“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Old Proverb
I have a confession to make; I absolutely hated group projects as a student. I’m sure you can guess why. We’ve all been in that situation where a big project has been assigned and everyone is supposed to work together. Instead, the process ends up looking something like this:
- Student 1: Does 99% of the work
- Student 2: Spends entire meeting playing games on their computer
- Student 3: Promises to do their part but forgets
- Student 4: Never even shows up
As someone who regularly found themselves in the role of Student 1, I quickly gave up on group assignments. I was determined to make it on my own and refused to deal with other students. Of course, this mindset only created more problems. I may have discovered that Autonomy is my Drive Language, but it was no substitute for good cooperation.
It turns out I’m not the only student who had trouble working as part of a team. In a recent post for Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez noted that many of her students also struggled to cooperate on assignments. Still, she never gave up on the ideals of cooperative learning, and her research confirmed that students who worked together performed better both academically and socially. The real problem was that simply putting students into groups wasn’t enough to realize these gains.
“Solving this problem is not simple or one-dimensional.” Gonzalez argues, “It will most likely require several different approaches: explicitly teaching collaborative skills, using some type of structure so that roles and procedures are more clearly defined, and setting norms and expectations ahead of time.”
Learning to cooperate with others is a foundational part of the human experience. Students who isolate themselves from their peers (like I did) won’t just suffer difficulty it in class, they’ll also experience problems in the outside world. So, how do we as teachers address this problem of uneven cooperation?
As Gonzales stated above, building cooperation among students requires teaching collaborative skills, creating some type of classroom structure, and setting expectations ahead of time. But what does this actually look like in a classroom? Well, here are three simple strategies for starting out:
- Foster Communication: Clear communication is the first step toward true cooperation. For students, it’s always good to start with small activities that can build their interpersonal skills. One method is to have students interview each other. Have each student represent a person/thing relating to the current topic and create interview questions. Then, have them summarize and share their partner’s answers with the rest of the class.
- Agree Upon Rules: When breaking students into cooperative teams, have them set rules for the project ahead. Give them all 2 minutes to discuss and agree on what the rules should be for cooperative learning. Once that’s finished, have the class list what they decided. When students create and agree on the rules, they’re more inclined to take ownership and follow them.
- Make SEL a Priority: Perhaps the best method for building cooperation is to first build up social-emotional learning. Whether it’s in person or in a distance learning environment, SEL allows students to manage emotions, show empathy for others, and maintain positive relationships. A good exercise is to have students spend a little time each day writing in reflection journals. The act of writing compels students to think more concretely about their emotions. Meanwhile, recording their thoughts and questions allows for greater introspection and consideration toward their peers.
Building a Classroom
If you’re a teacher who has struggled to promote cooperation within your classroom, don’t despair. The benefits of cooperative learning are still within reach. With practice and patience, we can show students how to listen and learn from their peers while working together toward a common goal. These are the skills that will shape them long after they have left our classrooms.