Sedalia School District 200 students are engaging more with their lessons – and each other – through the district’s cooperative learning initiative.
Cooperative learning theory and structures have been around since the late 1960s and are built on research that shows students learn and retain information at higher levels when they interact with the lesson. Ann Cave, instructional coach at Skyline Elementary School, said teachers have been using some forms of cooperative learning for years, but now there is more structure to help teachers better integrate it into their classroom.
That framework was built over the summer, when 100 Sedalia district educators and administrators were immersed in a week of Kagan Cooperative Learning training. Carla Wheeler, the district’s director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, said the sessions were “a way to help teachers and students at the same time.”
“One of the things that we evaluate teachers on is cognitive engagement of students in the classroom and their involvement with their own learning,” Wheeler said. “Kagan instructional strategies was a way to provide (professional development) for teachers so they could be more successful on evaluations but also for students to become more engaged in their learning and to increase student achievement.”
Dr. Spencer Kagan’s research led to cooperative learning structures that help students interact with, support and teach one another. The structures are not additional content for students to learn, but rather models teachers use to help students better grasp their lessons and improve their socialization skills.
“It’s not a curriculum, it is not something added in to teach, it is how to structure your lessons and your class to get the most out of your students,” said Becky Brownfield, business teacher at Smith-Cotton High School. “Sedalia has always worked really hard to get students engaged, because we know the more they are engaged the more motivated they are and more they will succeed. There is a constant drive for improvement to help students see the relevance of what they are doing.”
Michelle Steger, a fifth grade science teacher at Sedalia Middle School, uses the “Rally Coach” structure to start each class session. Her students pair up and one reads a text block, then the pair decides what elements are important to highlight. Steger next provides a question on that text, and one student gives an answer with the other student coaching them to the right response, if needed. They then switch roles.
“There is no way to just be a wallflower with cooperative learning,” Steger said. “The big thing is not having that one person who sits back and doesn’t do anything while everyone else is doing the work. With Kagan, you have to participate.”
Another structure Steger uses regularly is “Stand Up, Pair Up, Share Up.” Her students select black and gold sticks, then move around the room to find a classmate with the same color stick. Steger issues a question and one student provides the answer to their partner, but if they struggle their partner coaches them to the correct response without providing it outright. Steger will go through pairs of questions, with students changing partners after each set.
Cave said there are more than 200 cooperative learning structures, but most teachers focus on just a handful to reinforce familiarity among their students.
Brownfield was among the teachers who participated in the Kagan training, and she has been training others to use the structures. During the summer, she typically goes over her lesson plans to refine her approaches.
“For me, it has been just a matter of looking at previous lessons where kids might have struggled,” she said. “It might have been a difficult concept for them, so I try to pair up that lesson with a new structure, a new way to approach it.”
The student socialization piece is a cornerstone of cooperative learning.
“Any time you can make learning personal, their learning exponentially grows,” Brownfield said. “When students are comfortable in their environment, the more they will talk about what you are teaching, the more they will remember it and be able to apply it.”
To that end, some cooperative learning structures are purely social to encourage students to interact with classmates who they otherwise might never speak with.
Kelly McFatrich, principal at Skyline Elementary, said students’ social skills are declining as communication increasingly moves to electronic devices.
“Students are not used to interacting socially with their parents at the dinner table or with other students,” she said. “(Cooperative learning structures are) teaching them to socialize with others appropriately, and that is going to carry on into college and career. We are being told that businesses want students to be able to collaborate and work as a team – that is important.”
Students sometimes make judgments about classmates without even knowing them; the structured interactions remove that barrier.
“In all of my classes this year, it is evident that they are friendly with each other – that is beautiful,” Brownfield said. “Then, when I put content to it, they are not afraid to talk about it and they are exponentially growing in class because they are talking about it, not just hearing it.”
Structures in action
Missy Arnold’s class was preparing to tackle practice questions for an exam to be given the next day. The sixth graders in her English language arts class at Smith-Cotton Junior High chose the Numbered Heads Together structure for their work. They sat in groups of four facing one another.
For the first question, the students used individual white boards to record their answer privately before sharing with the group. If someone had a different answer, they would discuss their rationale and come to a consensus. As Arnold randomly called out numbers, a student from each group would share the answer they selected.
“Sometimes teachers think they are doing cooperative learning but it is group work,” Arnold said. “In group work, you often don’t have everybody participating. One person tends to take over. The best thing is for everyone to have a role, that way they all are involved and they all are responsible for coming up with an answer.”
As she conducted her checks for understanding, Arnold was quick to praise the students and remind them, “We always want to understand the process. What is our thinking?” McFatrich said students also are encouraged to praise one another to reinforce positive behaviors and build community.
Cooperative learning is not the right tool for all occasions. There are times when teachers have to introduce new material through direct instruction, or lectures.
“But during that direct instruction, your students have to be engaged to be learning,” McFatrich said. “This offers teachers some strategies that, even if they are in front of the class giving direct instruction, they can have students turn and talk” about key points.
She added that a key difference between traditional instruction and cooperative learning is “calling on two students who raise their hands and provide the correct answer then moving on – all you really know is that those two students got it. With (cooperative learning), at minimum half of kids are engaged at all times.”
Arnold said the cooperative learning initiative “has taken what we already teach and put it into a structure where everyone has a part.” Brownfield said it has put students in charge of their education.
“We are engaging students in their learning, and getting students to take a more active role and responsibility for their learning,” Cave said. “We are creating problem solvers.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.