The backbone of cooperative learning is the structure that is in place. Just saying, “discuss with your group…” doesn’t work effectively until those structures are in place. But first, it is important to look at the physical space and the initiation of the structure.
I like to group my students in fours. 4 people is nice because you can have a range of skills, a difference in abilities, strengths, weaknesses, genders, heights, etc. I choose heterogeneous groups. And yes, I choose them. I certainly take into account some personal preference and offer the students a little form to fill out. I wouldn’t want exes sitting together with the high school drama that goes on. I meet my needs first for heterogeneous groups before I consider their preferences. Once the semester is well established I use a ranked class list to help the groups have a wider range of abilities.
In terms of physical arrangement. I have tables and raised counters (lab bench) seating in my classroom. Most of the tables are set-up in a way that the students face each other, but the seam of the two tables is directed at the front of the room where I start the class and where the projector screen is. This works for the majority of my students.
Due to the configuration of my classroom, I have two rows at the front each with two tables. This works great for students who tend to get distracted and for students with poor eye-sight as it is at the front of the class.
The lab benches are used for seating if I have a large class or if groups need a new environment. They have stools on either side. Stools make it easier for students to move around the classroom.
Initiating Cooperative Learning
There are so many ways that you can order the students to help initiate the structure so there is no, “you go first.” “No, you go first!”
Numbering the students is easy, but you can have them number themselves. That takes only a few seconds. I always like to ask, “Where are my Ones? Where are my Twos? My Threes?” and then add “let’s start with Fours!” so they don’t think it necessarily is the order that we will go in.
Smallest to Tallest, or “closest to the ground” is a nice one because it is quick to see. However, if you want to avoid physical identifiers, how about getting the students to know one another better:
-Who has the most pets is number 1
-The youngest is number 1
-Whoever had the longest trip to school this morning is number 1
Those are just a few ideas, but if you can spare a minute or two you can build some relationships in those moments that students get to share a little bit about themselves.
Keep a timer in your room to keep track of how long interaction is going on. You want to offer each student a fair amount of time and not have anyone feel as if you cut them off too soon. Use the clock, or an online timer like this one: http://www.online-stopwatch.com/
Stay tuned to Cross Curricular Corner for some Cooperative Learning structures you can use in your next class!
Michelle is a secondary Science and Physics teacher from Ontario, Canada. She blogs at Mrs. Brosseau’s Binder and shares her materials through her Teachers Pay Teachers Store.