Introducing Cooperative Learning for a Vocational Context

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Cooperative Learning and Vocational Education

Practical guide and material for teachers and trainers

Our classrooms, workplaces and society in general are multicultural, even where there is no one from a minority ethnic background. We all have different cultures. Our backgrounds differ in terms of parental education, religion, socio economic status, household and family form etc. Additionally they differ in values and attitudes, lifestyles, abilities/disabilities, and ethnicity or nationality. Ethnicity or nationality is therefore only one of the factors that make our classrooms diverse and thus influence our students’ culture. The settlement of immigrants has added new ‘minorities’ to the community in Europe and accentuated the social and cultural pluralism which already existed. This fact also means that our workplaces are multicultural – diverse in the broadest understanding of the concept “culture”. Again, regardless of whether there are coworkers / clients with different ethnic backgrounds, the demand for employees to use this diversity as an advantage instead of seeing it as a problem is obvious just by reading job advertisements. So how can we prepare our vocational students for the diversity at their future workplaces as well as becoming active citizens in our pluralistic societies? How can we help them to train their key competences and social skills at the same time as they learn their vocation and other subjects? How can we train their thinking skills, problem solving, independent working and related skills? This guide will explore some ideas.

Why cooperative learning?

This question is very important when we discuss education in the 21st century with student teachers as well as with in-service teachers. Why should teachers change their way of teaching if they do not see any obvious reason for changing it? We can probably introduce as many methods and materials as we want, but if a teacher does not see the advantage of those methods for their students and themselves, they will not achieve the desired outcome. The attitude of the teacher is key, as with many things.

Most educationalists agree that education in the 21st century is more about learning new skills and competences than collecting information and remembering facts. However the question is which competences are important in our diverse and intercultural societies? Which competences do we need to train and equip our students with in order to prepare them for life in a pluralistic workplace and society and to become active and critical citizens? Which competences are useful to increase their employability?

When I ask my students or participants on European training courses to name all competences that they see as most important for their students to acquire in order to live and thrive in modern society, I normally get more or less the same list of competences, no matter if the participants are Icelandic teachers or student teachers or international groups of in-service teachers of all school levels and subjects from all over Europe. The list of competences that they consider of most importance for their students looks something like this:

  •  communication skills
  •  cooperation skills / team work / being able to work with a diverse group
  •  open mindedness / anti prejudice
  •  be able to see things from different aspects
  •  creative thinking
  •  flexibility
  •  critical thinking
  •  language skills
  •  conflict management
  •  initiative
  •  independent working

When motivating students for working cooperatively during class, which they often neither want nor know how to do, it’s a good idea to give them real job advertisements to analyse and ask them to find out which three competences are mostly asked for when looking through all advertisements. They tend to find the following:

  1.  communication skills
  2.  initiative
  3.  cooperation skills (being able to work in a team).

After that they will see that flexibility and independent working inevitably follow. Obviously there is also some knowledge or experience required but the request for social competences surprises the learners. They have become convinced that only high grades count when entering the labour market but there they see that social competences are just as important for employability as grades.

Tony Wagner writes about “The Seven Survival Skills for Careers, College and Citizenship” and as we can see here the skills are more or less the same as the learners find in the job advertisements. (Tony Wagner, Harvard University, 2009):

  1.  Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  2.  Collaboration across Networks
  3.  Flexibility and Adaptability
  4.  Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5.  Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6.  Accessing and Analysing Information
  7.  Curiosity and Imagination

Wagner also notes the gap between the skills learned at college and what students actually need in real life: “The Global Achievement Gap is the gap between what even our best schools are teaching and testing versus the skills all students will need for careers, college, and citizenship in the 21st century”. (Tony Wagner, Harvard University, 2009)

Furthermore, we do not expect to travel the world in the same way we would have done in the 1960s so we need to consider why we might prepare learners for the world in the same way as we did then. A system designed to elicit the obedience and conformity required by the industrial factory system is not a suitable model to elicit the creativity and problem solving required in the current employment market.

