Often used as a buzz word in education to describe a wide variety of learning activities, “cooperative learning” is defined as "…a teaching arrangement that refers to small, heterogeneous groups of students working together to achieve a common goal." (Kagan, 1994). These groups are designed for students to work together to learn, discover, and have shared responsibility for the group's learning.
Although these structures are beneficial for any subject area, cooperative learning in math can be a powerful way to provide a variety of learning opportunities for students. There are several different structures that teachers can employ when planning cooperative learning in math.
1. Positive Interdependence. This means that the gains of individuals in a group are positively correlated with teammates. Positive interdependence drives core cooperation; what benefits one team member benefits the whole group. Altering a simple game of Math Bingo can promote positive interdependence. Instead of each student getting their own Bingo board, the teacher can assign pairs of students to share one board. The teacher then displays equations and asks students to complete the equation with their teammate. Students work the problem together and then check their board, relying on each other to determine the correct answer. An individual cannot win the game without her partner, so the interdependence is crucial.
2. Individual Accountability. Each student in a cooperative learning group is responsible for an individual learning product as a share of the group work. In regards to cooperative learning in math, individual accountability requires each group member to possess the necessary knowledge and skills to perform or produce the work. A complex problem solving scenario is a great way to promote cooperative learning in math and the necessity of individual accountability. The group can solve the multi-step problem together, assisting one another, and providing support; but each student is responsible for turning in their own solution and the teacher will select students at random to share their group's solution. Even though they worked together, each student must be able to perform or produce the work.
3. Equal Participation. This essentially refers to the division of labor, as groups divide the work among all members and each student is responsible for his share of the work. The activity should not be dominated by one student in the group and no one can opt out of participation. When teaching a unit on graphing, a teacher could use equal participation to show how a single set of data is interpreted differently based on the type of graph used. Each group would receive a single set of numerical data and be required to analyze and interpret the data together. Then, individually, each group member would use the data to construct a different type of graph (bar, line, pie, area, etc). This is a great activity to help students learn which graph works best for which kind of data. Since each team member is responsible for the same task, (construction of one graph), the participation is equal.
4. Simultaneous Interaction. This is the easiest structure to execute for cooperative learning in math, as it simply allows students to have multiple cooperative interactions with other students in a single session. Instead of a teacher asking one student (sequential interaction) to show how to solve a problem, he can ask students to share with another. Students can "turn and talk" to a peer sitting nearby and explain how they solved a certain problem. If the students have solved the problem differently, or arrived at two different answers, they would then work together to discover the correct solution or learn more about each others' process. This can be repeated numerous times with students partnering with a different student each time. Try doing a math relay—teams can take turns trying to solve a division problem, for example.
If you haven’t tried cooperative learning for math lessons, you are missing an excellent opportunity to allow math learning to be a truly fluid process for students. For some, it is not critical, but for those students who learn best by doing, and talking—such as kinesthetic and auditory learners— cooperative learning math groups can produce absolutely amazing results in your classroom.
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