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Cooperative Learning is a Brain Turn-On

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Feb 18, 2011

Although I attended school for 21 years before entering the University of California Santa Barbara Graduate School of Education Teacher Education Program (TEP) in 1998, I had never worked in learning groups aside from the occasional science experiment or medical school cadaver dissection. Yet even those experiences were not designed as cooperative group work; they were arranged simply for the purpose of sharing materials.

Most of my classes in the TEP program incorporated cooperative learning techniques as an integral part of the instruction. In our classrooms, we never sat in rows, but always at round tables with room for four to six students. Rarely did a day go by when we did not work together on a cooperative project such as a poster and presentation, a short videotape, or a skit performance. I responded to this style of teaching and of learning quite positively, both cognitively and socially. Some of my enthusiasm was probably rooted in my being, as I am a global, interpersonal style learner (Checkley, 1997; Kagan & Kagan, 1998). But I found my classmates, with their varied learning styles, also inclined toward collaboration.

As I experienced the benefits of collaboration, I also discovered that an integral part of the process was the departure by our professors from the traditional roles of imparters and assessors of knowledge. Unlike the teachers I had previously studied under, my education professors assumed roles of information resources in more democratic classrooms. I discovered that relinquishing traditional autocratic control and allowing students to collaborate interactively with classmates to achieve common goals resulted in our becoming more invested and engaged in our learning. When I completed my masters of education degree in cooperative learning and became a middle school teacher, I found that I followed the modeling of my teachers and used cooperative learning in my own classroom. I then called upon my clinical and research training and experience in neurology to investigate the learning research being done through neuroimaging and brain mapping. I found evidence of brain and neurochemical activity that supported the positive results I was having with the cooperative approach to middle school teaching.

Psychosocial Benefits

Consider the increased comfort and enjoyment that students have when pleasurable social interaction is incorporated into their learning experience (Reeve, 1996). This is especially true during adolescence when peer group influence plays such an important developmental role in the psychosocial process of separation from parents along the road to individualization. For example, in early elementary school, students often raise up from their seats when they wave their hands enthusiastically in hopes of being called upon to answer a question. By middle school, some students consider it uncool to volunteer answers or even appear intelligent in class. These same students are more willing to participate and even show enthusiasm about challenging tasks when they are engaged in learning activities with supportive cooperative groups.

Erikson (1968) theorized that the developmental crises of adolescence are turning points during periods of increased vulnerability, and these turning points present opportunities for the development of psychosocial strength. He proposed that during these developmental stages the adolescent develops new capacities and psychosocial strengths by working through these developmental crises. Inclusion, a sense of belonging to a group where a student feels valued, builds resiliency. Resilient adolescents have greater success, social competence, empathy, responsiveness, and communication skills. They also demonstrate greater flexibility, self- reflection, and ability to conceptualize abstractly when solving problems.

Successfully planned group work can help to support students during these developmental crisis opportunities by reducing the fear of failure that can cause them to avoid academic challenges. Well- structured cooperative group activities build supportive classroom communities, which, in turn, increase self-esteem and academic performance.

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