Cooperative Learning, a Human Dinosaur, and Your Classroom

What does this video of marching band have to do with your classroom?
To me, this video- and marching band itself- is the epitome of cooperative learning.

“Cooperation! I do that in my classroom. My students have several group projects throughout the semester!”

I’m sorry to break the illusion (actually, I’m quite happy to do it) but  group projects are not the same thing as cooperative learning. Sure, group projects can be cooperative, but, as we have all probably experienced, they do not always end up that way. Often, one or two students in the group end up doing all the work, or at least feel like they are doing all the work. In this case, not every student is contributing, so not every student is learning.

Going back to the marching band footage: if only 50% of the band ( even if just 80% of the band) is doing their part, playing their music, and marching to their exact coordinate, you would not have the clarity of sound or see the amazing forms on the field, and the illusion of the dinosaur moving across the field would be ruined. You need 100% of the band members to be actively engaged and participating in order for the show to be successful.

Similarly, group projects are only successful if 100% of the students are participating

So how do we get 100% students to participate in order to successfully have cooperative learning in our classroom?

There are several models of cooperative learning that are appropriate for the classroom.

  • STAD (Student Teams Achievement Divisions)
    • Class lecture.
    • Student teams are formed and breakout.
    • Teams prepare a presentation to help one another with the material.
    • A quiz is given to measure the knowledge students have gained.
    • Students receive an individual improvement score.
      • What I really like about STAD: The improvement score encourages a growth mindset within students. Rather than seeing what they missed, they see how they improved, and where they could improve even more.
  • Jigsaw II
    • Students are put into Expert Teams to focus on a topic.
    • Within these Expert Teams, students break into smaller Learning Teams, which focus on a sub-topic within the larger team.
    • Students research the sub-topic, come back to the Expert Team, and present their findings.
    • Discussion and questions may follow.
      • What I really like about Jigsaw II: Students are given the opportunity to teach one another, which helps them really learn and understand their sub-topic.
  • Co-op co-op
    • Introduction of a topic, followed by class discussion.
    • In discussion, students develop topics.
    • Teams are selected, then delegated a topic.
    • Teams break into smaller sub-groups to explore sub-topics.
    • Students report back to larger team, present material.
    • Team presents topic to the other students.
    • Students are evaluated (may include self-evaluation, or peer evaluation).
      • What I like about Co-op Co-op: Topics are generated by the students. These topics highlight aspects which interest the students, and focus on what the students need to learn more about.
  • Group Investigation
    • Students identify what and how to learn.
    • Teams select topic.
    • The class develops a cooperative plan for specific learning procedures, tasks and goals.
    • Students implement the plan formed as a class, and involve a variety of activities in and outside the classroom.
    • Students analyze and summarize all the information they have collected, and find a way to present it in an interesting manner to the class.
    • Evaluate (individual assessment, group assessment, or both).
      • What I like about Group Investigation: Students are given more opportunity to voice their opinion in this model.
  • Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning
    • Lecture.
    • Students receive some questions to start to guide their thoughts.
    • Students formulate their own questions (do not need to answer them) as well as other comments.
    • Students break into teams and offer their questions to the group and discuss.
      • What I like about Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning: Students are given the opportunity to answer each others’ questions before presenting them to the teacher.

What else should we keep in mind when implementing cooperative learning?

  • Put students in “teams,” not “groups.” The word “group” just has too much negative connotation from past experiences, and the word “team” implies that the students will be working together.
  • Teams should be given an opportunity to get to know one another before they work together in a team. Just giving students time to get to know one another better will make them more willing to work together. Give teams a list of questions to ask one another to get some conversations started. Have them play a game together, like Clue. You can have them work on a low-stakes problem together, like a brain buster. When students know one another well, they will be able to trust one another and be more motivated to do their part. Being a part of a team gives them more purpose to learn, something important for intrinsic motivation.

  • Interdependence is key. Delegate tasks so that every member is required to contribute for the success of the team. This way, it becomes harder for students to hide behind the work of other students.

Lesson Plan

  1. Break students into teams. Give teams an opportunity to get to know one another.
  2. In each team, one person will become an expert on an aspect of the food web (Producers, Primary Consumers, Secondary Consumers, and Tertiary Consumers).
  3. After research, each member will present their findings to their team.
  4. The team will classify the class pet (or another organism, depending on the classroom setup) as a producer, primary consumer, secondary consumer, or tertiary consumer. This may involve further research into the diet of the organism.
  5. The teams will share their findings and conclusions to the class, giving reasoning and evidence to support how they classified the organism.

This lesson can be an Engage activity for a unit about energy flow through organisms.

Cooperative learning enables students to achieve something they couldn’t achieve alone. Just like no single person in that 200 person marching band could make Superman save a falling building, students cannot learn completely on their own. Students get support from both you as their teacher, and their fellow classmates, through discussion, inquiry, and interdependence.


  1. Great job, Meghan! I really like how concise and easily digestible your descriptions of the different cooperative learning styles are. It’s really easy to just look at your blog and immediately know what’s going on. I also really liked your incorporated lesson plan. It’s a great way to incorporate the real world into the classroom and give your students a chance to lead their own research and learning! Awesome job!

  2. Meghan,
    I love your connection to marching band! It fits so well with you, and lets you truly tie the concept to your real life! Your descriptions for each of the models for cooperative learning were stellar and I loved how much detail was in them! Hitting on the importance of team vs group is such an important thing, even that one little word can change a student’s perspective on the activities. I love the lesson plan for getting students engaged and working in teams. Good job!

  3. Meghan,
    I think it is awesome that you connected this topic to band! That is something were you can see (and hear) cooperation in action. I also really like how you gave what you like about each method of cooperative learning. I think that will help the reader really envision how it could be helpful in their own classroom. I think all of the extra media that you included fit really well with what you wrote abut in your blog.
    I just want to know how you are going to implement these into your classroom? How are you going to help your students get to know each other before they work together?

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