Labs in Cooperation

Labs in Cooperation by Chick Moorman

Teachers hold different views on cooperative learning. Some see it as one of many very important tools for effective teaching. Others see it as an idea whose time has passed. Some teachers perceive this strategy as stimulating and rewarding. Others see it as a lot of work. Educators choose to see cooperative learning as helpful, time consuming, frustrating, challenging, or as a wonderful opportunity to help students learn interpersonal skills.

Whatever view teachers take of cooperative learning when they enter one of my trainings, I ask them to take responsibility for it. I then invite them to perceive cooperative learning from a different point of view. I challenge them to see each cooperative learning lesson as a laboratory in cooperation.

Remember your own eighth-grade general science labs? I remember mine. I was given batteries, bulbs, wires, a worksheet, and a lab partner. I was expected to work collaboratively, manipulate the materials, and make interesting discoveries. The goal was to fill my science notebook with appropriate answers and learn important scientific concepts in the process.

My partner and I made numerous mistakes. We touched wires to batteries and bulbs and got nothing. We wrote that down. We discussed our experience, reevaluated, and connected a different combination of batteries, wires, and bulbs. Still nothing. We recorded our findings again. Through the processes of elimination and improved thinking, we eventually discovered the correct combination. The light finally went on, both in front of us and inside our heads. We recorded that observation.

It was in a lab that I learned the valuable lesson that you can get as much information from an incorrect response as you can from a correct one. The lab was a place where mistakes were valued and expected - so expected that extra supplies were provided in case we broke, dismantled, or burned something up. The entire lab experience seemed to be orchestrated so that we could learn from the two greatest teachers in the world, "trial" and "error."


Please see your efforts with cooperative learning as a lab, a lab in cooperation. Yes, cooperative learning experiences can be viewed as mini-labs where students practice interpersonal skills and sometimes make errors. They will not always take turns, disagree politely, stay on task, or offer help without giving the answer. They will, on occasion, put each other down, lose track of time, or fail to finish their work.

Value these interpersonal skill mistakes as you would any errors made in a lab setting. See them as data you can use to help students learn interpersonal skills. When you notice students making a mistake, help them process the experience, asking debriefing questions that require them to self-assess.

Use the data you get from observing their interpersonal mistakes to determine which group skills need to be taught, reviewed, or brought to greater consciousness. Share your observations with your students, and ask them to reflect on their behavior and the results it produced.

In a science lab, it's all perfect. Students are either coming up with correct answers or they're making mistakes. Each possibility is perfect for learning the concept or for giving students the data they need to readjust and make a fresh attempt at learning the concept.

Likewise, in cooperative groups, it's all perfect. Students are cooperating and being interpersonally effective or they are making interpersonal errors. Each is perfect for giving you the data you need to design an appropriate response.

Choose to see cooperative learning experiences as labs in cooperation. If you do, eventually the wires will connect and the lights will go on!