UK Tertiary in the 21st century; a Cooperative Learning toolkit #1

Introducing Cooperative Learning to Higher Education

On 11 November 2015, UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies successfully trialled the structural approach to Cooperative Learning, to facilitate the effective student-centred learning looked for at tertiary level.  

This event is a small watershed for a number of reasons. Therefore this first post examines the wider context of the session. (For details of the session itself, get notified of the upcoming part #2 or visit the homepage now).

First of all, student-centred learning is seen to provide of the broad spectrum of skills now demanded from the workforce which include “Flexibility & Adaptability, Initiative & Self-Direction, Social & Cross-Cultural Skills, Productivity & Accountability, Leadership & Responsibility” (See 21st Century Skills Framework). Tertiary has been informed in no uncertain terms that governments across the globe wanted to see this happen yesterday, as we have discussed in previous posts.

Secondly, because a quick sweep of the internet will reveal the sparsity of UK tertiary engagement with this simple, effective method. To understand why this is odd, consider the fact that the Gulf, China and Singapore have been actively pursuing this method in all phases of education for at least a decade, and that branches of Western universities in the Emirates push this method because it is widely acclaimed to promote independent thinking and democratic values; given democracy is now a “Fundamental British Value,” it does seem all the more absurd that we should not try this at home. (For more on student-centred learning in the Middle East, see my paper The High Cost of Free Thinking; Debating Education Reforms in the Gulf, also available on ResearchGate for peer reviewing).

What Tertiary could & should

So with the money-men in business and government pushing for these skills, and considering that underfunded primary schools as far out as rural Norfolk are working with local business mavericks to secure full integration of such qualities as early as Year 1 – Why is effective student-centred learning so difficult for tertiary?

After all, its leaders are groomed from the most intelligent and best-educated minds within academia and should be epitomes of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, especially as they are (supposedly) relatively independent of the bottom line compared to businesses.

“We reassert the importance of the teaching mission of higher education institutions and the necessity for ongoing curricular reform geared toward the development of learning outcomes. Student-centred learning requires empowering individual learners, new approaches to teaching and learning, effective support and guidance structures and a curriculum focused more clearly on the learner in all three cycles.”

– leuven/louvain-la-neuve communiqué, 2009, quoted in Student-Centred Learning Toolkit for students, staff and higher education institutions, European Student Union, Brussels, 2010.

If the skills outlined above are what business and government want to fund, there is every opportunity for those brilliant, original minds to experiment and develop amazing education in all phases, that would fundamentally allow our young to review and rewire society – politics, science, economics, the works.

But, alas…

Why x 5 – The Toyota Motor Corporation is asking

The 5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships formally developed within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its innovative manufacturing methodologies. Ask yourself five times why this idea did not come out of a university.

Wrong – it’s not lack of competition. Anyone in academia will tell you the pressure building on universities under the Chicago School of Economics “free market” doctrine has done nothing to make higher education more effective. As in every other sphere of human existence, Milton Friedmann’s cult of measurable results and monetisation has generated a chronic crisis of septic competition, desperate quick fixes and manipulated statistics instead of collaborative, carefully thought-out and sustainable solutions. In fact it is more than likely that the permanent fear of replacement driven by liberalisation’s Rick-the-Temp-mentality makes it difficult for leaders to think ahead more than a single semester.

Pointing the blame in the opposite direction, there is the traditional anti-authoritarian ethos of the academic milieu, which demands full independence from external pressures. Taken to extremes, this potentially leads tertiary to the absurd situation of refusing to promote empowered, thinking and critical students, simply because “big business”  is asking for independent thinkers to compete in the 21st century.

Of wool & air; CL as a tool

Between these extremes, there are a number of issues: Mainly, there is a wooliness about student-centred learning. A critical voice, Professor Frank Furedi at the University of Kent, believes some accept it merely “because it sounds good and sounds progressive … It’s used in a rhetorical sense by some universities to indicate that ‘we are very responsive and student friendly’, and in other places as a managerial strategy to stabilise student retention rates.” (Quoted in A matter of opinions). Turning around a primary school based on a woolly concept using trail-and-error is hard enough. But compared to a university, a primary school is a fishing boat; turning around a tertiary super-tanker by muddling along is just not possible.

