The Order of Disorder
By Jennifer Halas

A buzz of excited conversation fills the air. Active students move about the room exchanging materials and ideas. Desktops are covered with mountains of construction materials. After a moment, the teacher becomes visible as she lifts herself off the floor where she was helping a small group measure lengths of string.

Despite the seeming disorder, there really is some organization to the room. The students are sitting at clusters of desks where they are sharing, talking, laughing, and working; learning is taking place. This was my first experience observing students engaged in cooperative investigations. It was a refreshing look at an educational environment where the students were genuinely having fun.

To some, cooperative learning may sound like another time-consuming and ill-producing educational fad. However, research shows more and more clearly that the benefits to cooperative learning are numerous and well worth the effort.

Key to successful cooperative experiences is an organized, busy classroom environment, meaningful student interactions, and clear roles--and a helpful teacher. How can all of these elements be achieved? Here are some basic tips.

The most important element is a strong concept of community. By building this community, students learn to trust and respect each other and to take ownership of their own learning environment. To get started, spend time learning about each other and deciding how to work together. Construct classroom learning goals and rules as a group. Make the rules simple, realistic, concrete; and don't make too many.

You will run into some snags, which is why assessment and flexibility are important. With each modification, the overall sense of community and cooperation will be strengthened, and students will be more motivated to take part in their own education.

Provide plenty of time for discussion. Students in cooperative settings do not merely share materials (although that occurs also); they communicate about the task at hand. They discuss novel ideas with each other. They learn to express themselves. When students feel free to speak up, even when they don't have the "right" answer, they learn how to contribute to the group.

Be purposeful when assigning teams. Grouping strategies, both competitive and noncompetitive, include assigning all members a specific role in the group, assigning individual or group scores, or having the different groups contribute different parts of a larger class-wide project. Allowing students some choice in selecting their groups as well as their topic of investigation can lead to increased participation within the group. The idea is to get all students feeling as if they can contribute to the project.

Finally, the role of the teacher is crucial in creating a cooperative environment. The cooperative learning teacher is a guide and facilitator, not the ultimate source of all information. Ask questions that cause students to think about material in a new way or on a deeper level. Allow time for them to respond (even up to 10 seconds). Help keep the students on task, and encourage their own discoveries.

Creating a cooperative environment in your classroom may seem chaotic at first, but it's not so difficult once you know what to expect. The best part about it is that cooperative learning allows you as the teacher to take on the role of the active learner and have fun with your students' investigations!

Jen Halas, who is writing her master's thesis on Dragonfly, is a school psychologist intern for Dayton (Ohio) Public Schools.

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