Years ago, when we were young teachers, we found that our students often did not perform well. In fact, when we put the students into groups, they would mostly just sit and do nothing, or they would work by themselves. In other words, a group of four was actually four individuals sharing a common space, but not their thoughts and opinions. After countless attempts at cajoling, persuading, and threatening with bodily harm, we came to the conclusion that students simply were not interested in group work. Fortunately, we were introduced to cooperative learning at that time.
What is Cooperative Learning?
"Cooperative learning restructures the traditional classroom into small, carefully planned learning groups to provide opportunities for all students to work together and learn from each other" (Coelho, Winer, & Winn-Bell Olsen, 1989, p. 3). In other words, cooperative learning, at its simplest, is group work. However, it differs significantly from the traditional idea of group work in that each student is responsible for an equal amount of material to be learned and taught. While the learning aspect is basically no different from many traditional activities, the teaching aspect is what really sets cooperative learning apart. During the teaching component, students must use summarizing and explaining strategies, which result in increased interaction and communication. Furthermore, if a discussion results in conflicting opinions, the differences must be resolved in order to complete the task. All of the above strategies result in increased group social skills, as well as increased communication (Johnson & Johnson, 1991, pp. 41-42).
How does Cooperative Learning Improve Motivation?
"In a cooperative classroom, a student who tries hard, attends class regularly, and helps others to learn is praised and encouraged by group mates, much in contrast with the situation in a traditional class" (Slavin, 1990, p. 14). This phenomenon, called positive interdependence, makes cooperative learning one of the better tools for increasing students' motivation. In addition, positive interdependence interacts with a second kind of motivation, individual accountability. In effect, this is a type of negative motivation where students feel they must do their best so that the other group members are not let down. Thus, these dual motivating factors work together to inspire the students to work as a group, as opposed to four individuals occupying the same space. (See Johnson & Johnson, 1991, 1994; and Kagan, 1992, for details about positive interdependence and individual accountability.)
What Lies Beyond?
While there is little doubt that cooperative learning will improve students' motivation in the classroom, it still may not be enough. In addition to training them in cooperative group work, the teacher needs to consider the materials they work with. If the level is below the students' intellectual capacity, they will ask themselves why they are laboring to study something so trivial. In other words, the demotivating factor of simplistic materials can seriously affect students' attitudes, canceling out the motivational gains from cooperative learning.
Moreover, material selection is often influenced by teacher expectations. If the teacher believes that the class level is false-beginner, a textbook which supposedly best suits false-beginners is chosen. However, is this truly best for the students? Could it be that students are demotivated because they have already studied syntactic and lexical concepts far more advanced than those presented in the typical oral English course?
Granted, many students do not have the lexical ability to discuss challenging issues in the second language. However, teachers often tend to forget that they do have the ability to discuss those same topics in their first language. The result is that we give students topics to discuss that are oversimplified and, quite frankly, beneath their dignity. Put yourself in the student's place. You are taking challenging courses in your first language in such topics as economics, history, and social studies. You have just passed a test on a difficult reading about the environment. Suddenly, you are in your English conversation class, and the topic of discussion is visiting your grandmother or your favorite food. Are these really challenging topics? Are these topics that would inspire you to try to communicate in the second language?
Undoubtedly, many teachers will say that their students cannot even respond to something as simple as "How are you today?" For those instructors, an alternative is to teach pragmatic language use. In other words, make the students aware of how to communicate in a given situation, what they can say to communicate appropriately, and, most significantly, why it is important to do so. This awareness will not only help the students understand why it is important to study English, but will provide a solid foundation for the future.
Thus, teachers need to consider two important factors. First, the organization of the group work tasks must be such that students experience both the positive interdependence and individual accountability that make up such a large part of cooperative learning. Secondly, teachers must change their expectations of their students' intellectual capabilities by providing stimulating materials. When students work effectively in cooperative groups and when they discuss challenging topics, then they will leave class with a true sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
- Coelho, E., Winer, L., & Winn-Bell Olsen, J. (1989). All sides of the issue: Activities for cooperative jigsaw groups. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.
- Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1991). Learning together and alone: Cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1994). Cooperative learning in second language classes. The Language Teacher, 18(10), 4-7.
- Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning.
- Slavin, R. E. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.