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Cooperative learning in the middle school classroom

1 June 1997


School reform has been a center of controversy since the days of the one room school house. During the 1980's, a major theme of educational reports called for "recapturing our national vision of a highly educated citizenry" and the "need for a skilled and . motivated work force" (Adams and Hamm, 1990, p. 3). This suggests that a fundamental change in education was needed so that students could become more productive citizens.

The Oregon Educational Act for the Twenty·first Century is one of the many new products in the long line of school reforms. This act sets new, higher standards for children in schools. Students who are in the eighth grade in the 1996-1997 school year will be the first class to be held accountable for achieving these new standards (Oregon Department of Education, 1990). It seems that the goals students are required to meet are revised every few years and these reforms are usually driven by politicians and business persons. These are usually professionals that have not been in the classroom for many years. School reform can be a powerful tool to change how children are educated, but it can lose its effectiveness when reforms come too often or are driven by non-educators.

As students and course requirements become more sophisticated, the objective of the teacher should be to seek sophisticated, the objective of the teacher should be to seek methods of teaching that will enhance learning. Constantly changing state educational mandates require that teachers revise and modify their lessons in order to meet the current, altered state requirements. This can allow for implementing new strategies as years of lesson plans are reworked. Once new teaching strategies are identified, they can be integrated into lessons and their effectiveness determined by the classroom teacher.

There are many different teaching strategies and their effectiveness varies. One of the primary concerns of a teacher should be to determine what works best in their situation and adapt accordingly. A teaching strategy will only be as effective as the teacher allows it to be. If a teacher is not convinced that a strategy is working, it will not be used. The same is true if a particular strategy goes against a teachers personal educational philosophy or makes a teacher uncomfortable. The needs of the teacher must also be considered with the needs of the students for effective teaching and learning to take place.

While there are many different teaching methods and strategies, my research will examine one particular style of alternative teaching called cooperative learning. "Cooperative learning is a structure in which groups of students work together to pursue shared goals" (De Jong and Hawley, 1995, p. 45). Simply stated, it is a style of curriculum in which students work together in small groups to reach a similar goal. One of the purposes of cooperative learning is to provide students with an opportunity to work together, much in the same way a corporate team works together to finish a project.

As a relatively new science teacher, I am always looking for different methods and techniques to make learning more fun while maintaining a rich content area. Every year, Valley Middle School holds a Science Exposition. In the past, I have simply turned students loose to complete their projects with little instruction or clearly defined goals. I decided to integrate a cooperative learning curriculum during the weeks my students were preparing for the exposition. I felt that this would provide some structure and clarity to my classes as they worked toward finishing their science exposition projects. This would also ensure that each student showed educational gains while preparing their projects.

In my research, I assessed cooperative learning from a working point of view. I was not concerned with how many facts a student retained or if their letter grade increased. I was attempting to discover the effects the cooperative learning style had on my class as a whole. I investigated three main areas: 1. How have student attitudes toward science changed during the cooperative learning process? 2. What are students views on working in cooperative groups? 3. What are teachers views on the effectiveness of cooperative learning? Focusing on these three concepts allowed me to determine if cooperative learning is a successful strategy in my middle school classroom and if its continued use is warranted.

I collected information in several different ways. My primary source of information was student surveys. These focused on both student attitudes toward science and working in groups. I also engaged students in informal interviews and made observations during class. These techniques provided me with the information needed to determine the effectiveness of cooperative learning in my classroom.


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