Cooperative Learning, Groups in Action

I had the pleasure of joining about 40 teachers last week for a three day workshop on Creating Effective Groups (Social Theory) led by Barrie Bennett - Cooperative LearningBarrie Bennett.

“The key focus in this session is to shift effective group work beyond the idea of Cooperative Learning.”

Although I am not a classroom teacher, I saw tremendous potential in this workshop for learning some new skills in facilitating groups.  There are a lot of parallels between classroom group activities and staff meetings, committee meetings, and other group structures which I am familiar with.  The beauty of this experience though is that I learned an awful lot about good teaching and the challenges teachers experience in their classrooms.  I have gained a whole new appreciation for the complexity of good or great teaching.

In this post I’ll highlight a few of the techniques we learned in the workshop.  We learned about how and when to use…

  • Placemat
  • Think-pair-share
  • Graffiti
  • Ranking Ladder
  • PMI (plus, minus, most important)
  • Community Circle
  • Snowball
  • Concentric Circles
  • Orbiting Circle
  • Positions (4 corners)

and how to integrate one or more tactics.

Taken from a mind map Barrie provided, Cooperative Learning involves three main areas: Creating a Safe Learning Environment, Critical Components of Effective Group Work, and Group Structures.


Tribes (designed by Jeanne Gibbs) supports safe learning environments through teaching Mutual Respect, Attentive Listening, Appreciation Statements (no put downs), and the Right to Pass.  Critical components (from David and Roger Johnson) involves five basic components: 1. Individual Accountability, 2. Face to Face Interaction, 3. Teaching Collaborative Skills, 4. Processing the Academic and Collaborative Objective, and 5. Applying one or more of the 9 types of Positive Interdependence.  There are 300 small group structures that one could use.  The work from Tribes is used to support the Five Basic Components which enhance group work.  I know, it sounds complicated, and it is…

My take away so far is that successfully working with groups, whether in a classroom with students or in a staff or committee meeting with adults, requires some key elements to be considered.  We’ve all sat through meetings wondering what the iStock_000006855981XSmallpurpose was, why we’re being bombarded with information, and why our ideas are not being solicited.  We get information but not time to engage with it and go deeper.  I think that any of us involved in leading groups of people need to spend some time learning and practicing some practical methods that work and to “flip” our classrooms and meetings.  When I say flip what I mean is to provide information for pre-reading and then make face to face time more about interaction and dialogue.  I wrote about this earlier in Technology Powered Meetings to give you a sense of what this could look like.

My take on Tribes (which I’m not familiar with – a book on order that I need to read) is that it provides advice on social responsibility and good social skills.  This is a foundational piece to working well in a group with a high degree of trust.  Trust and respect go hand in hand.  Next, one of the 5 basic elements is the 9 types of Positive Interdependence (I won’t provide details on these in this post):

  • Goal
  • Incentive
  • Resource
  • Role
  • Sequence
  • Simulation
  • Outside Force
  • Environmental
  • Identity

“Positive Interdependence exists when all group members perceive the need to work together toward the accomplishment of a common task.  Simply assigning [people] to groups does not ensure that [people] will perceive that need.  However, [facilitators] can help teammates feel connected and committed to learn cooperatively by structuring positive interdependence into the group activity.”, B. Bennett, C. Rolheiser, L. Stevahn Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind

Essentially, with a safe learning/work environment where people trust and respect each other, have a common purpose/goal, have common incentives, share resources, have supportive and interconnected roles, etc., group work is more likely to be successful.  Another attribute required for success is skill, for the facilitator that is.  The only way to achieve this is through practice.  10,000 hours (roughly 10 years) of practice = an expert!


During the workshop we formed groups of four, had a large piece of chart paper and created placemats: drew a circle or square in the iStock_000011819618XSmallmiddle and lines towards each person in the group.  We were given 3 minutes to write down in our respective “corners” attributes of good teachers.  Next each group was asked to pass their chart to another group, each group thus receiving another’s.  Then, we were asked to cross off items that don’t exclusively fit the original goal (attributes of good teachers) leaving behind only items we felt were specific to good teachers – we then passed the chart back to its original group.

One of the challenges with this method is ensuring that all voices are heard.  We were asked to (silently) assess on a scale 1-3 how well we thought our voice was heard.  Another technique works here too – draw a circle and have each person carve out a “piece of pie” representing how much they feel they participated or contributed.

