Promoting Cooperative Learning at Primary School
Eunos Primary School, Singapore
JF New Paradigm Education, Singapore
This article describes a four-step programme designed to promote the use of cooperative learning among teachers at a Singapore primary school. In the initial step in the programme, teachers at the school were asked if they would like to participate in the programme. Six came forward. In the second step, an outside consultant did a brief workshop for six English teachers at the school. Next, each teacher worked with the consultant in a cycle of:
(a) planning a lesson that included cooperative learning, with feedback from the consultant,
(b) teaching that lesson with the consultant observing and providing feedback, and
(c) planning another lesson in the same manner.
This cycle was repeated for five lessons per teacher. The fourth step in the programme involved the teachers and the consultant in doing a four-hour workshop on cooperative learning for all the teachers in the school. The programme was initiated and supervised by head of the school's English Department.
Change in education—be it general education, second language, or foreign language—is a difficult process (Freeman, 1989). Many times a worthy innovation is introduced one year via workshops, courses and other means, but the next year no trace of the innovation is to be found, except possibly some old workshop handouts gathering dust in a file somewhere. The literature on change in education and elsewhere suggests many reasons why change efforts often fail. These reasons include:
The change programme described in this article sought in particular to address reasons 3, 4, and 5. Each of these reasons is briefly expanded on below.
ESL/EFL language teachers, and other teachers as well, are too often treated by ministries of education and administrators just as teachers have traditionally treated students. In other words, decisions about how and what to teach are made for teachers by those above them in the educational hierarchy, just as teachers often decide for students what they will study and how they will study it (Sharan, Shachar, & Levine, 1999). ESL/EFL teachers are told what to do, not asked what they think would be best to do. They are seen as a collection of loosely-coupled individuals each independently responsible for their own work. A decision to implement a change is made at the top. Because teachers, like students, too often have not been involved in the decision, they feel little ownership of the change and have little stake in the success of the change. In reality, however, ESL/EFL teachers are very much involved in deciding what changes to implement, whether or not those above them in the educational hierarchy formally acknowledge this. Indeed, after the classroom door closes, many a top-down edict for change flies out the window.
Many of the changes taking place in ESL/EFL education today involve changing the relationship between teachers and students, with teachers expanding their roles from always being the "sage on a stage" lecturing to students and, instead, also being facilitators, as students work with their peers to play a more responsible, decision-making role in their own learning. If we are to "walk our talk," that is, practice what we preach, we must pay attention to the parallelism between the manner in which ESL/EFL teachers are treated by those above them in the educational hierarchy and they way we hope teachers will treat those below them in that same hierarchy. In other words, it may not be realistic to ask teachers to give more responsibility to their students when they themselves are given so little. This change toward giving more responsibility to teachers should begin in their pre-service education and continue throughout their careers (Freeman & Richards, 1996).
After a workshop for ESL/EFL teachers, it is common to hear the lament: "That sounds great in theory, but it will never work in my classroom." Each school, each class, each student, each day has its own particularity. No workshop facilitator can possibly present teachers with ready-made lessons for every class and every occasion. Even when the facilitator does present ready-made lessons, we have what Kagan (downloaded 15 February 2002 from http://www.kagancooplearn.com/Training/Main.html) calls "the replacement cycle," in which teachers use up those ready-made lessons, and then find it too time-consuming to create more, especially when they are working alone. Thus, when the next innovation comes along, ESL/EFL teachers leave the last one behind and replace it with the new one. One innovation replaces the last one; change is not sustained.
As the aphorism says, "Teachers teach in the way that they were taught." They have hundreds, probably thousands, of hours of experience with the old ways of teaching (Farrell, 1999; Lortie, 1975). It is unrealistic to expect a brief workshop or course to replace the safety of the known and familiar. Therefore, ongoing support is necessary to sustain change (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). [-2-]
However, too many ESL/EFL change efforts are characterized by "Hi-and-bye" workshops and courses in which a bright-eyed, enthusiastic lecturer comes in from who-knows-where and leads teachers through what is often an enlightening and useful collection of ideas and activities, and at the end says, "It's been wonderful working with you. I've learned so much from you. All the best in your teaching. Bye-bye!" The lecturer then hops into (usually) his taxi and it's off to the airport for the next engagement. Even when the lecturer lives in the same city and offers to respond to email and phone communication, the offer is seldom taken up.
The change effort described in this article focused on cooperative learning. Jacobs, Power, & Loh (2002, p. ix) define cooperative learning as "principles and techniques for helping students work together more effectively." A great deal of work has been done in the general area of the use of group activities in L2 instruction (Akcan, Lee, Ghaith, & Jacobs, 2003). Cooperative learning is a subset of that work. Various hypotheses and theories related to L2 acquisition support the use of cooperative learning. Four of these are discussed below.
