Bouncing back from COVID with Cooperative Learning #1

Eons ago (in 2019), Cooperative Learning was being embraced by schools as a cost-effective way to improve academic performance and social skills that effortlessly operationalised the key themes found in the new Inspection Framework. However, the pandemic has added entirely new levels of value and utility, and some degree of urgency, to the adoption of this particular approach.

It is reasonable to say that, in spite of a monumental effort by schools, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on all areas of education. In primary schools alone, the attainment gap has widened by up 52% during school closures, according to Schools Week.

Unsurprisingly, learners with lower socio-economic status will  take the brunt of this blow. Beyond this learning gap proper, it is expected that inequality in socio-emotional skills will also increase*, especially as the pandemic has widened the already stubborn ‘language gap,’ with Ofsted warning that children hit hardest are “regressing in basic skills and learning,” including language, communication and oral fluency.

The upshot is that, a decade after the world’s last COVID-19 patient has been discharged, the education sector will be catching up on the general learning loss, and unprecedented gap in social, emotional, cognitive and language skills for a vastly enlarged group of vulnerable learners.

The comprehensive approach

Tackling all these challenges with a patchwork of a million individual interventions seems overwhelming to most of us. Here, Cooperative Learning presents an approach that simultaneously addresses three crucial issues:

Cooperative Learning:

  1. increases the volume of learning per lesson to close these various gaps
  2. tackles emotional and social lockdown fallout and
  3. re-forms institutional cohesion.

And, Cooperative Learning affects every learner regardless of level, race or socio-economic background; works across any subject and age group; uses your current schemes of work; fits with or enhances any other approaches – while adding as little as humanly possible to teacher workload.

The following is the first of three 1-minute reads which will examine these points.

Point #1: Volume of Learning

Let’s look at Kagan & Kagan’s memorable definition of what constitutes Cooperative Learning: Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Equal Participation and Simultaneous Interaction (PIES). In a Cooperative Learning classroom, Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns prestructure peer-interaction to secure these four points and a number of other elements pertinent to good teaching and learning. To make a quick case for Cooperative Learning in the post-COVID scenario described above, it is sufficient to look at just two of these point in symbiosis, Individual Accountability and Simultaneous Interaction. Individual Accountability means that everyone is responsible for presenting their learning  (regardless of level or attention-seeking/avoiding behavior) at key intervals in the lesson –  during the review phase; guided practice; when processing small chunks during direct instruction; everywhere.

Now, it’s true that you don’t need Cooperative Learning to achieve accountabilty. Just ask a diagnostic question to Bobby in the back row, and Bobby is put on the spot. But what about his 30-odd peers, who are all losing patience because Bobby – surprise! – is not the epitome of riveting oratory? What about their accountability? Sure, you could ask a closed multiple-choice hinge question and have them hold up fingers or whiteboards. But this approach sacrifices depth of discourse for breadth of engagement.

The magic of Cooperative Learning is that you get quality and quantity in one package. Because Simultaneous Interaction means that all learners are called to account for their learning (more or less) at the same time. Consider the almost obscenely simple Word-Round: In  teams of 3-4 learners, each team member gets X seconds/minutes or x amount of sentences to present their response to a question posed by the teacher while the other team members listen. Ask any question: “How would you solve the maths problem on the board and why?” – “What do you remember from our last lesson” – “Give examples from the Guardian article to prove this is a persuasive text.” Model an ideal answer with reminders of relevant vocab, set them off and just walk around, look and listen. And, of course, all questions could be laced with subtasks (“Note your team member’s ideas as they are presented” – “Recap the prior point made before proposing your own”  – “Compare your stance to the previous person’s … ” – “All team members signal whether you agree or disagree during presentations” and so on).

In a class of thirty, at 30 seconds per person in teams of four, in 2 minutes real-time, you have one hour’s worth of combined sharing of language, subject vocabulary, insights.** And there you have it: High volume of high-quality expression and impression of comprehension and vocabulary to close the gaps in subject content and oracy – and with no prep work, no change to materials or schemes of work.  We could go on: We have not even touched upon the issue of equal participation and positive interdependence, or any of the other goodies hidden in this simple activity. But this will suffice our purpose.

Next installment will be on the point #2 Tackling emotional and social lockdown fallout.


*) Di Pietro, G. et al. The likely impact of COVID-19 on education: Reflections based on the existing literature and recent international datasets. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2020, p. 29. doi:10.2760/126686

**) And yes, misunderstandings – if you are lucky: Experience shows that in mixed-ability teams of four, 90% of misapprehensions get flagged up in-team. No more wasting class time on those “sloppy mistakes.” The filtering process leaves you with the juicy ones where real learning takes place.

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