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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Differentiating Cooperative Learning

We sometimes hear cooperative learning stereotyped as a teaching method in which students help one another learn the same thing, with capable students tutoring those less prepared. We see cooperative learning characterized as an approach that encourages educators to teach to the middle, neglecting the academic needs of both particularly competent and struggling students. But when teachers implement cooperative learning thoughtfully and differentiate tasks within it, they can personalize student learning, help students collaborate while challenging each individual in the context of a group effort, and encourage students to appreciate their peers' diverse competencies and experiences.
Structuring cooperative learning well is demanding enough without the challenge of differentiation. Certainly it's easier to put students achieving at an advanced level in the same cooperative group and give them more challenging material. With homogeneity, however, we lose the potential to harness students' diverse intelligences and perspectives to create a synergistic learning experience where the sum is greater than any of its parts.
We also know that homogeneously grouping students may limit teachers' expectations. For example, in a class where all students were reading an engaging, multicultural novel, we observed a teacher assign those students she perceived to be most advanced to a homogeneous cooperative group to discuss ethical dilemmas related to race and class. The teacher assigned other students, who could have contributed important ideas about these issues from their own life experiences, to cooperative groups that merely reviewed the book's factual information. What rich brew of perspectives and feelings could have emerged had students been heterogeneously grouped!

Guiding Tenets

We need not sell cooperative learning short. The following principles and examples illustrate how educators can differentiate learning within heterogeneous cooperative groups. The examples come from our work on cooperative learning with teachers in the mid-Hudson area of New York and in Boston.
Within a heterogeneous cooperative group, differentiate tasks by complexity and quantity. A cooperatively structured lesson where everyone performs the same activity barely hints at cooperative learning's potential. Students in a cooperative learning group can engage in tasks with different levels of complexity and learn different amounts of material. Every student learns something that he or she doesn't already know; all students contribute to a common goal.
For example, in a jigsaw activity designed for heterogeneous groups of four, each student reads a segment of a succinct biography of Harriet Tubman. Students with special needs review a relatively short segment of the book with a resource teacher before the class assignment. Students able to comprehend more complex material read a more demanding section of the book. Other students receive portions that appropriately challenge them. Students summarize their reading, report to one another, review their findings together, and are responsibile for knowing information about all aspects of Tubman's life. Students demonstrate their knowledge by answering the teacher's questions, completing a group project, taking a quiz, or performing a skit. Each person's contribution, no matter its complexity, is essential for the group to be successful.
Do students feel awkward or resentful about such differentiated assignments? We have found that students know one another's capabilities quite well although they don't necessarily talk about them. One teacher explained to her students that differentiated assignments help her fulfill her job of challenging each student. We've found that students feel more comfortable when teachers acknowledge and engage them in discussion about the tension-producing subject of academic difference. Afterward, students can focus on learning with less anxiety.
Use high-achieving students' work. Teachers can ask well-prepared students to integrate into the cooperative group task the advanced ideas they've worked on. As a result, all group members gain more complex understandings. Imagine a cooperatively structured social studies project for which difficult primary source material is available. One student in each group tackles this demanding material and then presents it to other group members. The whole group benefits from ideas they otherwise wouldn't have access to, and the advanced learner is appropriately challenged.
In Clint Knoll's high school biology class in Washingtonville, New York, students research a genetics unit in heterogeneous cooperative groups. Those students who struggle to understand basic scientific concepts research common genetic disorders. Other students who understand sophisticated scientific concepts research gene splicing, cloning, and DNA fingerprints. Students use the compiled information, for which they all are accountable, to complete a group project on genetics. All students also contribute to a component of the project that focuses on ethics.
Employ cooperative groups to enhance individualized work. Enhance students' individualized tasks with support and feedback from cooperative group members. Karen Cathers, who teaches 4th grade at Lenape Elementary School in New Paltz, New York, invented a week-long cooperative spelling program. In heterogeneous pairs, students choose 10 misspelled words from their written work to use as that week's spelling words. In their journals, students define the words and use them in sentences. Midweek, students copy their partner's words into their journals. On Thursday, students decide which 2, 5, or 10 of their partner's words they will learn, in addition to their own, and study together. The paired students test each other on Friday on 12, 15, or 20 words, including the original 10 words. Students discuss how they helped each other and what they can improve the next week. In this example, learning is differentiated, but support and accountability are cooperative.
Cooperative groups can enhance other individualized work, such as research papers or long-term projects. Although students work on projects at their own levels, they check in with their group every few days to summarize what they've done and to get criterion-based feedback. In this way, teachers and group members can be assured that students are making progress on their projects.
Plan peer tutoring that challenges tutors and tutees. In peer tutoring situations, some people assume that one student gives information and the other receives. In fact, teachers can plan tutoring activities in which both students learn in new ways.
For example, to solve a long division algorithm, tutees work to learn long division, and tutors gain new understandings and skills in mathematical discourse. For some tutors, the challenge might be as simple as figuring out why, not just how, the algorithm works and explaining it to their tutee. Some tutees might benefit from learning an alternative algorithm, perhaps one with simpler steps developed by their tutor. Or a tutor could study division algorithms from other cultures or historical periods, figure out how algorithms work, and select an appropriate one to teach to his or her tutee. Learning these algorithms helps the tutor grapple with more complex issues within numeration, mathematical properties, place value, and factoring. The tutee learns an algorithm and how to use it correctly.
Add options for enrichment within cooperative learning. Teachers can give all students options for enrichment within cooperatively structured learning. Such opportunities can challenge preconceived notions of student ability.
In cooperative groups of four, each 7th grader in Laura Loheide and Mary Ann Bruck's class at Onteora Junior-Senior School in Boiceville, New York, writes a scene for the group's historical-fiction, one-act play about life in one of the 13 colonies. Any student may choose to receive additional Activities that are Challenging and Enriching (ACE) credit by including in his or her scene a character based on a historical figure and demonstrating insight into that person's motivations, personal struggles, and achievements. For their final product, students integrate their scenes into a play and present it. Many students choose to receive ACE credit, including those who are not typically high-achieving students.
Design cooperative activities for multiple intelligences. Well-designed cooperative learning activities can be ideal for teaching to multiple intelligences. Students develop more sophisticated skills using intelligences in which they excel and build a broader range of skills by working in intelligences that are not as natural for them.
A unit on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry begins with a 5th or 6th grade class responding to the song, "Strange Fruit," by Billie Holliday. Next, in heterogeneous cooperative groups, students receive readings at various levels of difficulty. Acitivities then call on different intelligences: students may choose important events for a class time line, write fictitious letters from a child in the South to a relative in the North, or complete a Venn diagram comparing or contrasting life for people of different races in the South.
Then each group chooses several cooperatively structured activities that cross curriculum areas. For example, students might work with historical data about African Americans' lives in the South, paint a large mural to represent the book's setting, write and perform an original dialogue as characters from the book, or create a visual representation of conflicts within the story. While students work cooperatively, the teacher differentiates learning opportunities that both deepen and broaden students' learning through multiple intelligences.
Vary criteria for success. Within heterogenous cooperative groups, students work on a common project but are assessed according to different criteria. For example, in heterogeneous cooperative groups, students examine children's books for themes of competition and cooperation. Each student chooses how many books to survey and how complex his or her analysis will be. This decision becomes a person's contract for a grade, different for various students. All students' analyses are part of the final report.
In another approach, the teacher can differentiate assignments within a project so that all group members are appropriately challenged and then evaluate the completed project as a whole. For an interdisciplinary thematic unit, for example, partners choose to work on those cooperatively structured learning center projects with a curricular focus and skill level that they find interesting and challenging. Students check all their group members' work and are assessed as a group. We list other examples of how to vary criteria in our book Cooperative Learning: Cooperative Lives (1987).
Value cognitive, social, and emotional learning. Those who argue that "gifted students" aren't challenged in cooperative groups typically define learning in academic terms only. Because many educators who use cooperative learning seek both cognitive and affective outcomes, differentiation can also focus on social and emotional competencies.
All students benefit from the social skills taught in cooperative learning, skills that are needed for working democratically with others. When practicing social skills such as "encouraging others" or "criticizing ideas and not people," students learn more than academic content. When a shy student begins to share ideas and a talkative student practices listening to others without interrupting, each student has been challenged appropriately.
Differentiate social learning by assigning group roles appropriate to students' current skill levels. Materials manager and timekeeper roles fit the needs of students with basic social skills, and facilitator or harmonizer roles are better for students with more highly developed skills. Teachers can assign the most demanding group roles, such as process observer, to students who will be least challenged by the cooperative task.

