Jul 9, 2013 by Norene Wiesen
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Creating a Culture of Inclusiveness in the Classroom

It’s more than just a generational trend: cooperative learning strategiesresearch has shown that employing cooperative learning strategies in the classroom can actually help students learn better and even like each other more. But breaking students into effective working groups, training them in cooperative learning techniques, and promoting positive experiences for all learners takes know-how.

Research out of Stanford University shows that lower-status students may be excluded from full participation in cooperative learning groups even when they repeatedly attempt to engage with the group. While certain students may remain silent because they lack confidence in their ability to contribute due to a language barrier or lower ability, other students who do attempt to participate may be ignored when they speak or are blocked from accessing a task (e.g., other students may physically dominate an area where building materials are laid out).

Shaping Social Perception

One wonderful benefit of cooperative learning is the opportunity that it affords teachers in helping their students appreciate what every student has to offer. When a teacher takes the time to notice a unique skill or ability of a quieter learner—say, Rosa—and to point it out to the entire learning group, every member of the group gets the chance to shift their perception of Rosa and of her value to the group—including Rosa herself. It’s as simple as saying to the group, for example, “Rosa is good at planning things out step-by-step; your group can use her as a resource and rely on her to help keep your project on track.”

Learning How to Learn Cooperatively

As with most new skills, learning how to learn cooperatively must be trained. Teachers can help by ensuring that all students understand the purpose of cooperative learning and have the knowledge and tools to participate effectively.

Recommendations for enhancing a classroom’s cooperative learning culture include:

  1. Knowing what type of instructional grouping is best for achieving the desired goal
    • Formal cooperative learning groups meet for a time span of at least one class period, and potentially up to several weeks with the goal of completing an assigned project
    • Informal cooperative learning groups are ad-hoc groups that support direction instruction (e.g., breaking up into small groups to discuss a teacher demonstration)
    • Cooperative base groups are comprised of students of varying ability and perspective, forming for a year or longer to provide social support and academic encouragement to members
  2. Assigning students to diverse groups and avoiding long-term groupings based on ability
  3. Helping students learn what behaviors work best for cooperative learning
    • When contributing ideas, students can listen, take turns, and use language like “I suggest” and “We could”
    • When checking for understanding, students can make eye contact, wear an interested expression, and use words like “Can you give me an example?” and “How do you get that result?”
  4. Assigning a group facilitator to ensure that every member of every group is contributing, offering and seeking help, and practicing active listening
  5. Allowing students to practice cooperative learning strategies risk-free before beginning to grade on group outcomes

Who is a Leader?

Students who are easily recognized as leaders may not be the only leaders in the classroom—or even the best. Within cooperative learning groups, teachers can, and should, place many different students in leadership positions during group projects.

When a teacher makes the effort to recognize a student with hidden leadership potential andto reframe the learning group’s perception of her with a positive statement about her ability, real opportunity can arise for her within the group—even if that student has weaknesses in other areas, such as literacy.

Authenticity is Key

When her teacher stands up in front of the group and says that Rosa is good at planning step-by-step, you can bet that at least some students are judging that statement. An attempt to manipulate the group’s opinion isn’t likely to fly.

To help reframe a student’s status within the group, then, any statement about the student should meet a few basic criteria:

  • Be specific to the student (not generalizable to every student in the class)
  • Be recognizable in the student (others should be able to recognize the trait in the student when they try)
  • Be useful to the group (everyone, including the student, should be able to understand its value)

The real beauty of authentic acknowledgement is that it spotlights the recognition that every learner brings ability to the group and that no one learner is good at everything—and that that’s okay.

The sooner students realize this truth, the sooner they can discover that knowing how to work with others to get the job done is what ultimately counts in life—and that’s a real-life skill that every single student can take out into the world and use.

Related reading:

Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning with Alan November

Beating Bullying for Better Learning