The input hypothesis (Krashen & Terrell, 1983) states that we acquire a L2 as we comprehend meaning in that language in the form of written or spoken words. Thus, reading and listening provide input which our brains utilise to build language competence. Our knowledge advances as we understand input at the i+1 level, that is, input that is slightly above our current level of competence.
Three ways that cooperative learning helps increase the quantity of comprehensible input are:
A second hypothesis about second language learning that fits with cooperative learning is the Interaction Hypothesis which states that language learners increase the quantity of comprehensible input they receive by interacting with their interlocutors (the people with whom they are speaking). This interaction can foster negotiating for meaning. Pica (1994, p. 494) defines negotiation for meaning as "the modification and restructuring of interaction that occurs when learners and their interlocutors anticipate, perceive, or experience difficulties in message comprehensibility." Second language students negotiate for meaning by such means as requesting repetition, explanation and clarification. Reid (1993) states that negotiating for meaning can also take place during peer feedback on student writing.
Cooperative learning may promote interaction in the following ways:
The Output Hypothesis (Swain, 1985) proposes that in order for learners to increase their second language proficiency, they need to generate output, that is, produce language via speech or writing and receive feedback on the comprehensibility of their second language output. Input is necessary, but according to this hypothesis not sufficient for language learning. Output is seen to be another essential as it promotes fluency; pushes students to engage in syntactic processing of language (rather than only attending to meaning); gives students opportunities to test their hypotheses about what works and is acceptable in a particular language and affords students opportunities to receive feedback from others.
Cooperative learning, in contrast to teacher-fronted instruction, provides the possibility of a large increase in students' opportunities to create output, as many students are talking simultaneously, instead of one person, normally the teacher, doing all the talking (Long & Porter, 1985). In cooperative learning, group interaction is structured in an attempt to balance the opportunities that each student has for creating output. This contrasts with the situation often seen in group activities in which more student talk exists, but a relatively small group of students take most of the speaking turns. Furthermore, in my cooperative learning techniques, output is promoted by supplying each student with a unique resource—an information resource such as a part of a text, or physical resources, such as a particular color marker pen. For instance, in information gap tasks, each member of the group (a pair is also considered a group) has different information, and group members must share that information to successfully complete the task.
Another way of promoting output in cooperative learning groups is for each student to have a particular role to play in the group. A wide variety of roles exists depending on the task to be performed and the particular students who will be performing it. Examples of roles (Jacobs, Power, & Loh, 2002) include:
The ideas of Vygotsky (1978) and related scholars have found many applications in second language pedagogy. Vygostky's sociocultural theory views humans as culturally and historically situated - not as isolated individuals. A key emphasis lies in the ways that we help each other learn, rather than learning on our own. This help can be called scaffolding (the support provided as buildings are being constructed). Scaffolding can be provided to second language students by teachers, more capable peers, and even by students at or below that student's current level. When teachers use cooperative learning, they seek to enable students to work towards groups in which scaffolding takes place because the members care about each other, have the skills to help one another (see the cooperative learning principle collaborative skills) and are involved in tasks they find meaningful (see the cooperative learning principle cooperation as a value).
Cooperative learning overlaps with Sociocultural Theory by attempting to build an environment that fosters mutual aid. As Newman and Holtzman (1993, p. 77) note:
Vygotsky's strategy was essentially a cooperative learning strategy. He created heterogeneous groups of ƒ children (he called them a collective), providing them not only with the opportunity but the need for cooperation and joint activity by giving them tasks that were beyond the developmental level of some, if not all, of them.
With specific relation to second language learning, sociocultural theory views second language learning as taking place in specific contexts of language use, with second language learners availing themselves of the linguistic and non-linguistic tools at their disposal at they attempt to learn the second language and to learn about themselves. Speaking and writing are not just output in which information is exchanged between interlocutors. Instead, in groups, second language learners make use of themselves, their peers, artifacts, and other resources to mediate learning and to transform themselves (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2001). In this way, the social, the symbolic, the physical, and the mental space combine, and all must be taken into consideration.
Cooperative learning was chosen for implementation at the school in order to increase the amount of interaction among students in English and other classes. Students, it was felt, were spending too much time listening to teachers or working alone to complete worksheets. By interacting with peers, it was hoped that students would increase their oral skills, help each other learn, and become less dependent on teachers.