Taking Up the Challenge

Once teachers begin differentiating cooperative learning activities, they face many practical challenges. Fortunately, teachers can surmount these challenges. For example, in a class with a wide range of student achievement levels, the teacher can design creative extensions of lessons. In the cooperative spelling program described earlier, one student might be able to learn her words after writing them once. That student can work cooperatively with a few other students to create crossword puzzles using her own and the other students' words. The advanced student completes the more sophisticated tasks of interlocking words and writing definitions of words as clues. The other students gain practice using their own spelling words.
We've found that cooperative learning is harder to differentiate in some subjects than others. In these areas, give alternate homework assignments. For example, sometimes a perplexing question that only a few students are ready to address arises during a discussion about a math problem. Students who are ready to explore the question can choose between doing additional homework problems on the basic concept or investigating the perplexing point. Those students who explore the question share their findings with the class the next day, gaining practice in the difficult skill of explaining their mathematical thinking.
Teachers who work with heterogeneous cooperative learning groups develop skills along with their students by experimenting, observing, listening carefully to both the academic learning and emotional responses of all the students, and staying focused on personalized learning within a cooperative framework. To sustain their efforts, teachers must work together to obtain such institutional support as smaller class size, support for mainstreamed special-needs students, and adequate planning time.
Similarly, educators must hone their social consciousness and work together to confront the sources of some of the differences that they address through cooperative learning. Teachers can help students understand why differences exist, how social inequality on the basis of race, gender, class, and ability may contribute to those disparities, and what teachers and students can do to change those inequities. These actions help create schools and a society that are cooperative and socially just.
Why take on the difficult challenge of differentiating learning within cooperative groups? First, teachers have a responsibility to challenge students to their fullest potentials. Second, our public schools have a responsibility to promote educational equity. Third, we are educating the future public for a democracy. By experiencing effective heterogeneous cooperative groups, students learn to value diversity and the intelligences and perspectives of others. They learn to appreciate that each individual should and can make a meaningful contribution to a common goal. They come to respect the worthiness of each contributor. This combination of personal challenge and collective responsibility fosters educated and caring human beings and an authentic democracy now and in the future.

Nancy Schniedewind has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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