How do we teach in order to train our vocational students’ key competences and prepare them for the future workplace?

If we think how traditional teaching methods (frontal teaching where the teacher speaks and the pupils listen most of the time) prepares our learners for “real life” we see that there is in fact a gap. Do we in any way increase our students’ communication, cooperation or conflict solving skills by sitting and listening to the teacher or working alone on a task? Do they learn creative or critical thinking when they are reading, listening and remember the facts that will be tested in the exam? Will they be able to discover the advantage of diversity when the only competence that is valued is the competence of reading, writing and memorising? Why should it be good to have other competences, skills, experiences or out of school knowledge when these skills are often seen more of a problem than positive diversity? Students in vocational schools may often be students that were not successful at or didn’t like learning the traditional way.

They may have chosen vocational subjects because they like to have their hands on the task, figure out how things work, do something instead of only listening. Even though many vocational subjects offer hands on training, vocational students will also have to learn academic subjects so the question is how can we teach them in a more active, creative way and train their social skills required in today’s workplaces at the same time? As Elisabeth Cohen says: “We actually teach these skills in kindergarten and sometimes in the first 4-5 classes but then most of the teachers start working more and more the traditional way where the teacher speaks, the pupils listen and memorise. In high school it’s the same. When those pupils graduate we want them to know these skills again to be able to function at multicultural/diverse workplaces.” (E.Cohen, 1997)

The answer isn’t easy because there is no one single teaching method so good that it suits all students all the time. The answer lies in diversity – diverse teaching methods and approaches. Teaching methods where the student is active, where there is interaction and communication taking place and where there is structure that increases the possibility for every student to have access to the learning process, are best suited to activate students, train their social skills, give them the opportunity to learn in a creative way where higher order thinking skills are necessary and thus prepare them for life in a pluralistic society and workplace. There are also no special cooperative learning methods that suit vocational students better than others. It is always up to each teacher to evaluate which cooperative learning method suits best to reach their educational goals – they are after all specialists in their subjects.

Cooperative learning methods, using activities and games, using controversial problems in the classroom are all approaches that have shown to be useful to reach those aims.

Teachers may have some bad memories from their own school years or as teachers from group work experience that went wrong. Cooperative learning is always group work but group work is not always cooperative. Group projects are a prescription for an inequitable distribution of the workload. Cooperative projects are not. With group projects, the teacher assigns a task to a group and leaves it to the group to determine how to structure how they will work together. In unstructured groups, some take over while others contribute little or even nothing. In contrast, cooperative projects are carefully structured. Cooperative projects limit the resources, assign roles, and distribute jobs so everyone is held responsible and accountable for their own contribution, as in real life situations.

To ensure cooperation in a group, it must be very structured and cert ain principles must be followed. If poorly managed and structured group work can even be worse than individual work and some students, for example students that suffer from anxiety, will hate it because they don’t know for certain what will happen (they can make a reliable prediction during a traditional lesson). So structure is the key word. The more structured the work is, the more students can work independently, there will be more interdependence and support from group members and insecure students will actually know what will happen and that they will have support from other group members instead of competition where the fear of failure will be a factor impeding learning and activity.

Obviously it takes much more than this paper to explain in depth structure of cooperative learning but the fact is that no other educational approach has been as well researched as cooperative learning. What we want to discuss here among other things is which steps we need to take in order for cooperative learning to be of real use for vocational students, for their learning and to prepare them for the future workplace. We need to make sure that:

  • students and teachers understand the “why” question. Why is it important for us to learn and train our communication and cooperation skills? Why are social skills in general just as important for real life situations as the knowledge that we gain at college? Why is the learning deeper when we discuss the content with others?
  •  teachers know methods (activities) that increase a positive and safe class atmosphere.
  •  teachers know how to prepare students for cooperative learning and teach them norms and behaviours necessary when working with others.
  •  teachers know examples of cooperative teaching structures that improve students’ key competences and give a diverse group of learners better access to the learning process.

