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Cooperation rather than just collaboration

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. Albert Einstein

I would have argued that there are many occasions within a single school day when students are asked to work together. Indeed there are numerous examples of students forming their own collaborative groups to complete tasks, ask each other questions, and solve mutual dilemmas (although not always in ways that their teachers, or their parents, would approve of). Furthermore, teachers generally - and physical education teacher specifically - often selected groupings on the spur of the moment to facilitate collaborative learning. The teams inherent in many of the activities in physical education have long been reported as encouraging team work, collective responsibility and leadership but these are not explicit outcomes of team games.

Let me put it another way. If my car breaks down in the middle of the road then I would expect a number of people to help me move it out of the way. Why? Because it is mutually beneficial to all of us and because some people are genuinely nice people. However, this is not sustainable. We don't go around and push lots of other cars out of the way or generally do good things. No. Once the car is moved and I am waiting for the recovery truck then I am on my way and this is the way randomly select teams work in school. They are fit for purpose but unless they are encouraged to stick together and the individuals involved develop (and are encouraged to develop) a sense of belonging to a team then they quickly dissipate and vanish. In fact many children won't recall the teams they were in for the previous lesson because it simply isn't important.

However, what happens if we make the teams important and instead of them lasting for ten minutes in a lesson they last for a whole lesson or four, or even for a full term or semester. Furthermore, what if the teams had names and identities, and the students within them had roles and the teams were heterogeneous with existing friendship groups and rivalries split up . Finally, what if every student was accountable for their contribution to the lesson and/or unit of work, what if they had to depend on one another to succeed, shared a goal and had time to interact with each other and reflect upon what they were doing well and what need improving? Well in that case the students would be working cooperatively. This cooperation lends them purpose and as President Eisenhower said "only strength can cooperate. Weakness can only beg."

That said, don't just take my work on it; this is what a few of my pupils thought about it:

  • We worked together and measured how far we were getting on different things or how long it took us and we were able to help each other by checking techniques to see if they were good or bad and saying what they should do to improve it, and stuff like that
  • Yes, there's a certain element of knowing that you've worked together and you've learned to trust them and what they say is usually right.
  • I think it was to see how we sort of work together, and taught each other and like we might not be able to teach but we could teach each other because we like know each other better and things like that.

So they were cooperative rather than collaborative but why was that important? I will let Anne-Marie, a dear friend (and former colleague) of mine, answer that question:

  • The group you worked with was a group of boys who I had experience of working with during library lessons. In those lessons they had great difficulties working with one another. They were a very immature form, especially the boys, and their form tutor recommended that [some were] not be seated or asked to work together.
  • Several of the boys tend in lessons to avoid participating yet in your lessons when their peers needed them to be involved, they were more attentive and participatory.
  • The importance of the lesson was the development of the boys' ability to work together as a team, supporting and encouraging one another. This, in my opinion, is far more important for their overall development than individual proficiency in an athletic technique. The way you designed the lesson there were important roles for each individual, each contribution of each mattered. Every child felt valued and I suspect that that was the reason for the lesson's success.

By encouraging individual accountability, positive interdependence, group processing, Promotive face-to-face interaction, and by having a group goal the kids worked together and this "Union gives strength" (Aesop).

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