This is precisely why the clear delineation, the simplicity, the adaptability to any subject and materials, all combine to make the structural approach to Cooperative Learning so enticing. Just over two hours of CPD, delivered to a wildly disparate group of lecturers, empower lecturers to deploy controlled, targeted student-centred activities with student buy-in the next morning, slotted straight into current lesson plans and using current materials.

Apart from problem of defining student-centred learning itself, there is the general airiness of academia, which I outlined in From the Mountain to the Valley; that the grand ideas remain pies in the sky, because there is no system in place to engage the ground crew. Sadly though, the crew might actually be very capable of executing the grand designs, but don’t have the surplus energy to come up with such ideas themselves in the day-to-day nitty-gritty, where Academia is incapable, but are paid to think big. In other words, collaboration would be good.



The interesting solution here is to stage Cooperative Learning events, akin to Healing Fractures II, to facilitate a constructive meeting of multiple stakeholders, coming from wildly different angles, and with very different objectives, e.g. student representatives, local networked secondary schools, delegates from DfE, HEA, relevant local and national businesses, university lecturers, department heads (Think sociology, politics and education, as well as hard subjects of science, health, business), internal CPD providers and external educationalists. Aim: To bring education into the 21st century with all stakeholders actively involved.

Next post will provide details on the session itself. Get notifications of related posts on twitter.

More on Healing Fractures II – Beyond Birmingham? on this blog. is the business end of

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New Video: Vice Principal, 10 weeks into the Skills & Mastery programme

In this short video, Ben Rogers, Vice Principal, discusses Norwich Primary Academy’s experience with Skills & Mastery.

Norwich Primary Academy, situated in one of the most socially challenged areas of the city, is now using Cooperative Learning to develop key human skills; resilience, mental toughness, sense of duty, service to others – without compromising academic performance.

Their first two hour inset was reinforced by a one hour optional add-on to support lesson plan integration. 

The first inset took place on 3 September 2015, and this interview was conducted only 10 weeks later, after the second session. So far, the school has also invested in 6 hours of individual coaching to selected teachers. Please see this video with Ms Shane Horne, a Year 3 teacher.

The video covers a wide range of topics: why this challenged school adopted Cooperative Learning in the first place, experiences of teachers and management working directly with myself, children’s responses, adapting Cooperative Learning to lesson plans and materials, social skills and behaviors for learning.

Importantly, one of the important benefits of Cooperative Learning is that it strengthens the usefulness of much previous CPD investment, rather than replacing it. At the end of the interview, Mr Rogers discusses integrating Cooperative Learning with NPA’s current strategies.

Please visit the full NPA video library for more pictures and videos.

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Cooperative Learning; a model lesson across all subjects


More videos are up from the parent meeting. Please visit the dedicated video library now.

Originally posted on

Stalham Academy is an early adopter of Cooperative Learning, and was the first to purchase the best-selling Skills & Mastery course.  In this video, Andrew Howard presents a model lesson –  in one of the first examples where Cooperative Learning is used to not only inform parents, but to secure their full engagement.

Given their stunning results, this former special measures primary is worth paying attention to for other clients who are looking to maximise their CPD investment. Watch this brief video on how Cooperative Learning is deployed in lessons across subjects.

This lesson reflect the schools’ best-practice experience, secures an ideal mix of group and individual work, saves teachers mental planning and provides children with a repeated, recognisable format.

CLIPs are picked as appropriate from the nine provided in the Skills & Mastery course. Each of these CLIPs are carefully picked to cover a fan of needs, whether the objective is…

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Cooperative Learning; (an) engaging business

I have pointed out in the about section that Cooperative Learning can be used  “Everywhere you find a group of people, including classrooms, study groups, even teacher-parent knees-ups….”

Here is the evidence from Mr Khalid Mair, a London businessman and experienced coach with a longstanding commitment to community building. In these comments on Healing Fractures II – Beyond Birmingham, which took place during Islam Awareness Week on March 17, 2015, he outlines the effect of Cooperative Learning on adults handling and solving controversy.

Watch the video.

K Mair video

“The creative solutions that came out as a product of that

process were very illuminating”

“…ensured full commitment from
all participants”

– K. Mair, business coach
Islamic Awareness Week, Norwich, March 17, 2015

More pictures and videos from and about the event at the full gallery.