Before using the methods introduced during the teacher training it would be useful to read some articles/books about cooperative learning. Here some examples:

Complex Instruction:

Complex Instruction and maths:

Cooperative learning returns to college:

Review of Educational Research Spring1999, Small -Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: AMeta-Analysis:

Here you also can find a number of articles about cooperative learning:

Prepare the class

Changes are in general difficult. Teachers are all in the strange situation of doing a job where they have already experienced the situation, but as students. I have noticed through my inservice training courses that many teachers actually liked the traditional system as students because they were good at it. They were good at reading, writing, memorising, sitting still and they had good grades. This can lead to a self-perpetuating system where practitioners may be loath to change a system that worked perfectly well for them. Of course most teachers can see further than their own experience and they understand that for other students this system doesn’t work that well at all.

For students it may be the same, changes are difficult and they have been taught certain norms and behaviours that are considered positive in the traditional classroom and for many students its stressful to leave this “safe” structure which they know and know how to succeed in. However, we must bear in mind that many also ‘fail’ in this system leading to a considerable waste of potential and at an individual level loss of self-esteem and incorrect belief about ability.

Learners are also more used to competitive or individual structures where the aim is to do better than your classmates. So before you start any cooperative lesson you need to prepare the class. Two things are essential at the beginning:

  •  Create a safe, friendly and supportive class atmosphere
  •  Train students in certain cooperative norms

Starting with a great complex cooperative learning task without preparing the class is likely to fail so time for preparation is definitely not lost time.

The class atmosphere

If you plan to use cooperative learning you are expecting your students to learn closely together, you expect them to trust each other, respect each other and in general be open and active. But how can you expect anyone to behave like that with a group of strangers?

That’s why it is essential to take some time to create a safe and trusting class atmosphere.

When teachers are asked what they think characterises a good class climate, they normally come up with similar answers like: trust, friendship, relaxed interaction, support and solidarity, respect, no judging, active participation and care for one another. In order for us to trust, support and care about someone, we have to really get to know them first. This does not happen by itself, just by sitting next to each other.

So what can we do to create and support this atmosphere? There are several different ways to improve the class climate but in general it certainly starts with the teacher’s attitudes and behaviour.

  •  Lead your students by example. Changes begin with the teacher’s positive caring attitude and respect.
  •  Discuss with students what they consider a good class atmosphere to be. You could first have them brainstorm about it in small groups and then make a poster where their own ideas of a good class atmosphere are displayed.
  •  Get to know each other. Use a variety of games and short activities that give students the possibility of getting to know each other on a personal level. They may have spent a lot of time together in the same class but still only really know a small group of their classmates. Just a short talk to someone, finding out similarities and common interests can make all the difference in future interaction during team work.
  •  Make sure that the students know and understand why they are ‘playing games’. In this scenario as in others, if they don’t understand why – they will not be motivated, they will think it’s only supposed to be fun and the activity will lose its purpose. They will only actively participate if they understand why the class atmosphere is so important.
  •  Plan lessons that allow students to actively participate in the learning process. Read about cooperative learning, create your own cooperative learning tasks and practice with simple but purposeful tasks.
  •  Don’t be afraid of losing authority. Students respect a teacher that listens to them and respects their opinion more than one that has the need to show their power and authority.
  •  Don’t give up – even though you don’t see that much change after the first few lessons. Change takes time so give yourself and your students’ time to get used to the new methods and time to trust each other. We all learn through our mistakes so don’t be afraid of them, just learn from them. Recent research also shows when comparing cooperative learning classes and traditional classes that the difference in success doesn’t start to show until the students have got the opportunity to get closer to each other and really learned to work together.

