Teaching Social Skills through Cooperative Learning

In one of my courses last semester, I came across an article that was really practical and provided some excellent strategies for explicitly teaching social skills. We tend to read a lot of academic articles during our courses, not all of them particularly practical, so I found it really refreshing to read this one – “Cooperative Learning and Social Skills: What Skills to Teach and How to Teach Them” by Marilyn Goodwin (Intervention in School and Clinic, Sep 1999, 35(1).

Goodwin argues that cooperative learning can be a successful way for many students to learn; however, it can also fail students who have never been taught the social skills that are required. It can therefore provide an opportunity for explicit teaching around these skills, as much as we would focus on academic skills. This will of course, depend on what skills the teacher observes students to already have and which need developing, but this helpful grid outlines some specific skills that assist with cooperative learning and activities:

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Forming skills are required to organise the group and and establish norms for behaviour, functioning skills are required to manage the group’s activities in completing the task, formulating skills are needed to stimulate higher order thinking and lead to mastery of content, while fermenting skills are used in engaging prior knowledge, acknowledging cognitive dissonance, driving the need for more information and communicating findings. These are outlined in linearity, with each type of skill building upon the former.

The skills required in cooperative learning are fostered throughout the following activities and ways of working:

  • Think-pair-share: partners answer a question privately, discuss their thoughts with their partner and then share with the wider class
  • Roundtable: a piece of paper and a pencil are passed around a small group as each person responds to a question or idea
  • Three-step interview: team members interview one another on a particular topic. Person A interviews Person B and Person C records important points. Roles are switched until each person has had a go in each role
  • Corners: different dimensions on a topic are posted in different corners of a room. Students move to the corner that best represents their feelings the topic. They must discuss their reason for choosing that corner with the other students with them. The teacher then calls on different students to share their reasoning with the class
  • Graffiti: this activity helps to facilitate brainstorming. Each small group is given some butcher’s paper and pens and is asked to respond to a question or topic. Each group them passes their paper on to the next group so each has a turn responding to each topic
  • Jigsaw: here, members of small cooperative groups become experts on particular elements of the topic of study. After becoming experts in different areas, they must rejoin their small group to teach the other members
  • Group Investigation: students plan and carry out an investigation into an area of study. They must decide what to investigate, what each team member will contribute, and how to communicate the information learned.

Before launching into cooperative learning, one of the tips she provides is to teach beginning social skills using non-academic activities. A few fun, short activities are provided as introductory or warm-up tasks:

  • How many rectangles?: This could work with think-pair-share where you give students the boxes (below) and get them to answer the question individually and then discuss and compare their answers together. The aim of the activity is to report one answer that they have agreed on through compromising and discussion. This really targets forming skills and functioning skills, and you could focus on a particular area such as ‘moving into groups quietly’
  • What’s your opinion?: This is really just a variation of corners but as an example, it could be that you ask the question “all forms of violence should be censored on television” and then put in each corner “strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree”
  • Two truths and a lie: this could be done in think-pair-share. Each students writes down two truths about themselves and one lie. Working in pairs, they need to pick which is a lie about their partner. They then report their findings to the class, which looks at skills such as paraphrasing and vocalisation
  • Cooperative Treasure Hunt: this one is often used as an icebreaker but is also a good way at building students social skills (I feel it is a good way to assist EALD students too in practising social interactions in a supported environment). Students are given a sheet where they must find students that share things in common with them by asking different members of the class, such as:
    • find someone who has a parent or grandparent who came to this country from another country
    • find someone who has travelled somewhere interesting
    • find someone who shares a hobby or past-time with you

I thought it would be useful to record these activities on the site as they are really simple ways to build up social interaction skills and get students used to collaborating and reporting back. Having used some of these as a student myself, they’re also a really fun way to discuss and brainstorm and are much more engaging than whole group discussion.

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