Cooperative Learning vs. Small Group Method

Cooperative Learning Tags - assigning students with roles for an activity.

Photo: Cooperative Learning by ielesvinyes

I am taking a course, Constructivism Strategies for E-Learning, through the Department of Educational Technology here at UBC, and we’ve been exploring different instructional strategies. It’s funny, but I thought I knew what “cooperative learning” was, but there are so many different definitions of it! I found the exercise in comparing strategies valuable, and decided to share my thoughts.

Cooperative learning and SGAM (small group activity method) are similar in that students discover content and teach it to one another and to the class, with the teacher is “guide on the side.”  The focus of the description of each focuses on the specific set up of the classroom activity, such as number of students in each group, how long each portion of an activity is, etc.

Cooperative learning differs from, and seems more effective than SGAM in that groups in cooperative learning are sustained over longer periods – perhaps working on a problem/project for a whole unit or a whole year, while in SGAM the description seemed only concerned with a 30 minute to 1 hour period. In addition, in SGAM, students are working with others, but the sources we were led to did not seem to be mention a focus on teaching students the skills necessary to work effectively in teams, such as listening effectively, interjecting politely and ensuring everyone has a voice.

Both cooperative learning and SGAM are problematic in that they seem to undermine some key aspects of constructivism. For instance, in cooperative learning, diversity of students is addressed but there is no provision for students to have individual thinking time – or at least this is not documented. I don’t think that a student should simply work alone and they need to learn how to work with others, but what if a student learns best by processing content alone first, then sharing their ideas? How do these students access learning?

Cooperative learning and SGAM each have students working in groups which addresses the social nature of learning and all the aspects of the works of Piaget and Vygotsky that speak to this. However, cooperative learning and SGAM are too prescriptive, which seems to contradict the “guide on the side” persona that the teacher is invited to take. Depending on the amount of control exercised by the teacher, the ownership over learning and the complex process of knowledge construction could be compromised. Hopefully, teachers wouldn’t be too invasive with their interventions and hopefully they wouldn’t just set up the class in groups and give an activity and assume the learning happens as long as the students talk it out. The question that teachers need to ask themselves constantly is where the balance lies between being too controlling and too “hands-off”?