Broken Bell Education in Israel - Cooperative Learning in School

Broken bell classroom
Broken bell classroom

"Can't we all just get along?"  The popularized outcry by Rodney King captures the essence of cooperative learning with kids.   Everyday children are put to the task of working together as a class, in groups or pairs, without systematic preparation or training.  The result is often a breakdown in rank and file with dissention leading the attack.  Here's an example: Four elementary age school children were given the task of assembling a 65 piece jigsaw puzzle.    Each child eagerly grabbed pieces, fitting together small patches of the puzzle of their own free will, working without interruption; no conflict to this point.  The moment the individual work ceased and the need to work as a group had begun, oh the breakdown came barreling like a runaway freight train .  Kids seized pieces from each other, refused to listen, failed to wait turns, expressed anger and eventually trashed the puzzle, walking away in utter frustration.  Clearly, these kids hadn't been groomed to cooperate as a group.

Now take the flip side.  My son's 2nd grade class had an evening of group activities based on children's folk-tales.  From the gitko, the participants agreed to be split up into groups, as the teacher had requested, group members assigned tasks equally amongst themselves, so that all were included, sharing and exchange of information occurred, and ultimately the task at hand was completed with flying colors.  Children in these groups were pleased with their accomplishment.  How do we account for this?

Quite simply I posed a question to their teacher; "Have you taught the kids how to work together in groups?"  Her answer was as expected, yes throughout the entire school year.  She emphasized that cooperation was a value specifically targeted in their curriculum.  The school, which is based on a humanistic platform, focuses a great deal of content on this skill.  If the results are so transparent in young children, why are so many schools assuming that students can work cooperatively without direct training?

Many educators are amazed to discover that children in junior and high school do not realize that adult life calls for working with people who are not close friends. As stressed by Elizabeth G. Cohen in, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom. Second Edition, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, many important tasks are accomplished in small groups of people who are not personal friends, such as research teams, fire-fighting personnel, nursing teams, committees and constructions crews.

Take the well-known example of our own Knesset in Israel, where the communication and cooperation is less than model.  Norms for cooperative problem-solving seem non-existent in this arena: calmly discussing your own ideas, listening to others, giving everyone a chance to talk, asking others for their ideas and giving reasons for your ideas while allowing for others to discuss many different perspectives.  Sadly dominance, and not cooperation, is often omnipresent in our public and educational institutions.    So what can we do about it?

Everyone loves games! Educators and parents can teach cooperative problem-solving through group exercises.   One I have used with success is called "Broken Circles" (see Cohen).

I believe many of our textbooks lack similar cooperative problem solving exercises to train students for working with others in their future roles as adults.  Too frequently a classic "Jigsaw type" of exercise will be posed to the students as a method for gathering data or checking comprehension.  Why the lack of cooperative exercises and games in our children's curriculum?

While the demand for information in this century is unprecedented, we must not forget to teach our students the norms and skills necessary for fostering effective, creative societies.  So invest your time playing cooperative games with your children!

1 comment

Glenn Horvath5 year, 7 month ago

All any child has to do is look around at the world and see how "adults" handle problems.America bombs Iraq and tortures enemies.Israel, the Palestinians,Lebonese, Iranians, Iraqis, and terrorists, etc. settle their differences with brute force.It is no wonder children are confused and aggressive and can't find patience today to solve problems. Where are the good examples for children to follow? It seems we teachers are alone.I guess teachers have a big responsibility but can not do it alone.What are the norms today in this world? Oh well, I used to be optimistic...maybe again some day, I hope.