Why did you chose cooperative learning?

One of my students asked me why and how I started using cooperative learning in my math classes. That started me reflecting about what I do and why. The question also sparked the thought that it would be fascinating to hear why and how other people started using student centered approaches to learning/teaching. My reflections follow below.

So that is my question to you:

"Why did you start using student centered learning in your courses?

Please note that I shifted from the word cooperative learning, which may be too limiting in definition (and considered a fad by some people) to student centered which includes many approaches, such as collaborative, cooperative, pbl etc., or any approach which focuses on the students more than the teacher (as information giver) and has students working together, in and out of class, to meet the goals of the course.

Please consider sharing your "story" with the list or e-mail me.

I will continue to compile the responses and make them available on my web site.


(please note this is a new e-mail address for me)




Why I switched from lecturing to student centered learning.

By Ted Panitz

I used to be a very good lecturer. Being an engineering and mathematics teacher I was well organized and without knowing it followed the Advanced Organizer model of teaching. I established the dayís class goals, provided an overview of the concept(s) under study and then lead the class through a series of problems and questions which demonstrated the concept or mathematical procedure under study. I was actually humorous in my lecturing, even in math and engineering classes, which helped lighten things up a bit. I developed concepts by starting with simpler questions and then proceeding to more complex structures. It made a lot of sense to everyone, during the lecture. I also used a lecture discussion format to try to engage students and asked students to work individually on problems and then present their solution on the board for additional class discussion. I tended to be very enthusiastic about my subject matter and teaching and I am sure this was somewhat contagious for my students. My approach garnered me a good reputation among students. My student evaluations were high, my courses filled up quickly and feedback I received from students was very positive.

This approach seemed to work well until we got to the tests and students would not perform as well as I or they had expected. When we talked about this phenomenon, as a whole class discussion, students expressed the frustration that they felt they understood the material in class but when they went home and tried to work the homework problems on their own, the material looked like Greek. Looking back, based upon the research I have since read I am not surprised. I was doing all the critical thinking by writing and explaining the concepts, strengthening my own brain synapses, not the students.

I used the lecture discussion method for about 8 years, at which time (1982) I started a doctoral program in education at Boston University in the Community College and Adult Education Department (no longer so named). The basis for this program was Humanistic Psychology. The professors generally practiced what they preached and demonstrated student centered techniques ranging from cooperative to collaborative approaches. As an example of collaborative learning, in one class on the philosophy of education the professor simply walked in, told us this was our class and that he would be the coach/facilitator and everything else was up to us. That was quite a shock for us graduate students who expected to be told all about the philosophy of education. After some consternation and attempts to dissuade the instructor from such an approach we got down to business and developed an excellent course. Among other benefits we discovered was that we had quite an ethnically diverse class. We decided it would be fascinating to try each otherís food and decided to hold classes in each of our homes where we would discuss the culture and educational approaches of our peers countries and also try some new cuisine. The responsibility for class materials and presentation was left up to us. We worked in teams to develop the course curriculum. I probably worked harder in that course than any other before it and learned more about the history and philosophies of American educational systems, since that was my teamís responsibility.

Interestingly, I had completed a minor in business, as part of my Masters degree in Chemical Engineering at the Illinois Institute of technology, where we used group techniques in case studies and in group processing, trust building and group work, but because the focus was exclusively on building working groups in companies in never occurred to me to adapt these techniques to teaching. It wasnít until I lived through the approaches and practiced them that I understood the implications for teaching. That helped convince me that hands on interactive learning is very important for the individual learner.

This was quite an eye opener for me and started my turnaround in teaching philosophy from a teacher centered lecture approach to student centered cooperative approach. There is a lot of flexibility which I have learned to use rather than adopt one approach for every course. For example, I provide a lot of direction and materials for my math classes, such as work sheets and jig saws, in part because I teach developmental math courses where students are still learning how to study and learn math and how to learn together in groups. In my advanced engineering courses I used more of as collaborative approach because the students had been trained by me in earlier courses and were inclined to accept the responsibility for their learning. They designed a power plant virtually on their own.