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Norwich Primary Academy

I have been doing a great deal of coaching these past weeks before half term. Following sessions with a number of teachers at Norwich Primary Academy, Ms Horne, teacher in Year 3, kindly offered to describe some of her experiences after the first 2 hour block of a tailored Skills & Mastery session.

When working with teachers, I always wonder whether I am actually the one learning most about how to use Cooperative Learning. The content-free, versatile nature of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns means that only one’s imagination sets the limits. Each individual teacher uses these CLIPs in his or her own unique way, a fusion between their personality, prior experience, educational background, subjects and even individual classes.*

In this short video, Ms Horne discusses her own use of Cooperative Learning and her thoughts on equal participation, confidence building, attainment and potential effect on teachers’workload at Norwich Primary Academy.


Shane Horne video


“We’ve used it across all subjects, it’s been brilliant…”

In the particular social skills exercise discussed, Word-Round was used to uncover the children’s definitions of key words such as trust and thoughtful.


Ms Horne's class on social skills

Ms Horne’s class on social skills…

The NPA gallery includes more pictures of the products referred to by Ms Horne.


*) This is one of the main reasons I have begun to divert the staged social constructivism inherent in Cooperative Learning in the CPD sessions to let teachers share ideas, discuss difficulties and experiences in relation to practical lesson planning and implementation of CLIPs.  It takes the necessity of teaching Cooperative Learning through Cooperative Learning to an entirely new level, as the examples are no longer from Maths or History – now the subject matter also includes Cooperative Learning, making the CPD even more powerful through sharing and meta-learning. Follow on twitter for more on this.

The refurbished is the business end of


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Inside out? collaborating introverts

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Michael Godsey claims that the growing emphasis in classrooms on interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they are working independently and in more subdued environments.

The author argues that such students sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when they actually “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”

These are valid concerns, especially with government and business driving student-centred learning at full tilt. So, for the benefit of heads and teachers considering Cooperative Learning, I hope to address some of the points raised in the article.



First of all, as always here on, the term ‘Cooperative Learning’ denotes the structural approach which “consists of students in small hand-picked teams or pairs working in a number fixed “Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns”, called CLIPs. These CLIPs define step-by-step how students interact with materials and each other and are void of content.” See for the full description.

These standalone CLIPs are deployed by teachers at specific points during lessons, to achieve specific aims. Teach SPaG, drill dates, assess writing, present knowledge, solve worksheet tasks, reflect on own learning: It is a precise tool, not vague “student engagement.” Cooperative Learning may even be used to support such quiet, supposedly introvert skills as reading and text comprehension. Examples are found below and are being made available on Cooperate Be Literate. I have outlined some examples how to facilitate rote learning and of the misuse of the term Cooperative Learning in my Note to Mr Peal.


Student-centred vs teacher-centred ratios

Any experienced educator knows continuous discussion may well be engaging, but also taxing. I therefore always warn teachers not to exceed 80% Cooperative Learning in any lesson. In a Cooperative Learning classroom, students passively receiving input from the board, or passively listening to an open class debate, is a relevant piece in a bigger puzzle.

Relevant because, as the teacher, you possess unique knowledge and you see the big picture, which needs to be fed to the class as a whole. Not only to set up tasks, but to steer the learning process through-out the lesson. That in itself should be ample argument for giving teacher input space. (The fact that your class input will be more relevant and precise if you have monitored during the preceding Cooperative Learning sequences is a sidenote here).

Then there is the issue of precision. What sort of relevant discussion will students have if they have not been presented with clearly delineated objectives, understand the context and, for most subjects, have certain hard knowledge in place? Unguided pupil discussions, not preceded by input or modelling, is often of a shockingly low level, especially in classes very used to teacher-centred learning styles. For interesting examples, see Andy Tharby’s “English teaching and the problem with knowledge” .


The introvert steps of Cooperative Learning interaction

The ratio aside, Cooperative Learning in itself does not have to entail excessively social or overstimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation. Think-Pair-Share comes to mind, and we will use this classic Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern as an example.

The Think-step may be 30 minutes of quiet, individual reading, followed by Pairs spending five minutes working out a summary of interesting or difficult points, presenting answers to comprehension questions, etc.