The cooperative learning programme was initiated by the first author, the head of the English department (HOD) at the school, who had seen cooperative learning being used at another Singapore primary school and was impressed by how students were more active. After conferring with her own school's principal, vice-principal, and English teachers, she contacted the second author who had been conducting cooperative learning courses for the Staff Training Branch of the Singapore Ministry of Education and for individual schools. After discussing various options for introducing cooperative learning to the school, they decided on the following four-step programme.
Due to scheduling and financial constraints, it was decided that six teachers should initially take part in the programme. Rather than assigning teachers to the cooperative learning programme, the HOD asked for volunteers. This represented a more bottom-up approach to teacher education. In this way, teachers who were already predisposed to use group activities in their teaching took part in the programme, making it more likely that at least initially the programme would succeed. Too often, teachers are forced to take part in change efforts. While some who have been 'volunteered' may later become enthusiastic, the authors' experience is that too many of them enter the process with their minds closed to new ideas, hoping that that if they ignore the change steadfastly enough, it will eventually go away, as so many other changes have.
The teachers who volunteered had four years or less of teaching experience, except for one with 20 years. Henceforth, these six teachers will be referred to as the programme teachers. The grade levels they taught ranged from Primary 2 to Primary 5 (approximately ages 8-11). One of the programme teachers taught a special class of students who had fallen academically far behind their peers. The other teachers all taught regular classes. All six of the volunteers were female. The teaching staff at the school is more than 80% female. [-5-]
The second author conducted a two-hour workshop for the six programme teachers. This workshop highlighted:
These three techniques were chosen because they do not take much time to use in the classroom. Circle of Speakers (and its writing companion, Circle of Writers) are particularly easy for students new to cooperative learning because they can be done in pairs. Working in pairs requires less intra-group coordination than does working in trios, foursomes or larger groups. The procedure for Circle of Speakers is:
The consultant led the programme teachers to analyze how each of the four cooperative learning principles is promoted by each of the techniques. Knowing these techniques makes lesson planning easier, because once teachers are familiar with a range of techniques, they can look at their syllabus and teaching materials and readily see where a particular cooperative learning technique will be applicable. In this way, the techniques help break the "replacement cycle" by making it less time-consuming for teachers to develop their own cooperative learning lessons (Kagan, 1994). Understanding the principles helps teachers grasp the thinking behind the techniques and empowers them to create their own techniques or modify existing ones.
The programme teachers had brought their course books and other teaching materials with them to the workshop. They looked at what they were teaching the following week and considered how they could use cooperative learning in their upcoming lessons. They received feedback on their plans from each other and the workshop facilitator. All six programme teachers taught English as one of their subjects, but because cooperative learning is appropriate to all subject areas, they were encouraged to consider using it in any subject area they taught. The idea was to avoid having cooperative learning being associated in teachers' mind with only one subject.
Another purpose of the initial workshop was to give teachers an opportunity to get to know the consultant. Many teachers feel uncomfortable being observed. Thus, it was important that they feel comfortable working with him, as he was going to be observing their teaching. The initial workshop also allowed teachers to have a voice in how the observation would be done and the overall scope of the programme. [-6-]
At the workshop, the programme teachers exchanged email addresses with the consultant and made a tentative schedule for him to observe their classes using cooperative learning. A cycle was established in which:
This cycle of planning, teaching and observation occurred for five lessons by each programme teacher.
The programme teachers worked with the consultant to do a four-hour cooperative learning workshop for the rest of the teachers at the school. In this way, the programme potentially benefited not just the six teachers, their students and the English Department, but all the teachers and students at the school. Furthermore, the workshop established the six teachers as the school's cooperative learning experts, to whom other teachers could later turn for support. Also, sharing as a group and with the help of the consultant made doing the workshop less threatening for the programme teachers.
The workshop began with a short list of websites for further information on cooperative learning, a definition of cooperative learning, and an explanation of an attention signal that teachers use when students are working in groups and the teacher wants to get their attention. The format for the main part of the workshop consisted of:
The workshop concluded with the teachers and the consultant responding to questions and comments from the other teachers. The school's vice-principal delivered opening and closing remarks and sat in for parts of the workshop.
Was the programme successful? What were its strengths? How might it be done better in the future? The real test of the programme's success lies in whether the use of cooperative learning is sustained among the six teachers and expands to their colleagues. Due to various constraints, no formal evaluation of the programme's effectiveness was included in the programme's design. However, students of the programme teachers were reported to have been requesting that they use group activities and even applauding when it was announced that they would be doing a group activity that period. Also, the school vice-principal reported that after the workshop for the entire teaching staff, some teachers were incorporating what they had experienced at the workshop.