When I first started incorporating student centered techniques in my classes I started out slowly. I started using in class group work by having students work in pairs followed by whole class discussion. As I attended conferences I would seek out cooperative learning sessions and picked up new ideas each time. I also started introducing writing assignments into my classes. These can be found at my web site so I wonít describe them here:


I would emphasize here that I added only one or two new coop activities each semester in response to my students performance on assessments or their expressed needs and interests, rather than launch into it totally. If students demonstrated that they were having particular difficulty with a concept I would devise an interactive group activity combined with writing to help them focus on the concept. I now have a substantial collection of materials to chose from and continue to build my coop files. I use cooperative learning virtually 100% of the time in all my classes. Again a complete description of my class procedures is on my web site. I do give whole class explanations (some may call these mini lectures but they are not). They are highly focused and generally very short, maximum five minutes, after which time students seem to lose interest.

Does it work? You bet! We give pre and post tests in our math courses, using a computer placement system, and my students consistently show substantial improvement on the post test. The few who do not improve are not surprised by their results and neither am I. The cooperative learning approach enables me to identify problems students are having throughout the entire semester. Not every student responds to the help and encouragement they receive, but they never blame me because their responsibility in the process is clear. Many of these students take my class again, if they do not complete it the first time, which I consider to be quite a nice qualitative endorsement of cooperative learning.

Finally, There are many positive intangibles for me personally, associated with student centered learning approaches. The classes thrill me every day. I enjoy every minute of teaching. Sound a little Polyanish? I guess it is, but that is what I feel. There are little victories by students who have breakthroughs in concept understanding or who successfully complete an assessment of their performance and are celebrated by their peers or who show their enjoyment of working with their peers, who often become their close friends. Watching students help each other by giving explanations, discussing each otherís approaches and even arguing about different approaches makes my day! My interactions with the students in class give me a feeling of real accomplishment and satisfaction as I observe their improvement, and make new friends myself every semester. I see the students more as peers than I do "my students" and my respect for them becomes mutual. I did not have these kinds of interactions with students and personal emotional responses to teaching when I lectured primarily.

Linda Metzke Lyndon State College Lyndonville, Vermont
Linda [metzkel@together.net]

The reason I use cooperative learning is pretty simple. I got very tired of thinking that I had done a wonderful job teaching and then getting unpleasant feedback from student tests in the form of poor grades. I started using cooperative learning so that I could hear what students were thinking about their learning and intervene when they were off the mark, confused, or incorrect. I discovered that the learning was deeper for both of us (student and teacher). I learned that students couldn't visit the "Bahamas of the mind" when they were engaged in cooperative learning and that they became more involved in the content and the issues presented. I also got to know them, their learning approaches, their thinking processes. Students can teach us so much about our own teaching and our subjects through cooperative learning. Cooperative learning is exciting for both student and
Ellen Ljung      IMWriter@AOL.COM

My story is a bit embarrassing... when one of my trusted colleagues was doing
her practicum, she observed one of my classes and tallied who did what for
the whole period. Afterward she said to me, "Ellen, you've got to give the
students a chance to do the work." I really didn't know how -- after all, I
was a traditionally trained teacher who could talk bell to bell (and on fewer
breaths than anybody). My passion had carried me thus far... I remember
asking her how to change, and that started a dialogue that led to a
transformation of my teaching. Now everything I do is student-centered
(except for one ten-minute background lecture on Chaucer, and another ten on
Milton -- for efficiency). In fact, I now teach fewer classes because part of
my assignment has become helping teachers put technology in the hands of
their students for more "engaged learning" -- another pat phrase for the same
issue. And I love it this way! Brain research confirms the need for learners
to make meaning in a social setting [see Magic Trees of the Mind, works by
Sylwester and the Caines, etc.], and my kids truly are more engaged, and so
am I. ;>)
dsmith@LASALLE.EDU     imsacpbl-l@imsa.edu

To me "student-centered" means much more than simply having the learning of
students be the primary concern, the sense in which you may mean it,
Marcelo, when you ask how education could be other than student-centered.
To me, being truly student-centered means working with student generated
questions, interests, and concerns as the primary curriculum and standing
aside so that students do the primary work of learning.  It means regarding
students as capable learners with relevant preexisting knowledge, rather
than as empty vessels waiting to be filled.  It also means giving students
a large voice in how they learn and how that learning is assessed.  If this
is what you also meant, Marcelo, and your experience is that this is
common, then I am heartened, at least for the students of Argentina.