Using short activities with students in order to give them the opportunity to get to know each other better on a personal level is a very powerful way to create a more trustful and respectful class atmosphere. Activities where students have to communicate with each other – find similarities and differences, talk about everyday issues, their dreams, hopes and fears. When using learning activities (not to be confused with energizers or icebreakers) it is very important to reflect after the activity with students about how they felt, what the activity was about, what they learned, how the experience can contribute to a better class climate. You can find a variety of short activities under these links that have the goal of creating a better class atmosphere:  and

Skill builders: Give students the opportunity to train cooperation norms and behaviours

Students in vocational education are, just like other students, used to certain school norms. Preparing students for cooperative groups requires you to decide which norms and which skills will be needed for the group work setting you have in mind. These norms and skills are best taught through exercises and games, referred to as skill builders. People rarely learn new behaviours or convictions concerning how one ought to behave through lectures or general group discussion alone (E.Cohen).

When we think of real life work situations, it’s not often that we are expected to sit silently and listen to one other person tell us some information for a longer period of time and remember it. It’s possible, but not very likely scenario on a vocational workplace. So we need to re-train our students for new norms that are necessary during team work. In the opinion of Pieter Batelaan of IAIE (International Association for Intercultural Education)the following skills are important when working cooperatively with others:

Task-oriented skills:

  •  check whether the others understand the work
  •  contribute as regards information, ideas, opinions
  •  talk about the task
  •  keep working
  •  keep members of the group involved in the work
  •  listen
  •  restate
  •  ask questions
  •  follow hints
  • share material
  • stay at the place of the work
  • look for information, ideas, opinions
  • meet the function allotment

Process-oriented skills

  •  encourage
  •  mention names
  •  invite others to talk
  •  react to the ideas of others
  •  keep eye contact
  •  express appreciation
  •  share feelings
  •  check whether a consensus is present
  •  show the will to find a consensus
  •  be of different opinion without rejecting
  •  avoid tension and conflict
  •  listen in an active way
  •  recognize contributions
  •  compliment group members on what they have done well
  •  celebrate success
  •  give and receive feedback in a constructive way

An experience programme has been especially developed with the purpose of training those skills and consists of short moments that lack contents as such. The students experience the skill in as pure way as possible. The teacher can then refer to these experiences before and during cooperative learning tasks later on. The best way to develop the new norms and skills required is by using and naming them. This learning process is systematically stimulated and supervised with the skill builders. For vocational students it is especially useful to refer to real workplace situations where those same skills are important, even essential. (List of skill builders can be found on the following webpage:

Explain how to use the roles

Start by preparing your own set of role badges: Organiser, Material Manager, Time planner, Reporter and Harmoniser. Go through some simple cooperative tasks where students practice the roles. Remember to think for yourself “why am I doing this activity? – What is my aim? What do I want the students to understand?” When starting to use the roles it’s important to give students time to really talk about them and take them seriously. You choose the best way to do so depending on the student’s age but they must be aware that you are observing how they master their roles and you will be giving feedback on it after the presentation. All the roles involve important life skills so when using the roles you are not only giving the team work structure, but also preparing your students for taking responsibility for a certain task and following it through. It is for example important in most work situations to be able to organise work with colleagues, to manage the time, to take notes and stand in front of colleagues to explain or report outcomes of a project. The better your students understand the purpose of the roles the more seriously they will take them. It is not unlikely that some of your students will complain about the roles. Take a clear note of who they are and what is their status within the class. Often the high status or dominant students don’t like the roles at first because they feel they lose certain authority but with rich, complex tasks also they will discover that they are not good at everything.

Start with simple cooperative learning tasks

Cooperative learning can be simple or complex. Complex, well -designed cooperative learning lessons provide the deepest learning experiences for students that cannot be obtained if we use only the simple structures. But good cooperative learning does not require complex lesson designs, lesson planning, or special preparation of materials all the time. An additional benefit of starting with the simple structures is that later, when one does a complex cooperative learning lesson, the simple structures are used as part of those lessons, greatly enhancing outcomes. So start with simple things like “think-pair-share” or “timed-pair-share” during a lecture.