In the final step, Share, the pair then become responsible for presenting or arguing their case in front of another pair, who may hold entirely different views. This step may also last as little as five minutes, and interaction may be micromanaged to stress individual accountability or left as an open discussion at students’ discretion, permitting the more introverted students to lean back and let the partner do most of the talking. As a teacher, you always know best what is good for your students. Cooperative Learning will simply give the tools you need to make it happen.

For the last five minutes of this 45 minute lesson, the teacher rounds off and corrects key points he picked up while listening in or guiding individual groups, and answers any final questions.

And, obviously, he collects those note made through-out the three stages, giving clear, written evidence of the learning process. 30 minutes quiet reading, 10 minutes of group work, all in one Cooperative Learning interaction pattern.


Think time

Think-Pair-Share is not unique in affording an individual element as an integral step. In fact, I push for CLIPs to be preceded by “think time,” again preferably with note taking, which gives written evidence of learning. This will also continuously promote identifying key points, concise, precise language, and legible writing; every day, every lesson, with a practical purpose and instant consequence, as the individual accountability inherent in CLIPs often means notes may serve as materials for peers.

Many course participants will remember the Simultaneous Write-Round here, where students individually contribute to a piece of creative writing, based on written input from others. After having jeopardized team performance a couple of times, and understanding the vital role they play as individuals, most students see the benefit of clear writing. This especially true if some time is dedicated to team building exercises.


Getting the introvert out there

We’ve demonstrated above that Cooperative Learning strategies aren’t irreconcilable with the needs of introverts. So in the following I’d like take a step further and point to some of the areas where Cooperative Learning may decidedly benefit introvert students – while bringing their deep thinking to bear on the class.

I have no doubt that introverts are not always “shy, depressed, or antisocial,” and that we should not conflate introversion with an inability to self-advocate. But, let us face it, chances in the real world are not hurt by the ability to present one’s knowledge coherently, argue one’s case, learn from others, negotiate with equally intelligent peers, or reframe one’s understanding to meet needs of very different temperaments and learning .



Similarly, extrovert, talkative students should benefit from, and appreciate, the more profound, worked-through solutions which I often find comes from so-called introverts. Learning to be quiet and simply listen is a crucial human skill, and where better to train it than with an introvert, struggling with every word? By engaging each other in the managed form of CL, both reap subject knowledge and get an opportunity to reflect on benefits and drawbacks of these personality types.

Godley concedes that the ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but that “this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation.”

My claim here is that Cooperative Learning is uniquely suited to facilitate this full-spectrum differentiation: By securing both simultaneous interaction across the class and equal participation, Cooperative Learning will give introverts the time and space needed to present their capabilities in their own tempo, to the benefit of extrovert pupils. On a practical level, this might take the form of working out useful phrases, such as “Do you need any help getting started?” or, vice versa, “No thanks, give me a moment, I just need to phrase this right…”.


Signal to noise

Finally, Michael Godsey worries collaborative arrangements may “inherently enable noisy, distracting conditions that make learning particularly difficult for [introverts].”

It does not hurt to state the obvious: students in any collaborative class must be drilled, drilled, drilled, for everyone’s sake, to recognise appropriate volume. Short voices means that no one outside arm’s reach will hear a word; an all-round useful human skill, and transferable, too. Many so-called introverts don’t mind a quiet, thoughtful discussion. What they do mind is a shouting contest.

The author admits that group activities can serve a purpose in the teaching of introverts and refers to several recent studies that confirm the mountains of evidence that “students who engage in cooperative learning tend to outperform those immersed in traditional learning approaches—namely lectures.”

Here I want to point out that with CL it is never an either-or. Specifically on the subject of lectures, I am currently trialling a programme for a university interested in how Cooperative Learning may facilitate an effective, manageable move towards the student-centred environments required of 21st century tertiary education by the Bologna process.

A key element is CLIPs which organise input processing to provide context, aid retention, clear misunderstandings, share ideas. Dropped in at crucial points during standard klectures, such 2-5 minute interactions are a simple way to shuttle back and forth between very traditional lecturing and innovative student-centred learning.

The real problem is, for Mr Golly, how “…trends like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts.”

Key word here is applied. I feel I have made my case for Cooperative Learning to be considered….







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