My own experience is that most teachers, myself included, retain control of
curriculum and assessment, choosing what and how students learn, even if we
work hard to get our students more actively involved in that learning.
Sometimes this is motivated by external authorities (parents,
administrators, boards), but also it is motivated by fear of losing
control, of having no learning occur.  Many of my colleagues are convinced
that their students need to be coerced to learn.  Since the only thing
defined as learning in those classes is what the teacher finds
interesting/important, it isn't at all surprising that these teachers think
that.  I would need to be coerced to learn all the plant phyla, or the
names of fossils, or the properties of the elements, too (to choose just a
few examples).  Of course, some students, especially if they have been
successful in typical classrooms, aid and abet this setup because
student-centered learning is much more demanding and also more tentative -
you sometimes can't be sure you've really learned something important.
Student fear is just as real and just as destructive as teacher fear and I
have really had a hard time figuring out how to change either.  I can see
the goal, but I'm still slogging toward it a few small steps each year.

David Lee Smith, Ph.D.
Director of Academic Operations
     Institute for Advancement of Mathematics and Science Teaching
Associate Professor of Geology, Environmental Science, and Physics
La Salle University, 1900 W. Olney Avenue, Philadelphi
Sheella Mierson [CreativeLearning@mindspring.com]

I was intrigued by David Lee Smith's comment (at the very end of his
message below), referring to the difficulty of giving up control in the
classroom, that "Student fear is just as real and just as destructive as
teacher fear and I have really had a hard time figuring out how to
change either.  I can see the goal, but I'm still slogging toward it a
few small steps each year."

For me, student fear is most potent when it triggers my own fear.  If I
can remember the bigger picture, and remember a context for student
fear, then I don't get confused & can help move things along.  If I
start worrying about my own competence, or about what other teachers
will think of these students in the future if they haven't learned some
key bit of information from my class, then I'm not as useful to the
students.  If on the other hand I can be bigger than their fear (much of
which, after all, comes from prior conditioning in the educational
system), help the students articulate it, give them something to bounce
off of, and show them my confidence in their thinking and in this
student-centered method, then things can move.  At the very least the
students learn more about themselves.

An interesting question to discuss might be, "What helps you reduce your
own fear in the classroom?"  Here are some of the answers for me:  (1)
Finding ways to notice and remember the times when everything is working
& the students are really excited about learning.  I find that keeping a
journal (when I can remember & make time for it) or telling a friend or
colleague about the successes helps me enormously to notice & remember
them myself.  Sometimes I'll send a friend an email about a success &
keep a copy for myself which then doubles as my journal.  (2) Finding
ways to process the difficult times in the classroom, so the
discouragements, doubts, or disappointments don't mount up & clog my
thinking.  Getting a buddy to listen to me about those is what works
best for me as well.  I usually try & have reciprocal arrangements with
several people that we'll both check in with each other either regularly
or when something special happens & take turns listening to each other.
(3) Have contact with other like-minded people who can help me remember
the real goals of education, so I don't get confused.

I'd be interested to hear ways other people find to not let their own
fears keep them from functioning the way they really want to in the

Sheella Mierson, Ph.D.     Creative Learning Solutions, Inc.
109 Chapel Hill Drive        Newark, Delaware 19711, USA
Deb Gerdes [dgerdes@imsa.edu]

I can't resist responding to Ted's inviting question about why I
chose student-centered teaching.  The answer lies back in a fourth-grade
classroom in 1961.  A classmate was having trouble understanding the math
concept being taught.  The teacher  patiently explained the process again
in the same way she originally had, which still didn't make sense to the
student.  I can vividly remember my feeling of frustration -- I could
understand my classmate's perspective and knew the "magic words" that would
enable him to understand the concept.  But it would have been too
presumptuous to raise my hand and tell the teacher that I could, in
essence, explain it better than she, so I didn't offer my help.
 That was the moment I decided I wanted to be a teacher, and it was
the moment I knew what kind of teacher I wanted to be . . . one who would
always involve the students in the learning and co-learning.
 Other elementary school experiences helped to shape my belief that
students are valuable resources.  When I was in second grade (in a small
country school with two grades in each classroom), my teacher planned to be
gone for the afternoon.  The school didn't hire a substitute teacher . . .
the teacher merely explained the reading lessons to another second-grader
and the math lessons to me, and we two students were the teachers that
afternoon.  Looking back, I realize there surely must have been an adult
who kept an eye on us . . . perhaps the other teachers took turns walking
by and checking on us?  But I was unaware of any such monitoring and didn't
find it extraordinary that two second-graders would be put in charge of
25-30 first- and second-graders.  As best as I can remember, we all behaved
and lived up to the expectations of us.
 My seventh- and eighth-grade teacher had expectations of us, too.
We were still in the split-grade classes, so while he taught the
seventh-grade math lesson, we eighth-graders were expected to go over our
math homework.  One of us would put our answers on the board; then anyone
else could challenge any of the answers.  When there was a challenge, both
students would defend their answers and, if necessary, work the problem out
on the board while the rest of the class watched and made observations.
Each problem in question was thoroughly discussed until everyone was
satisfied with the solution.  A lot of thinking took place when we didn't
have access to an answer key or a teacher-expert.
 So, long before cooperative learning was in vogue, my educational
experiences had convinced me that active student involvement and
interaction is how students learn.  I've always encouraged a "learning
community" atmosphere in which everyone in the room (visitors, teacher, and
evaluating principals included) is expected to be there to learn and to
help others learn.
 As Ted did, I searched for sessions at conferences that would
extend my knowledge of various student-centered approaches . . . which led
me to Problem-Based Learning.  When I attended my first session of Summer
Sleuths at IMSA (a two-week experience of being immersed in a problem then
coaching middle-school students through it) I felt this overwhelming sense
of "Eureka!  This is the framework for what I believe!"
Larry and Polly Wise [lpwise@bullets.net]