Have students work in pairs on prioritising or explaining to each other, collecting information and discovering each other’s competences and skills. Once a teacher knows and uses on regular basis the simple structures, every lesson becomes a cooperative learning lesson. Here you can find some simple structures:

Create and use more complex cooperative learning structures

When the teacher and the students have taken some time to get used to the cooperative learning structures and norms, they can start to offer more complex cooperative learning tasks. One of the mistakes that a teacher can do is to offer students an individual task but expect them to work on it as a group. If the task is structured in a way that it would be much easier and quicker to finish it alone, if it does not call for any interaction, no structure for interdependence, has closed questions with only one correct answer etc. it is unlikely and unfair to expect the students to work on it as a team.

It must be emphasised that the success of cooperative learning is, in large parts, determined by the quality of the activity in which students are asked to participate. If cooperative learning is simply used for completing repetitions drill and practice worksheets as part of a lock-step, skills-based curriculum, it is unlikely that students will be motivated to do their best work, to exercise creativity or to employ higher-order reasoning abilities. (JoAnne W. Putnam, 1998)

When creating a rich cooperative learning task there are some basic principles that should be followed.

  1.  Open ended questions/tasks
  2.  Multiplied abilities/intelligences
  3.  Interdependence and individual responsibility
  4.  Connection with the main concepts of the curriculum
  5.  Connection with the “real life”

When creating such a task the first thing the teacher needs to do is to think about his/her learning goals. What do you want your students to learn or understand? Then you think of the best cooperative structure to reach that goal and at last you create questions or tasks that you think will help the students discuss and understand the content on a deeper level.

You can find some ideas of the Jigsaw method and Complex Instruction here:

Role of the teacher

The role of the teacher is very important in cooperative learning. To have an effective cooperative learning group teachers must know their students well. Grouping of students can be a difficult process and must be decided with care. Teachers must consider the different skills and competences, socio-economical background, personalities, status within the group, and gender when arranging cooperative groups. Much time is devoted to prepare the lesson for cooperative learning. However, teachers fade in the background and become a coach, facilitate, and sometimes a spectator after the lesson i s implemented. For many teachers this is the biggest challenge – to let go and allow students to learn independently and learn by their mistakes. Teachers who set up a good cooperative lesson teach students to teach themselves and each other. Students learn from their peers and become less dependent on the teacher for help.


Preparing our students for the labour market and training the skills and competences that the labour market wants and needs in their employees in the 21st century, does not happen by using traditional teaching methods. They were good for their purpose in the times of a very different labour marked but today they create a gap between learning process and the needs of business.

This calls for changes. Teachers need to change the way they teach and students need to change the way they learn. Cooperative learning has shown to be the best possible method to meet these needs of the 21st century labour market. In conclusion, Cooperative learning is a very broad concept and teachers need to be well trained in order to generate cooperation between themselves with other teachers and have the support from the school or college management to make new paths in teaching and assessment. Thus, the most important steps would be: attitude of the teachers for change, good practical training for teachers, time to get around and prepare the changes, time to cooperate with other teachers, flexibility and support from the school / college management and suitable environments to facilitate the forms of learner activity that cooperative learning entails. Assessment policies need to move in conjunction with these changes so it is vital that National Agencies such as Examining and Awarding Bodies, Inspection regimes and teacher training have an understanding of the methodologies of cooperative learning and its products and learner processes. This would include consideration of support systems such as platforms to store and submit electronic and physical learning outcome evidence which is more complex than simple written or electronic text.

As discussed above, a variety of different things need to be considered when developing a cooperative learning lesson/tasks (student group, time, subject, aims, age of the students etc.). That’s why it’s not wise or even possible to create fixed lesson plans for cooperative learning. Each teacher needs to know how to prepare and plan his/her lessons and create their tasks. This guide is simply an awareness tool about the important steps to take when starting this journey towards cooperative learning in Vocational education.

11. January 2015
Gudrún Pétursdóttir, Sociologist and Teacher Trainer
InterCultural Iceland