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My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This is the third post in a series looking at cooperative learning.


In a post discussing learning intentions, Chris Harte splits the learning process up between skillset, mindset and toolset. This divide is a useful way of appreciating the environment offered by by Pitler and Stone, with objectives and feedback representing the skillset and growth and recognition representing the mindset. This leaves the toolset. In a separate post, Tom Barrett describes the toolset as,

Toolset (How you Get, Have, Use) – Means a set of widely accepted methods, techniques, models, approaches and frameworks that can create value in the chosen field.

In regards to the environment of learning, the main tool at play according to Pitler and Stone is cooperative learning.

At its heart, cooperative learning focuses on developing a culture of collaboration. In Alfie Kohn’s argument against competition, he captures a definition of collaboration, suggesting that:

Learning at its best is a result of sharing information and ideas, challenging someone else’s interpretation and having to rethink your own, working on problems in a climate of social support.

According to Kohn, this can occur at any year level and in any subject. However, there are a range of challenges to make this all happen, including group sizes, process and space.

Models, such as Tuckman’s stages of group development, which focuses on forming–storming–norming–performing, provide support in regards to process. While those like Cathy Davidson provide an intentional set of practises devised to foster perspective. Also, Mia MacMeekin provides a range of strategies and activities to refocus groups:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Providing his own take on things, Alex Quigley outlines a set of essential steps, including a focus on time, purpose and assessment.

In regards to the size of groups, there are those, such as David Weinberger, who suggest the strength lies within the networks, with “the smartest person in the room being the room.” The focus in this circumstance (which is often digital) is on the whole, rather than the particular strength of the individual. In relation to actual size, Donald Clark argues that three is the optimal number for small group work, while Jennifer Mueller suggests that groups above five starts to challenge motivation.

An influence on the size of groups is the structure of the space. This dilemma is clearly depicted by Richard Wells investigation into environments,

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License by Richard Wells.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License by Richard Wells.

What is significant about Wells’ diagrams is the dependency on flexibility of furniture, as well as the ever changing role of the teacher. Kohn captures this best situation well when he says, “a classroom where collaboration is taken seriously is a place where a visitor has trouble finding the teacher.”

Coming at the problem of group work, Alex Quigley offers up definitive set of questions to help teachers reflect on their practise:

  • What is the ideal number for the group size for this task?
  • Are students clear about what effective collaboration looks like and sounds like?
  • What are the group goals and individual goals for this task? Are they clear to the students?
  • How are you going to fend off ‘social loafing’?
  • Should personality differences influence our grouping decisions? Are there introverts in the classroom that should receive particular attention as we decide upon grouping students?
  • How should we group in relation to ability or skill levels? Are the groups separate by ability or mixed, or randomised? Does this make a difference?

The greatest challenge though with all of this is the question of accountability. It is this that cooperative learning captures.

According to Pitler and Stone, cooperative learning groups emphasize positive interdependence. This involves finding a balance between group work and individual accountability. As they explain,

Small-group work is valuable, but cooperative learning, with elements of positive interdependence and individual responsibility, is the strategy that rises to the level of significance.

One of the biggest quandaries with accountability and responsibility is making sure that each member has an equal workload. This equality though needs to go beyond simply prescribing roles. With a focus on group objectives, the attempt to capture a true sense of individual accountability is best done through the use of both formative and summative assessment. This can only occur though when cooperative learning is both consistent and systematic. (See Charles Garcia’s post for a further discussion of this.)

An example of cooperative learning is the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). Devised by the ATC21s group, CPS focuses on the Conceptual Framework for Collaborative Problem Solving, highlighting the skills and perspective that people bring, rather than the jobs they do. Rather than splitting a task between members in order to do something more efficiently, the focus is on process and the skills brought to bare. Significantly, with CPS there is a focus on authentic tasks. It is for this reason that predefined roles and responsibilities are limited. Interestingly, the team behind CPS only works when a task is authentic. It could be argued that it is for this reason that CPS and therefore cooperative learning are essential skills for those entering the 21st century workforce.


So what about you? What have been your experiences cooperative learning and collaboration? How have you grappled with the challenge of interdependence? As always, comments welcome.


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flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

A few weeks ago, Steve Box put out a question on Twitter:

A lengthy debate ensued over the following days.

To be honest, this was a question that I had been thinking about myself for a while. Although I am a big believer of the power and potential of technology to make deep learning more doable, as Bill Ferriter would put it, that everyone should learn the same set of skills seems to me to lack purpose and clarity. I have taught different classes involving code over the  years, from Gamemaker to Lego Mindstorms. I have also had students explore different languages as a part of their own investigations. What stands out though in reflection is that everyone took something different from the process for everyone had a different purpose. The question remains then what does it mean for everyone to learn to code.

I wrote my initial post to outline my thoughts in the hope for some sort of debate. Sadly, although it continued in part on Twitter, the dialogue lacked depth. That was until Richard Olsen’s post. Moving beyond the usual explanations around workplace skills and the ability to build apps, Olsen suggests that coding is a core skill in the modern learning environment. Influenced by the seminal work of Seymour Papert, he asserts that it is coding and the digital workspace that allows students to learn real maths skills, to test hypothesis, to play with different situations. Going further, Olsen suggests that such a learning environment allows the following:

  1. Feedback-Rich Learning
  2. Reuse-Rich Learning
  3. Opinionated Learning
  4. Continuously Evolving Learning

What stood out to me was how this environment would look in many schools today?

For example, sites like GitHub and WordPress allow people to ‘fork’ code to make their own creations. These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to open source software. However, for a range of reasons, schools usually embrace locked down tools and software, such as iPads and learning management systems. Just as continuous evolution of curriculum is not always desirable in education, nor is the idea of students being able to hack programs for their own use. We only need to look at the case of iPads in California. Such decisions though come at a cost.

We are faced with the challenge of either being able to program or be programmed (to remix from Doug Belshaw). That is where we either control the environment in which we exist or allow others to control it for us. What though does this look like in schools? In a Prep class? When should students own their own domain? Is it enough to go through such spaces as Edublogs? Or should we be encouraging students to use such sites as Known or WordPress.org, which allow them to make their own changes to whatever they like.

So in the end, the real issue is not coding, rather it is control and the dilemmas around embracing modern learning. Like teaching inquiry without relinquishing curiosity to students, Do we actually do more harm than good in teaching code in an environment that ignores the opinionated and continuously evolving nature of coding. We then need to refocus our attention on pedagogy and the problem at hand before we start taking medicine for the wrong problem.


If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.