Reply to Debbie, YEAH!!!!!!!! Why haven't I heard this story before? Is it
too late to go back? My favorite school memories are similar, learning from
each other in high school math and science classes.
 Why do I value student-centered teaching? Because I learn something new
during every class period that my students are engaged. And isn't life-long
learning what it is all about?!  Why should I be so arrogant as to believe
that I, the teacher, am sole owner of the grand answer book in the sky.
Every student brings new insights and experiences to the class. Sharing is
learning. My job as the teacher then becomes weaving the ideas, questions,
and comments together into the lesson, emphasizing the richness of
experiences and the meaningful questions and answers.  It takes experience,
the courage to let go of the reins, the belief that the students have
something of value to share, and the willingness to really listen to what
they have to say.  When I am learning, the class is learning, and I have
fun. It's a win/win situation. That's when I look forward to going to
school!  Polly Wise
Theda Thomas [theda@ml.petech.ac.za]

I am a lecturer at a tertiary institution in South Africa and we are busy living through a fast change in education such as has never been seen before. Unfortunately, however, the legacy of apartheid schools is still with us and change cannot come fast enough. Tertiary institutions in South Africa are faced with an interesting challenge in that their students come from such a diverse spectrum of secondary schooling. Teaching in traditional methods is almost impossible under these conditions. One is continually boring part of the class while speaking at a level that the other part of the class do not understand.

I myself started using groups in my classes a few years back on an ad-hoc basis and thought that they worked rather well. When I asked for the students' opinions via an open-ended questionnaire, however, I discovered that there were a number of problems within the groups. I started studying how to overcome these problems and discovered that the co-operative learning literature offered many ideas for promoting individual accountability and positive interdependence. I started using some of these ideas and found that the students learning improved.

Now I cannot believe that I ever taught for 1 1/2 hours without using some form of co-operative learning.



I was a teaching assistant for a grad-level statistics course. One day
the professor had a student explain the answer she got on a problem, and
I was struck by how lucid her description was. It wasn't the way I
would have gone about explaining the process, but it was really a great,
clear approach. I started to pay closer attention to how students worded
things, and I realized that they sometimes had very powerful ways of
presenting the concepts that the book or the professor or I put across. I
really believe that hearing the same message in a slightly different way
maximizes the chances that the message will stick. It dawned on me that
if my students worked together on problems, they would share their own
"spin" on statistical concepts, and more of it would start sticking.

It was amazing to me, to walk around the room listening in as they worked
together, hearing what great natural teachers they were, how they
sometimes understood each others' questions better than I did, how often
they found a better, more creative way to describe stats in a way that
made sense. It just blew me away.

Karen Zaruba
Center for the Study of Higher & PostSecondary Education
University of Michigan
"Barb Gentry" <bgentry@parkland.cc.il.us>

I was teaching Jr High math in the early 70's when we had tracks for students--the low tack was not doing so well so I thought about possible ways to help the students do better. I decided to give them a test in pairs where I put the 2 students with the lowest averages together with one copy of the test and told them they would take the test together and earn the grade that they made by working together. I continued to pair up students according to their averages until the top 2 were paired together. An amazing result occurred--there were no test scores below a C+-. That meant that I had no D's or F's to deal with --not one student failed nor did anyone receive a D--it was great!!!! I realized that I was on to something that seemed to work and I have been doing all sorts of cooperative, collaborative, etc work ever since then. The students were as excited about the results as I was. I cannot imagine teaching without having my students working with one another. I earned a PhD in 1991 and my research was of course on using cooperative groups in developmental math classes at the college level. I know it makes a difference!!

