked in teams and I would have peer evaluation, with marks given to individuals on the basis of how much they had contributed.

"I don't do any of that now. I have become convinced that group marks are poisonous. They penalise the good kids. They reward the lazy ones. Worst of all, they divide groups much more than they unite them.

"Co-operative learning is for learning, not for assessment."

There are two distinct but broadly compatible approaches to co-operative learning, led by Johnson and Johnson: www.co-operation.org and Spencer Kagan: www.kaganonline.com North Lanarkshire's professional development focuses largely on the former. Both provide details of specific classroom activities.



timed round robin

rally table

quiz, quiz, trade

find my rule

numbered heads together

team, pair, solo



encouraging others


offering compliments

checking for understanding

offering ideas

sharing materials

respecting others' opinions

using quiet voices

taking turns

working safely in the lab.

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