Anne de A’Echevarria explores Kagan’s Cooperative Learning pedagogy as part of her in-depth focus on the ‘Team Workers’ strand of the QCA’s Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills frameworkpdf-6550398

Social skills and corresponding social roles.pdf

So far in our series on ‘Team Workers’ we have looked at procedures involving:

  • reflection on group process
  • discussion about ways of working together most effectively
  • provision of tasks that require interdependent behaviour
  • explicit focus on the language required for ‘thinking together’.

This week we will focus on the thinking of Spencer Kagan whose ‘Cooperative Learning’ pedagogy  is one approach that has proved successful in training students for more efficient cooperation and ‘positive interdependence’.

Kagan activities take account of the various problems that can hinder effective group learning such as hostility, the will to dominate, shyness, opting-out and isolation. The approach identifies group roles, strategies and procedures that encourage the full and equal participation required by effective teams, and which support peer-to-peer modelling and reflection.

Cooperative Learning activities – some principles

As illustrated by the examples below, Cooperative Learning activities are structured to ensure:

  • Positive interdependence – a gain for one student is a gain for the entire group so success and motivation comes from helping your team-mates and from being helped by them
  • Individual accountability – each group member is accountable for his or her contribution to the group. The contribution of each individual is made clear. This avoids one or two group members doing all the work while others ‘free ride’.
  • Equal participation – students learn through interacting with other students; every task necessitates the input of each team member.
  • Simultaneous interaction – as many students as possible are active simultaneously, driving engagement; paired, small team work and peer-to-peer tutoring and modelling are emphasised.

Cooperative Learning activities – some examples

Numbered heads
This procedure is designed to ensure that some individuals do not become the ‘learners’ and ‘spokespersons’ for their groups while others are carried along for the ride. Team-mates work together to ensure all members understand; one is randomly selected to be held accountable.

  1. Students, in groups of four, each take on a different number – 1, 2, 3 or 4.
  2. The teacher poses a problem and gives wait time, for example:
    • ‘How could you classify these nouns?
    • ‘Now make sure everyone in your team knows how you have done it.’
  3. The students put their heads together, discuss and teach.
  4. The teacher calls a number. The student with that number from one or more teams is called upon to respond. All other students are responsible for listening and comparing the response with that of their own team: ‘Is it similar? Different?’

Three-step interview
In pairs then fours, this process activates prior knowledge and encourages peer tutoring. It can also be used to review and reinforce previously learned material. 

  1. Students interview each other in pairs about their understanding of a topic or process.
  2. Seated in groups of four, firstly ‘shoulder’ partners (those sitting side by side) speak with  each other and then ‘eyeball’ partners (those seated opposite one another).
  3. Students share with the group information they learned in the interview.

Round Table
In teams, students take turns recalling knowledge, generating written responses, solving problems, or making a contribution to the team project.

  1. Students sit in teams of four.
  2. Each student takes a turn drawing, pasting or writing one answer to a query, as a paper and pencil (or paste) are passed around the group. Each student is encouraged to vocalise their contribution.

Alternatively, opposite students could record the speaker’s ideas, i.e. Number 1 speaks and Number 3 records. Number 2 then speaks and Number 4 records.

Brainstorming roles
Each student is given a special role and contributes to the team’s ‘storm’ of ideas.

First, the teacher assigns roles: 

  • speed merchant – encourages speed
  • sultan of silly – encourages silly ideas too
  • synergy guru – encourages team members to build on other ideas
  • support coach – encourages all ideas, suspends judgement
  • super scribe – records each idea on a slip of paper (this role can be in addition to another     role).

The teacher then announces a topic that prompts students to generate creative ideas. A prompt should have no right or wrong answers, it should be open-ended enough for students to come up with loads of creative ideas. For example: ‘Your team needs to raise £100 for a fun end-of-term activity. Think of all the things you can do to raise the money.’

In teams, students generate ideas. The teacher reminds them of their roles. The super scribe lays them out clearly so all the team can see.

For a wider selection of possible roles that students can model for one another, download our help sheet, Social skills and corresponding social roles, which indicates also how you might develop a ‘social skills centre’ in the classroom – a display area where target skills are posted and behaviour indicators, as drawn up by the class, recorded. 

Cooperative goal structures – evaluating collective improvement

Cooperative Learning

structures teach students to work together towards collective goals rather than to compete against one another or against other teams. The focus of evaluation is on the collective improvement of the entire team. The process might work as follows:

For tasks for which it is appropriate, pre-tests are given. A simple example might be a list of words to learn how to spell. After the pre-test a number of tasks might be given to help the students study the words. Then an interval might be provided for the students to tutor one another, followed by a post-test. Each group then calculates their gain-scores (the number correct on the post-test minus the number correct on the pre-test), giving all members a stake in everyone’s learn­ing.

The procedure makes clear that it is learning as expressed in improvement that is the purpose of the exercise. When post-tests only are used, it is not clear whether anyone has actually improved – students can receive high marks for a score no higher than they would have achieved in a pre-test.

To sum up, the Cooperative Learning approach identifies group roles, strategies and procedures that encourage the full and equal participation required by effective teams; provides the structure and the incentive for learners to support and mentor each other; and empowers learners to be self-reliant and individually accountable.

For further details of the Cooperative Learning approach, see:
Cooperative Learning, Dr Spencer Kagan (Kagan, 1994) or visit

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2009

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.