Karen Constan <kconstan@ALPHA.DELTA.EDU>

I am a tutor at a busy center in a Michigan community college. I recently
collaborated with a Biology instructor to assist the students' mastery of
several difficult concepts. I developed activities, based on Bloom's
taxonomy, that required group work--create and present their efforts in one
hour. It seems to work very well--peer teaching and combined effort and
knowledge lift the entire group to a higher level of performance. Every
student has talents that are brought forward in a group. Also, group work and
active assignments aren't often used outside of labs in the Sciences. The
results were: creative, complete and inclusive-- every student is a
presenter. We expect to continue this--the evaluations from the students
are good.
From: SixTeach@aol.com Linda

First, thank you for sharing your site with us. That is very generous of
you! (Have to finish up grades tonight, but will surely be exploring it in
short order.)

"Why did you start using student centered learning in your courses?
In reflecting on why I had begun using student centered learning, I think it
was the need to have students talking to one another more in the class on
topics. When I began teaching, the best classroom was considered the one
that was the quietest, that had the students in their seats doing book work,
copying from the board, and completing worksheets. I always felt that this
wasn't the right way, but being new, didn't know what else to do. Once I
heard about others that were branching out, brainstorming with their
students, really interacting on a regular basis, I became excited! It was
still pretty much teacher centered based, but I was learning. I forget the
lesson I was doing, but I remember wanting to see if my kids could come up
with the ideas/solutions without me (what a concept!!!!). It was such a
great experience watching the kids and eves-dropping on their conversations.
They weren't off task... they were actually thinking aloud and doing well!
I've never looked back, and incorporate student centered
activities/discussions whenever possible. I think they learn much more in
the long run! I probably have told you much more than you ever wanted to know... hope
something I have shared answers your question!
Connie Hudgeons connie@handywerks.com Albuquerque, N.M.

My background in cooperative, et al, learning began in the early 80's.
My MS is in gifted education and cooperative learning is semi rooted in
the TAG movement. However, I taught severe and moderately learning
disabled students for years and used these strategies effectively. I
am a strong standards (outcomes) based teacher. I strongly believe that
all curriculum should be skills based and that the content is merely the
vehicle to teach the skill. With the breakdown of the family, the
increase of child rearing done in daycare, I have observed that students
no longer learn how to problem solve or use processes analyze and
evaluate situations. Using cooperative learning, and other strategies,
puts the student back in charge of their learning. The kids quote with
me now, when I say " You own your behavior. That includes what you
learn. If you don't control your behavior and your learning, you are
doomed to be controlled by someone who can control you because they know
more than you. If you think that life is hard now and you don't like the
choices I give you, imagine what it will be like in the workplace when
due to you lack of motivation now, you have no control over your
future. If you ask most adults who flip burgers for a living, most will
say, ' I should have listened in high school.' "

I will use just about anything - even essays -- other than a multiple
choice test to determine what kids know. I also used pbl, and just
about any other form to assess what students know and how much they have
learned. I use anything that is performance based that I can tie to
district and state curriculum standards. Not only do these strategies
teach critical thinking and problem solving skills, they also teach
research skills. Given that curriculum requirements grow exponentially
every year, we can no longer "teach is all' Selective abandonment and
selective inclusion become a matter of teacher preference. So, teaching
the kids to find any information they may need is vitally important.
These strategies allow that exploration.

I teach AP US and world geography. Both curriculums are definitely
grounded in the investigative realm of knowledge acquisition. I
strongly believe that pure knowledge without application is useless. IN
AP US , we use the fishbowl technique quite frequently. I am now making
the kids write the questions. I give reading and discussion
assignments, lecture infrequently, and make them do the analysis and
evaluation of what they are learning. We're finishing up
industrialization, progressivism, and the Gilded Age now. Almost all of
the question writing groups had anti-trust questions dealing with
Microsoft, US West/ Quest, AOL/TimeWarner, etc. That's how I know if
THEY know the material. These are whiz kids and often get caught in
their own politically correct, elitist little worlds. I like to crash
their boundaries, challenge them to look at an issue from all sides,
walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and all those other cliques.
Sorry so long, but this is a band wagon for me.
"Kristin Sherman" <ksherman@mckinneyisd.net K12ADMIN@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU

Hello all!