To brainstorm in a way that ensures that all voices were heard, we learned the Graffiti method: used to find out what [people] know about a topic; also a great way to have [people] brainstorm what they know ‘collectively’; sets up [people] to classify information which pushes the analysis (Blooms Taxonomy) level of thinking; has all [people] involved and accountable.  In our groups we were asked to individually list as many attributes of successful group work as we could on a corner of a fresh piece of chart paper.  Next we individually identified and classified the ideas to come up with our top 2-3 attributes.  When asked, we moved around the room and wrote our same ideas on all other pieces of chart paper.  Note: there is no talking; it is okay to repeat ideas which implies they are more important.  When asked to stop, we returned to our own group. 

Following on from the Graffiti exercise we moved into what’s called Ranking Ladder.  As a group, we picked what we felt were the top 5 attributes and then listed them in order of importance.  Note that our list in order was: Purposeful / goal driven, Know what you’re doing (facilitator), Equal voice, Respectful listening, and Personal accountability.  We felt that people need a reason (shared understanding) to work together and not independently – i.e., why is “together” better than on your own?  A group spokesperson is assigned “randomly” by the facilitator but everyone knows it could be anyone – this helps increase participation and listening within groups since all are equally likely to be spokesperson.

Community Building and Sharing

We used an interesting tactic called Community Circle to mix-up the seating arrangements and then integrated in Think-Pair-Share and Snowball activities.  It is good for reviewing, introducing a new idea, bringing [individual] voice into the room, problem solving issue in the room.  Some of the norms include: attentive listening, only one person talks at a time, no judging of ideas, and looking for themes in ideas shared. We all dragged our chairs over and formed a circle ensuring equal distance between adjacent people and a well-formed circle.  The facilitator picked one person to start out in the middle (could ask for a volunteer), and removed one chair.  TheiStock_000007755704XSmall person in the middle would then say something like “I have friends who are wearing shorts” or some other attribute that distinguishes sub groups of people.  Then those people and the person in the middle have to find a new (now empty) chair.  Who ever is last is now in the middle.  We did this 3 or 4 times until the seating arrangements were well mixed – this ensures people are not sitting beside just their “friends”.  We used this technique several times to “shuffle the deck” after other exercises.

We used Snowball to brainstorm singular ideas such as what makes cooperative learning hard?  Each person had a piece of paper and a pen.  We wrote our answer on the page, crumpled it up, and threw it into the middle.  The facilitator put the snowballs in a box, shook it up, dumped it – ensures they are mixed and anonymous.  On 3, we went and grabbed a snowball.  The facilitator picked someone to start, they said their name (“X”), read their note – remember no judging or feedback.  The person to the right said thank-you “X”, said their name, read their note, etc. around the circle.  The facilitator picked various people to share something that someone else read out – this increases active listening – need to let group know up front that this will happen.

I could go on with other examples – we spent three days at this… but…  I can’t emphasize enough how important I think learning to use simple (some are complex) group work tactics can be to transform the way we work with adults.  I look forward to practicing some of these with people I lead and work with.  What tactics have you used in your classroom with your students or with adults in staff, committee, or other meetings.  What would a “flipped” meeting or classroom look like for you?


  1. Great post, Brian. I would like to think about your last question - flipped classrooms. I think the more that kids hear, see, and think about an idea, the better they learn that idea. So, I would make a lesson, and post it online in the form of a video, screencast, or combination of the two (I am thinking about Camtasia's new captioning capability and this I think has great potential). The kids would watch the short 5-7 synopsis at home. Then they would come to school, and provide evidence that they did the homework (watching the lesson) - and this could happen many ways. Then the students would do their "homework" in class - where the teacher and their peers can support them, collaborate with them, etc. Finally the teacher could revisit the key ideas again at the end of the lesson, and do a teaser of the next lesson coming up when they go home.

  2. @James Gill - your description of a flipped classroom is precisely what I was getting at - it's not a new idea mind you but one worth exploring, I think. As a parent I often found it frustrating trying to help my kids with homework (doing some exercises etc.) and ran into walls where having the teacher available would have be invaluable. By flipping, parents can help their kids with consuming some knowledge that they will apply in class with the teacher and their peers.

    Thanks for adding a more thorough description :-)

  3. This post is a great example of the work we did with Barrie. I have been doing group work with students for years but I better understand that while students do work in a group there is an element of interdependence that actually strengthens what they are learning. When students reinforce and share what they know, they actually deepen their understanding of the content. When students feel they have a particular role in a group, there is more ownership towards wanting to achieve the final outcome. It is the concept that together we can achieve more, 1 + 1 = 3.

  4. @Lisa - everything you said in your comment applies to us as adults too - I wonder why it is that we continue to make adults suffer through boring and mediocre meetings and students suffer through the same for classroom learning. I know it is changing slowly but I think more people need to experience the type of learning and working together you describe so they see a better way! Spread the word!

    thanks for stopping by.


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