Cooperative Learning IS NOT Collective Learning

One might be easily lured into believing that if there is any place where students can learn effectively through cooperative teaching strategies, it would be among the students in the collectivist society. The mere fact that people in the collectivist societies like to do things together might delude a teacher into thinking that cooperative teaching would work wonders. This is unfortunately wrong. In fact, a teacher would find using cooperative teaching strategies comparatively more challenging in Asia than, let’s say, the United States. Why is this so?

Though the act of coming together is fairly easy for students in the collectivist societies, the act of thinking independently in a parallel manner (a much required skill in learning cooperatively) once they have come together is rarely seen. Careful examination of the nature of cooperative teaching strategies would reveal that cooperative learning is not the same as collective learning (collective learning is what takes places in a lecture session and could be done with small as well as big groups, like the whole class).

Although students are put into small groups, with group members playing specific roles, cooperative teaching strategies require that students engage in independent thinking, defend individual choices, make sense of each others’ thoughts and ideas, and creatively synthesize differentiated information to create a logically-unified new knowledge (coordinated thinking). Invariably, at the end of a productive cooperative learning session, students would realize that they have dealt with complex concepts and interrelations of the same with the help of each other. They would have engaged in a mental process that Dr. Edward De Bono calls parallel/lateral thinking.

Most often, what happens in a so-called cooperative learning class is that students get together, and they start thinking alike. Their thoughts pre-maturely converge and creative solutions are not encountered. Depending on the acculturation and socialization experiences of students, some may always dominate the whole group while others become followers. And as commonly practiced in any collectivist society, the followers get the impression that they have to think like the leader and agree to all that the leader says. In other words, one person thinks and decides, and the rest of the group members say “Yes” as a mark of conformity and absolute agreement. This exercise is void of the active thinking processes essential for the intellectual development of students.

To enable students to experience maximum benefit from learning in small groups, teachers would have to reiterate and enforce a few universal guidelines. These might sound trivial, but they are extremely crucial for the success of cooperative teaching strategies. These might also be thought of as characteristics or steps of parallel/lateral thinking. They are:

  1. Everyone must engage in the process of thinking.
  2. Initially, accept every idea and consider it as one possible solution to the problem. Listen to every idea without pre-maturely dismissing it.
  3. Encourage as many ideas as possible. Do not limit anyone from being ‘wildly’ imaginative, even when an idea seems ridiculous.
  4. Focus on the issue or matter being studied. Do not focus on the individual from whom the ideas are coming from (this will help students to be objective about the lesson).
  5. Once several solutions are put on the table, students can critically evaluate each. The evaluation must accompany appropriate justification (e.g. if a student says ‘xyz’ may not work, h/she must defend why h/she thinks so and convince the rest of the group).
  6. Disagree to agree. Students are encouraged not to easily accept an idea. However, they are also not permitted to attack each others’ ideas for personal reasons (avoid ego fights at all cost). The disagreement is solely directed at consolidating another’s thinking process, allowing an opportunity for the thinker to be sure of why h/she thinks the way h/she does.
  7. Agree to disagree. Since the ultimate task of the group is to come up with a way to coordinate their thinking to resolve an issue and create new knowledge, certain amount of compromise is expected. However, agreement does not have to mean a change of mind/idea. This is a powerful way to help students develop their perspective-taking skills.
  8. Design or create new knowledge by taking into consideration as many ideas as possible, with all their pros and cons. Synthesize ideas into the form of a new creative knowledge!
  9. Test and retest the new creative knowledge to establish its functionality and sturdiness. This might lead to students discarding the previously accepted solution and think of another one.
  10. Share the new discovery with others, keeping in mind that further changes and refinement of the findings is always normal to the process of learning.

Cooperative teaching strategies are indeed valuable to help students to become independent thinkers, who are at the same considerate of others’ thoughts and mental processes. Since every human being functions within the framework of his/her own logical bubble, it helps for students to learn early in life the skills needed to work well with the complexities of human dynamics. The beauty of experiencing enlightenment lies in the ability of an individual to appreciate others’ ideas without compromising his/her own. Providing students with this understanding is the personal duty of every teacher. Effective use of cooperative teaching strategies makes this a possibility.

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