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You too can have a quiver full of arrows

Co-operative learning has the power to make children listen more attentively and learn quicker, says Marj Adams

ENJOYING your teaching? Are you comfortably expanding your folio of classroom strategies by attending scintillating in-service days? Or do you despairingly skim through the latest education journals to find new ideas to captivate your pupils? It's not all hopeless.

Kate Elder, headteacher of Pilmuir primary in Forres, describes the relatively new co-operative learning as "stimulating, interactive, inclusive and fun".

Consider the ambitious plans of North Lanarkshire. All 3,500 teachers are to be trained in co-operative learning techniques as presented by Jim Craigen and Chris Ward of the Durham District School Board, Ontario. The director of education, Michael O'Neill, deserves manifold accolades for his far-sightedness.

I, along with many teaching colleagues in Moray, have been fortunate to have benefited from this training - the late Alistair Maclachlan, then rector of Forres Academy, brought the Canadian trainers to Scotland in 1998 for the first time. A week of this training transformed my teaching strategies. Suddenly I had a quiver full of arrows but why such excitement?

First, this particular training takes account of brain theory in a way that doesn't happen enough. To enable pupils to maximise their learning potential we must understand how their brains work. Are you aware that the brain hears positives more readily than negatives? It takes longer to process negatives. Another gem from the research - we can retain up to 95 per cent of what we have been taught if we actively share it with other people.

This sharing is the key to co-operative learning but beware of people who tell you that they have always done it this way. Co-operative learning is not simply being seated physically close to others in groups which may be dominated by one strong character while the others silently switch off.

Co-operative learning is a group learning activity, organised so that each learner is held accountable for their learning and is motivated to increase the learning of others. Pupils learn to work together in such a way that all the students in the group participate and benefit from the experience.

So in practice? Each co-operative learning lesson or activity should include the five essential components that make the co-operation work: positive interdependence, face to face interaction, individual accountability, social skills and group processing.

All these principles are important but possibly the ones which make most sense on paper are positive interdependence and social skills. Positive interdependence operates when a pupil understands that they are linked with the others in their group and that the success of the group depends on their unique contribution. If the task is to prepare a plan for an essay on the life of William Wallace then each member will be given different information, like jigsaw parts, which they must share with others. The focus then is on sharing, not on hitchhiking on the work of others as it is in traditional groupings.

OK, it sounds good but how do you achieve that high level of co-operation? This is where social skills come in. These skills range from the most basic of being able to talk in quiet voices to the most sophisticated of conflict management, covering the whole spectrum from nursery to S6. You might ask the groups to focus on the social skill of giving each other constructive feedback. It's essentially a two pronged approach, engaging pupils academically and socially.

That should sound familiar. Remember the five national priorities: achievement and attainment, framework for learning, inclusion and equality, values and citizenship, and learning for life. Co-operative learning Canadian-style, with its emphasis on drawing in all pupils from the highly motivated to the disaffected, can contribute to all these priorities. The world outside school looks for highly developed social skills - we are not consistently delivering them at the moment.

What do teachers on the ground say? Leslie Tulloch, a Forres P4 teacher, says "co-operative learning adds variety . . . pupils listen more attentively and learn quicker". Her secondary colleague, Mark Jones, is quick to agree, commenting on how "the social tasks create an ethos and atmosphere in the class conducive to good learning."

Marj Adams teaches religious education, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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