On the Subject of Social Skills#2; Cooperative Learning … and why bad boys love school

Teachers often ask me if Cooperative Learning isn’t only relevant in classes which already function socially. The answer is a firm no. On the contrary, Cooperative Learning is specifically a solution to any social problems found within the class.

For this very reason, schools with a high level of behaviour issues often stand to benefit more from Cooperative Learning than those focused solely on academic achievement. This is because developing and sustaining deep and meaningful social relations form part and parcel of the Cooperative Learning approach.



The big picture

If we set aside law and statutory requirements for a moment, I’ve yet to meet a teacher who does not want his pupils to become capable, safe, confident and open-minded adults, who can show empathy, listen attentively, make people open themselves and feel appreciated, give useful and nonthreatening critique, enter into constructive dialogue, and so forth. These abilities tick all the boxes of PSHE, Citizenship, business skills, life skills, as your specific phase may term them. However, they also hold the key to day-to-day quality of life in marriage and any other close relationships.



From the perspective of day-to-day teaching, poor social skills and communicative skills deeply affect the learning processes. Bullying, conflicts, bad language and threatening or offensive behaviour take time and focus away from learning and drains teachers to the point of exhaustion  They also create a negative environment were pupils undermine each other’s self-confidence and opportunities to learn and grow. Normally, therefore, one needs to prioritise peer interaction over academic achievement.

The beauty of Cooperative Learning is that the development of social skills, which would include language development, is fully integrated with academic achievement. There is no longer a discussion of giving priority to one over the other.

Pupils do not acquire tolerance or respect (or, indeed, such character traits such as “resilience”) by being told about them or seeing them on the “Our School Values” poster  on the classroom wall.

Rather, these vague concepts need to take on a concrete form which is built into the way pupils interact moment to moment, in every lesson, every day. Social skills and noble values simply become a part of day-to-day teaching and learning.  As a consequence, in the Cooperative Learning classroom, many problems are dealt with proactively rather than reactively.

However, in many schools, one must start from scratch:




Maths, English, social skills

You would not expect a pupil starting in reception  to be able to read, write or solve mathematical problems. The reason for this  is that most children are not taught English and maths at home. There is an implicit understanding that this task rests with the school.

Unfortunately, most children are not taught how to listen, how to follow instructions, how to respectfully engage other people, how to be patient, or how to take turns at home, either.

Pupils don’t come to school having made a prior decision to be a nuisance rather than a delight to the peers and teachers. If shouting, bullying and arguing this how affairs are conducted in the household, they will know as little  about acceptable behaviour as they will about Maths. And these problems are certainly not limited to the classic “socially challenged families.”




Such pupils don’t need to be told what they mustn’t do, but rather have demonstrated and to practice every day what to do instead. What does attentive listening look like?  Helping others?  Thanking others? And, what does it feel like?

Cooperative Learning gives moment to moment opportunities for each pupil to practice and hone the new role of valued partner, giving pupils the opportunity to experience the joy and safety of being a part of a community where positive relationships are the absolute norm.


“Incorrigible Ian”

So, what to do with the pupils whose entire status in school is based on their “bad” reputation?

This is where consistent team building and class building becomes important.  One anecdote from Henderson Green, one of the most challenged schools in Norwich, serves to explain this.  As per usual, pupils who are disruptive, violent or abusive are removed to the intervention room across from their class. However,  looking through the glass, they see their peers milling around in a Catch1Partner, laughing and smiling at each other. All of a sudden, the intervention room is no longer the cool place to be.  As the headteacher, Mr Dabin, explained to me, they are in a mind-boggling paradox, as school is “not supposed to be fun” according to generations upon generations of estate wisdom. Yet it is.

I often speak of “positive peer pressure” to describe this process where pupils regulate their behaviour in order to fit into the group. It seems to leverage behaviour patterns on the deepest evolutionary level; without the tribe, you cannot exist. What started with a stilted, shy, tentative, or unsmiling “thank you” soon makes authentic, positive behaviour seem as natural as breathing.

In the next instalment of this series, we will explore examples of how this works in practice.

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Further reading

Ms Rebecca Lamb, an NQT in Year 6, describing some of her experiences adopting CLIPs (Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns)…

There is an ongoing heated debate on whether it is the role of schools to teach students basic human skills; a bit of an academic question for teachers stuck in in the day-to-day mayhem…

In this short video, Ben Rogers, Vice Principal, discusses 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…



werdelin.co.uk is the business end of cooperativelearning.works.

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