This is my first reply and I'm glad that Ted posed the question about student based learning. I am a high school Chemistry teacher in Texas. I use student based learning extensively. I use a variety of group situations (and sizes) depending on the needs of the students and the parameters of the lesson. My classroom is arranged in groups of four or five desks clustered together instead of rows to promote small group discussion on an impromptu basis. Laboratory/simulations are just one type of activity done in my class. My students work together on projects, guided practice activities and sometimes tests. My classroom has a positive, helping atmosphere as a result. The students don't always ask me first for the answer to their questions - they ask their group members first. Ultimately, we want learners that look beyond the textbook and the teacher for the answer. Group study facilitates independent learning. As a teacher, my job is easier and less stressful due to fewer discipline issues.

Thanks again for posing such a good question, Ted! I hope this helps.
Susan Rimkus <srimkus@uoguelph.ca>

My background is in participatory community development; I just brought
the same values, attitudes and often techniques used there into teaching.
Once inside a classroom, participatory development is called
student-directed learning!
John Mason <j.h.mason@open.ac.uk>

In 1980 when we began writing professional development distance learning
courses for students we developed a number of structures or frameworks,
which we used in the development of our courses, and which we also offered
students (teachers) for their consideration.

One of these was Adult-(Processes and Power)s-Child, which summarizes the
following approach. We begin with inviting the student to work for
themselves, on some mathematics usually but perhaps on other math-ed
issues. Then we invite them to consider what processes, what powers they
found themselves using, and how they might make more efficient use of those
powers in the future. Then and only then we invite them to consider what
implications this might have for their students.

Put another way, before I can discuss an issue in math education, I firs
look for some analogous experience of my own. Then I consider what
processes and powers have been employed, what it is like to use them, how
they might be invoked or provoked in the future. Then I consider what
insight this gives me into student' experiences.

I still use this same structure for my workshops 20 years later.
Jenny Ritchie <jennyr@waikato.ac.nz>

For me it was about reducing the power and control dynamics of traditional
transmission pedagogy, as well as a consideration of what was culturally
responsive for my students. Cheers,

Department of Early Childhood Studies University of Waikato Hamilton
New Zealand
Mitch Owen Mitch_Owen@ncsu.edu

In answer to your question..
Student centered allows for several things which have drawn
me to it... Three things stand out:
It allows for the student to use their own personal
experiences in the learning exercises and thus makes it a
little more real or relevant to them. Key word is "Relevant"
It also allows the student to structure the learning around
their specific needs or learning desires. I would suggest
that this assists in linking learning to the student's

Finally, I would use the word relationships to define the
third thing I find in student centered learning... It allows
the instructor and student to have a closer and more
successful relationship. As an instructor... I rather enjoy
the opportunity to learn with my students at times
Joyce Lindstrom jlindstrom@CHUCK.STCHAS.EDU

My first foray into student-centered teaching was the semester I taught a
3-hour College Algebra class in a room with a very small black board. The
students spent much of the evening watching me erase the board. I noticed,
also, that some of my best students were bored when I worked problems asked
for by other students. I realized I was working problems that various
students had already worked on paper. Voila! I started passing a sheet of
paper listing the assigned problems for the next class period. Each student
signs his/her name by one or more numbers, until each assigned problem has a
student signature. All students are to work all problems on paper; they are
to work their assigned problem(s) also on an overhead transparency. Thus,
when we come into class, every homework problem is on someone's
transparency. When I ask what problems students would like to see worked, I
ask the student with that problem on a transparency to explain his/her
work. If there are questions the student cannot answer, I answer.
I find that we can cover more problems more efficiently, the students have
more ownership of the class, and my best students are not as bored.
Anne Pemberton <apembert@CROSSLINK.NET>

I'll take your challenge, but I think I should change the subjecto to why
I did NOT choose coop learning/teaching.

