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Successful cooperative learning training : a case study in initial teacher education (ITE)

McAlister, Clare and Casal, Sonia (2012) Successful cooperative learning training : a case study in initial teacher education (ITE). In: European Conference on Educational Research 2012, 2012-09-18 - 2012-09-21. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

Cooperative learning has been described as a worldwide phenomenon which is being increasingly used across Europe. It can be defined as ‘the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximise their own and each other’s learning’ (Johnson et al., 1990: 4) and can be used across all subject areas and stages of schooling. ‘…One of the ‘best practices’ in education’, as Sapon-Shevin (2004: 3) comes to describe it. However, implementing cooperative learning successfully –fostering open communication between teachers and students, promoting investigation, problem-solving and reasoning - takes skill and understanding of the theory that supports practice. Teacher competence in delivering it well, thus, has been identified as an essential feature in its systematic implementation (Webb, 1988; Oortwijn et al., 2007). The first problem one encounters when implementing cooperative learning successfully stems from ITE itself. Schelfhout et al. (2006) stress the fact that teacher education institutions tend to tutor in a teaching-focused way and that the theoretical knowledge absorbed during ITE may not include a practical use, believing that student teachers will put theory into practice from what they learn in lectures and from what they see on placement. It is a model based on transmission rather than on transaction or transformation (Sharan, 2010: 306). Moreover, there are perceptions that some teacher education institutions ‘are not always inclined to teach the latest innovative thoughts about learning and instruction’ (Schelfhout et al., 2006: 877). A second hurdle in teacher education derives from pre-existing conceptions of student teachers about learning and teaching in general and cooperative learning in particular, which may interfere with the new ideas they are presented with. This may be a consequence of the situation mentioned above, as their classes in schools and at university were generally more teacher-focused (Schelfhout et al., 2006: 879). A third area of concern is that, since cooperative learning presents a significant shift in practice for some teachers, even experienced teachers need follow up support. As Foote et al (2004) and Helbert (2009) point out: on the one hand, student teachers can be assigned to a school placement that provides no support or guidance on how to implement cooperative learning. On the other hand, student teachers trained in cooperative learning tend to use a variety of techniques immediately after training but, as the school year progresses, this number decreases to one or two, possibly due to this lack of support. This research, carried out in Scotland, aims to highlight the ingredients of a successful ITE course on cooperative learning. Our hypothesis is that if it is desired that student teachers use cooperative learning techniques in their school settings regularly, it is essential to take these three factors into consideration: 1) use a learning-based approach rather than a teaching-based approach on ITE; 2) change student teachers previous conceptions gradually and 3) provide them with support.