In the authors' opinion, strengths of the programme include that:
Several ideas come to mind for how a similar programme might be better implemented in the future:
Change in ESL/EFL as well as other areas of education is a difficult process. Fortunately, we are learning more about it. The programme described in this article represented one attempt to implement some of our still very imperfect knowledge about the change process.
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Maria Abdullah is Head of the English Department at Eunos Primary School, Singapore. She initiated the program described in this article.
George Jacobs helps teachers in Singapore and elsewhere with their use of cooperative learning and other aspects of communicative language teaching.
Acknowledgements: Koh Huai Pang, Geetha d/o Doraisamy, Kong Hwa School (where the first author witnessed cooperative learning in action), Thomas Farrell.[-11-]
The consultant's notes on a lesson
[Information in square brackets has been inserted to help make the notes more comprehensible.]
Observation 8: 25 April 2001, P[primary] 5, Mrs Tan [not her real name] 2:00-3:00
The teacher started the lesson by reminding students that they should sit in their groups according to their numbers in the group. This makes it easy for the teacher to know who in each group has which number.
In this lesson, pupils were working in foursomes to answer comprehension questions [from their textbook]. They were using Write-Pair-Square.
[The steps in Write-Pair-Square are:1. The teacher gives a question or task to students working in foursomes.
In each pair, pupil #1 answered question #1, pupil #2 answered question #2, etc. #1 was to tell #2 their answer and say where it came from, and #2 was to check the answer, etc. Pupils were to use their highlighters to mark where in the passage the answer came from. This was a nice touch to encourage students to provide explanations for their answers. Then, pairs reported to each other.
The highlight of the lesson for me was in the Square step when I heard one pupil ask another in the other pair to say where the answer came from. Then, he asked the pupil to speak a little louder. This is very nice because such questions (asking for an explanation of an answer) and requests (asking for repetition with louder volume) are important collaborative skills. As I walked around, I saw that it wasn't just the one boy doing this. Many pupils were asking either their partner or the other pair, "Where did you find your answer?" This was happening because Audrey had prepared them for this beforehand.
Another think I liked about the lesson was that the teacher had a sponge activity. [A sponge activity is an enrichment activity that 'soaks up' extra time when one or more groups have finished earlier than the other groups in the class.] She calls this TCS: Tense, Complete sentences, Spelling and punctuation. If a pair had finished and were waiting for the other pair, they were to do TCS. One mistake we made when planning the lesson that meant TCS was very useful was that questions 1 and 2 were quite a bit easier than 3 and 4. Perhaps, we should have had pupils 1 and 2 do questions 1 and 3, and pupils 3 and 4 do questions 2 and 4.
The teacher gave students a time limit to encourage them to work more efficiently. This didn't seem to work too well, but perhaps I'm wrong. One thing that I sometimes do is: In addition to giving a time limit, I also appoint one group member to be the time keeper whose job is to keep track of the time and remind groupmates about how much time they have left. The thing with time limits is that we don't need to stick to them. If when the time is up, students are still working together well, we can just ignore the time limit or allot more time.
I liked how the teacher didn't wait for all the groups to finish the Square step before going over the answers. Even if we have a sponge activity—the teacher used one similar to [name deleted]'s, seeing how many words a group could make from the letters in the word environmental—we probably don't want to let things drag too long or we will lose momentum.
Write-Pair-Square, with explanations, is a versatile technique that can be used in any subject area. For instance, the same technique could be used with a set of mathematics problems. The type of explanation will differ according to the task.
I had a nice time observing one particularly smooth functioning group, the Sporty Kids. [Students had chosen names for their groups and designed table tents with their group's name and a drawing.] Of course, there's always room for improvement, but I really liked how everyone participated and how they had mastered the procedure. They also did a good job of not just blindly accepting other people's answers. You could see they were actively listening to and judging other people's responses.
Here's a question I have for you two [Audrey and Nora]: Does doing these activities (such as today's worksheet questions) using CL [cooperative learning] take longer than doing them without CL? I can see that explaining the techniques to students takes up time. Hopefully, that time will be lessened as pupils become more familiar with the techniques. For that reason, it's good to tell pupils the names of the techniques, as this teacher did.
Getting back to the time question, which is one of the most commonly mentioned objections to CL, my argument is that the key is not how long an activity takes but how much pupils learn. But, I do think CL can be as faster or even faster because, as the saying goes, "Many hands make light the work."
I liked how the teacher spent a couple minutes to comment to pupils on her own observations about how they had been working in groups. Another thing that could be done would be to ask pupils to discuss how well their groups are functioning and any suggestions they have improving the way their group is functioning.
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