I was a special ed teacher in a rural high school, and instructed to
individualized what I presented to students. At the time, the model of
special ed was a big stack of dittoed worksheets, handed to students one at
a time, different ones to each student according to their needs. In my
first years, I didn't have a collection of such worksheets, and didn't have
access to the textbooks that were developed years later that met the needs
of such students. So I began to try to group the students by needs and
abilities and teach them in class groups, not lecturing (I'm not the best
lecturer, esp on a daily basis), but in activities that could be modeled in
the groups, then completed individually. During those early years I was
introduced to Rita Dunn and Learning Styles, and I developed a lot of ways
to accomodate individual differences in my classroom and in instruction.
Kids who prefered to work in quiet had a quiet place to work, kids who
wanted noise, were grouped with other noisy ones, those who wanted strong
light had their space, and those who liked the dark had their's. Some
activities were highly individual, so that those who liked to work on their
own were happy, and some activities were group projects so those kids were
happy too. Some children began an activity with a group, then moved alone
to pursue it in more depth. At the end of the year I gave a (required) exam
that told me how much the whole bunch learned, and then gave individual
standardized test to see how much each individual learned. The exams never
revealed the immense strides some individuals made in a given years, but
the individualized tests did.

I am now teaching computers to the youngest children, 400 of them a week,
in Kindergarten, first and second grade. Previously, they had "free time"
in the lab to interact with what they chose. I watched what they were doing
and wasn't satisfied. I began a group discussion at the beginning of each
class in which I developed technology vocabulary and encourage kids to talk
about what they each knew about computers in the group before demonstrating
a single software that they were to do immediately after the lecture. Every
few weeks, they were given a day with the choice of what to do, and I began
to see the kids making more effective use of the software. Then the county
decided to replace the computers and forgot to buy software for them. I'm
teaching 5-8 yo's to use computers with Office 2000. Again, I started with
group lessons and demonstrations, which buttons on the mouse to use (they
went from single button mouses to 3 button mouses), and how to use the
basic tools in Paint. Some aren't artisitic enough to spend weeks learning
Paint, so the past two weeks I've had them working on group projects to
create slide shows in PowerPoint, but I alternate weeks between group work
and free time on Paint and anything else some know how to use (including
the Internet). Every week there are kids who ask to use the 5 "old
computers" that I refused to let go away when the new computers arrived,
who prefer the variety of software. The Kindergarteners are more inclined
to do what their classmates are doing, but the first and second graders
branch out much more. I made a red circle on a Kindergarteners screen,
clicked on the brush and yellow, and told the child to add the cheese and
toppings. Then I had to put a pizza on every screen! Next group of
Kindergarteners learned we were "making pizza's" and soon the pizzas were
very popular with all of that grade. But in the first and especially second
grade classes, the kids are less interested in all doing the same thing, so
sometimes there are kids making pictures, some typing in textboxes, and
some doing the old software on the old machines. Individuals who ask, are
put on the Internet.

While the number of students I'm teaching now, preclude the level of
individualization I did with my high schoolers, I consider what I do with
the kids very student-oriented and as individualized as I can manage.
Cooperative or group learning is not the only way to provide
student-centered learning whether with small groups specialized students
such as my special ed high schoolers, or with large groups of mixed
students. Student centered learning comes about because the teacher
recognizes and adjusts to the individual needs and learning styles of the
students. The "team" concept in business management that was at it's heyday
when Cooperative learning appeared, has been badly eroded and no longer the
darling it once was.

I don't get "student evaluations" to tell me if I'm keeping my instruction
"student centered", but the kids talk loudly with hugs and enthusiasm, and
the daily battles to get one group out of the lab when the next group is
waiting. Parents have waxed enthusiastically when a six year old came home
and identified Daddy's "CPU", or bring home "certificates" for completing
certain software activities. This is my first year working at this level,
but I think I have a solid student-oriented base built to develop in years
ahead. Perhaps I presume myself to be better than I actually am, but it
feels right.
Phyllis Blumberg <p.blumbe@usip.edu>

Why I switched to student-centered learning? I was part of an early movement in medical schools almost 20 years ago to switch from a full day of lectures and labs to pbl. We did it for the following reasons (and they still are valid today): although the material was covered by the faculty, it was not learned and retained by the very bright and motivated student the material did not seem relevant (remember that word) to the students it was not well organized for future use attendance was terrible - one student with a tape recorder then transcripted notes for the whole class, so why bother to come to class students were not learning how to solve problems, be critical thinkers students were not learning how to learn in the medical disciplines, nor could they find relevant articles we wanted to be a unique medical school- recruitment issues we wanted the students to see physician role models in the first 2 years of medical school we wanted the students to see the integration of basic sciences to medicine After 20 -30 years, most medical schools are now student centered, involve active learning. It is now required for accreditation.

