Commenting on the famous Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, this article posits the structural approach as the most effective form of collaborative learning, bar none.
The Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit provides guidance for schools on how to best use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Collaborative strategies top the list of cost-effective approaches, giving evidence of 5 additional months’ progress over a year for a very low investment.*
As social challenges and ethnic heterogeneity often go hand in hand, this article is of urgent significance to teachers considering attending Charlie Hebdo & Islam; effectively handling controversy and FBV in Walsall this month, as this twilight will effectively demonstrate how Cooperative Learning may help improve achievement for non-white Pupil Premium eligible children, as well as help schools meet statutory requirements.
Introduced in 2010, the aim of the Pupil Premium is to provide additional funding to schools for disadvantaged pupils to ensure they benefit from the same educational opportunities as pupils from wealthier families. Worryingly, although overall per pupil spending increased by 85% between 1997 and 2011, improvements in pupil outcomes were marginal on most measures. Especially if the Pupil Premium is to succeed in achieving its ambitious goals, the choices that schools make in allocating that money are of vital importance.
The Teaching and Learning Toolkit has been recommended by the Department for Education as a key resource for schools to use when choosing how to spend their Pupil Premium money.
The price tag
There is a “very wide range of approaches to collaborative and cooperative learning” and the Toolkit notes it does not go into detail of all the specific approaches; suffice to say, not all are equally effective – and making them so comes with very different price tags and ensuing teacher workloads.
The Toolkit estimates costs for getting collaborative approaches into a class of 25 pupils at about £500 or £20 per pupil per year. Where the approach does not require an additional resource, these estimates are based on the cost of training or professional development which may be required.
I am surprised at these figures, as Stalham Academy, with about 200 pupils on roll, invested £900 in three two-hour CPD twilights over six months. That’s a one-off charge of about £4.5 per pupil to move from special measures to consistently good teaching, according to the new headteacher’s critical observation.
Why Cooperative Learning works
The Toolkit warns that while the impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive, effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting pupils together and asking them to work together, specifically advising that “structured approaches with well-designed tasks lead to the greatest learning gains.” “Structured” being the operative word in this context.
The structural approach to Cooperative Learning solves a number of crucial group work issues because it defines minute-by-minute and step-by-step how students interact with materials and each other. These steps are precisely “well-designed” in advance to secure that each member of the group is held fully accountable, yet everyone depends equally on peers to complete the task at hand – with no further planning, guiding or monitoring from the teacher. It should be noted here that the equal participation prevents the usual group work issue of HAP domination and LAP freeloading.
On top of this, Cooperative Learning solves the two most fundamental group work problems: securing class control and individual assessment. Because all teams engage in the same steps simultaneously across the class, the structuring means that the teacher knows who is doing what in each group at any given time, and, as each and every pupil is required to present their learning to peers, unobtrusive monitoring provides formative assessment and realistic insight into individuals’ learning process in real time. The impact on learning is obvious.
Further to the issue of class control, Cooperative Learning activities may be scaled to last as little as 45 seconds and may be interspersed with board teaching, individual work, and any other activities – all at the teacher’s discretion. This means it is it easy for teachers to weave back and forth between teacher-centred and student-centred learning on the fly.
Because the same series of steps may be used in any subject with any materials, a single CPD twilight session potentially deploys Cooperative Learning across the entire curriculum the following morning. More on the other site.
Moving on, the Toolkit directly states that “Approaches which promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains.” Without revisiting the discussion on social constructivism, it goes without saying that the positive interdependence requires continuous engagement where learning and understanding is reviewed and negotiated:
Did you hear what the teacher just said? What do you think these instructions mean? How do you know this is a persuasive text? How did you arrive at this result in exercise five? What did you just learn? What did your partner just learn? What do you expect to learn? How does your team respond the ongoing conflicts in the dining hall? How do you think this task is best solved? How do you know this? Why do you expect this from the science experiment? How can you be sure about this? Which character in this book do you like best and why? What do you remember most from this lesson, etc.
Because some teachers associate all collaborative approaches with mere talking exercises, I always point out to delegates how to secure written evidence of learning at every turn. Cooperative Learning activities not directly designed for worksheets and writing may always integrate written elements, whether during preparation of their own presentations or listening to peers. However, because pupils are supported by peers, and are under subtle peer pressure, even poor writers will be able to get something legible down; as Ms Brady of Norwich Primary Academy notes:
“…what delighted me was the improvement in secretarial skills … I really don’t think I could have achieved such a dramatic improvement using ‘usual’ methods. [One pupil], whose partner told him he couldn’t read the sentence on Wednesday, earned himself a house point for improvement and I’m sure he left the room several centimetres taller!”
Cooperative Learning and differentiation
The Toolkit makes clear that collaborative approaches appear to work across the curriculum and for all ages “if activities are suitably structured for learners’ capabilities.” (Again that word, “structured.”) Every teacher knows the work required to organise effective differentiation by providing a variety of materials, organising students into achievement groups and so forth. Here, I need only to refer the reader to Mr Russell’s videoed comment on learning differentiation and Cooperative Learning at Stalham Academy. For context and other interviews, please see New head, fresh eyes; a critical outsider’s look at Cooperative Learning.
Evidence used in the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit
Evidence estimates are based on: the availability of evidence (i.e. the number of systematic reviews or meta-analyses and the quantity of primary studies which they synthesise); the methodological quality of the primary evidence; and the reliability or consistency of this impact across the studies reviewed.
Specifically: “Evidence about the benefits of collaborative learning has been found consistently for over 40 years and a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of research studies have been completed. In addition to direct evidence from research into collaborative learning approaches, there is also indirect evidence where collaboration has been shown to increase the effectiveness of other approaches such as mastery learning or digital technology. It appears to work well for all ages if activities are suitably structured for learners’ capabilities and positive evidence has been found across the curriculum. Not all of the specific approaches to collaborative learning that are adopted by schools have been evaluated so it is important to evaluate any new initiative in this area.”
It is my hope this article is a step towards remedying this last point.
A follow-up article here on cooperativelearning.works will discuss how Cooperative Learning actually integrates core elements of some of the other, much more costly, best-practice approaches in the Toolkit, including Peer Tutoring.
*) Average impact is estimated in terms of the additional months’ progress you might expect pupils to make as a result of an approach being used in school, taking average pupil progress over a year as a benchmark.