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Where group cheers reward education

In the first of a new series on co-operative learning, Su Clark reports on how it can be used in biology.

Despite giving the pupils five whole minutes to create celebratory group cheers, Jane Mathieson's S3 biology class was decidedly subdued. A couple of groups clapped weakly, one gave high fives and another twiddled their forefingers in an ironic manner. But it is difficult to produce a loud and riotous cheer when watched by 30 adults, all of whom, the pupils knew, were probably teachers themselves.

The teachers were observing Mrs Mathieson as she led a co-operative learning lesson on cells and the cellular process of diffusion. The idea was to show exactly how it worked.

But the pupils' reluctance to cheer was not reflected in their attitude to co-operative learning, a teaching method Mrs Mathieson tries to use at least once a week.

"It is brilliant," says Kelsey Boyle, aged 14 and an S3 pupil at Coatbridge. "It makes learning easier because the activities are fun."

She is in a small group with Mark McCrear, 15, and Carly Morgan, 13, pupils she wouldn't automatically sit with, but that hasn't stopped them chatting and grinning during their task. All are enthusiastic about the approach and would like to see more teachers using it.

"I think it would work well in any subject, because it helps you remember more information," says Carly Morgan.

"It is much better learning in the group," adds Mark, "because it makes it easier to learn, especially in topics you are not very good at and it is more fun."

Adopting co-operative learning came relatively easily to Jane Mathieson. After 11 years in industry, she'd been in teaching for less than five years when she was offered training. Now she uses the approach regularly in class.

"I tend to use it once a week with a year group," she explains. "It works particularly well to conclude a topic and for revision. But it can also be used as an introduction, so that I can find out how much the pupils know. Then they don't get turned off by me repeating stuff they have already done."

Mrs Mathieson admits it takes time to plan the way co-operative learning can be used, plus the time it takes to organise the resources. For the lesson on show at the North Lanarkshire-hosted co-operative learning conference in Glasgow last term, she had to create name cards for each pupil. On the back of each was a word linked to each of the groups: synovial joints, lungs, blood, skeleton and heart. This allowed her to ensure a mix of abilities in each group.

"It is initially resource- and time-intensive developing the materials but I laminate everything so I re-use them each year," she says.

The task the pupils had been set involved reading statements and deciding whether they were true or false. Each pupil was allocated a role, which rotated with every statement so everyone got to be checker, reporter, timekeeper and cheerleader. After every decision, they were allowed their group cheer.

"I would have had them making a lot more noise in class, really winding them up but they are more self-conscious here," says Mrs Mathieson. "The group cheer is important because it gives them identity as a group and helps them be more confident."

The other teachers wandered among the pupils. Some asked questions, others just watched. The pupils, unfazed, answered, then got on with the task in hand.

One observer, Mary Loge, education support officer from Angus Council, noticed the similarity between the task and a section of the biology Standard grade exam.

"I've done that on purpose but I haven't told them they are rehearsing for an exam, because if they heard that they would have switched off," says Mrs Mathieson. "I'll tell them afterwards."

The lesson ends with a discussion about the results and even though they are sitting in a hotel miles from school and watched studiously by 30 teachers, the pupils of S3 have successfully revised cells and the cellular process of diffusion.

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