Cooperative Learning in the Middle School Classroom
Andrea Miller Anza, Middle School Math and Science / December 1
Group work - Some people hear “group work” and probably start shaking their heads, remembering poor experiences they had as a student that led to a negative opinion of the topic throughout their entire academic careers, and for some, into their adult lives.
As a middle school educator, assigning group work almost always includes a collective sigh of disappointment. Then, at least 5 different hands shoot up to all ask the same question, “Do we get to pick our partners?” The educator part of my brain responds, “It shouldn't matter who you work with!”, but the former student part of my brain is screaming, “Oh yes it does matter!” As educators in the 21st century, we are not only teaching concepts and designing innovative chances for students to be creative, but we are also full-time mediators. I ask myself quite often is this skill worth the headache it inevitably creates. The answer is a firm: Yes! Cooperative learning is not a new idea. However, it is becoming increasingly more important because our society is increasingly diverse and being asked to collaborate with an ever larger group of people, ideas, and opinions.
Working directly and only with the middle school, I have a unique opportunity to foster a love of learning together. Over the years, I have watched the quiet student become the voice of reason. I have watched the natural born leader put their own opinions aside and make decisions that are for the betterment of the group and the end goal. I have watched the unsure student become the expert. The opportunities for students to grow as individuals but also as a team member is an increasingly more valuable skill to master in this day and age.
On any day in the middle school science classroom, you could walk in a see us engaging with each other. Some days, the students get to make choices about who their partners are and other days I encourage them to work with someone that they wouldn’t normally pick out. This allowed for their choices to be heard, but also encouraged them to work in a team setting. It is important to give students autonomy over their collaborative partners at times, but it also just as important that students develop the skills to work with a variety of different personalities. Whether it be an actual group work project, like building egg cars to test speed, velocity, and acceleration, where the students choose a partner, and then I paired them up with another partner group. Or it simply is a lab experiment where they work together to develop a set of procedures and test them to see which worked better and how they could collaborate more effectively to be even more successful. Last, adding pieces of competition tend to increase the drive to succeed in their teams. We often participate in Escape Room puzzles. This allows students with different abilities to showcase their strengths. It often opens the eyes of their teammates, because a student that might not be strong in the physics portion of the class may just be an expert at the logistical aspects of the activity. By promoting a positive collaborative environment, students are given the opportunity to shine, and in turn, we are continually building and bettering our community of learning.
This isn't an easy process. There are tears, arguments, and frustrations. But, there are also high fives, smiles of satisfaction, and collective successes. Students start each and every day in table groups working together even when they don't realize it. We become a stronger team every day. We all have the same goal in mind, and that is to succeed whether it be showing mastery of the content or learning to work with somebody new. So, again you ask is collaborative learning worth the disagreements, the head shaking, the frustration, and the mediating? I and many others still unequivocally answer, Yes and yes again. We are building the strongest of communities in the safest of environments. Students are the center of my classroom and to take a line from High School Musical, “We're all in this together!”.