Lee Wai Heng <lwheng@pc.jaring.my>

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Education is attempting to promote cl. A
number of efforts have been made, including an international conference
on cl back in 1997 with 2 keynote addresses by David Johnson & Spencer
Kagan respectively. Unfortunately, I don't think it's catching on, in
spite of official encouragement.

I teach at a teacher education college. CL is a part of the pedagogical
component of our preservice teachers' curriculum. Personally, I've tried
some of Kagan's structures such as Numbered Heads, Slavin's TGT etc &
find them effective in promoting participation in class. I've not used
it extensively due to a lack of ideas. You can't use the same variations
all the time. maybe, after I get to read some of your articles, I may be
able to do so:-).
"Cristi" <cpaunica@pcnet.ro>

My name is Cristian and I'm from Romania. I live in Bucharest
and I teach Pedagogy and Psychology at the Economical Academy and at the
Bucharest University.

I began to use the student centered approach four years ago, when I was
hired by the Pestalozzi Foundation (a Swiss-Romanian foundation who is
offering training in social pedagogy) two years after I had finished my
studies at the University. I was educated in a professor centered education
system, where a lecture is a dictation (95 % of the professors in Romania
are doing so, maybe more). I couldn't imagine something else.
I remember, my first seminar plan was a six hours long lecture. Interaction
Was missing. Very proud I showed my plan to my Swiss boss and I couldn't forget
his face after he read it. He said "Forget it. Let's try something else. The
students will be very soon bored if you'll use your method." He designed the
first seminar for me. In the six hours I lectured no more then a hour. The
rest was learning.

I used his plan for a period of time but I didn't understand too much what
I was doing. The first questions appeared in my mind after some months. So I
began to study about training, needs assessment, active methods, evaluation,
using of media in the classroom, constructivism, collaboration vs.
competition, etc.

I think I have now an understanding about training and education, learning
and teaching and I'm trying to improve it every day.

All my classes are now student centered and I'm using intensively active
learning methods. The information I give to my students - the input - it's
usually something written (a hand out). The students will read it (sometimes
in groups) and I'm doing some comments. I'm trying to eliminate (short)
lectures because the students are used with the teacher centered approach
and they will write down everything what I'm saying. When I speak I'm using
a slide show or transparences. All the students tell me my courses are
different.When they come the first time in my classes they are perplexed (I
think this is the right word), there opinion counts, they can give me a
feedback, they are no rows of desks, they work in small groups, there are no
boring lectures, etc. and they ask me frequently why others don't do the

Why did I choose student centered teaching ? Because of my former boss from
Switzerland, he couldn't let me to do a six hour long boring lecture. :-)
imsacpbl-l@imsa.edu Ellen Ljung

My story is a bit embarrassing... when one of my trusted colleagues was doing
her practicum, she observed one of my classes and tallied who did what for
the whole period. Afterward she said to me, "Ellen, you've got to give the
students a chance to do the work." I really didn't know how -- after all, I
was a traditionally trained teacher who could talk bell to bell (and on fewer
breaths than anybody). My passion had carried me thus far... I remember
asking her how to change, and that started a dialogue that led to a
transformation of my teaching. Now everything I do is student-centered
(except for one ten-minute background lecture on Chaucer, and another ten on
Milton -- for efficiency). In fact, I now teach fewer classes because part of
my assignment has become helping teachers put technology in the hands of
their students for more "engaged learning" -- another pat phrase for the same
issue. And I love it this way! Brain research confirms the need for learners
to make meaning in a social setting [see Magic Trees of the Mind, works by
Sylwester and the Caines, etc.], and my kids truly are more engaged, and so
am I. ;>)
"Marcelo García Dieguez" gdieguez@criba.edu.ar imsacpbl-l@imsa.edu

I feel probably too simple with my answer but is the reflection I did about the theme. And sorry for answering with more questions How can education be centred in other person than the student? What is the general aim of education? I am a young teacher and that's why probably is more difficult to think in a reason for a non-student centred education. I know the political, historical reasons but rational.. I don't think so. As I said it may be a simple reason but I think that learning must be centred on the students and their learning objectives can't be overlooked if their education is the reason for our job.

Taking a colleagues words this seems to be like patient-centred medicine ... could it be centred in other than the patient?
Ginia Bemis, Tech Coordinator, Libbey Elementary

I began teaching computers to Kindergarten, first,
second and third graders in a lab with enough
computers for every student. It worked out ok, but
many students were left behind, having trouble
manipulating the mouse, digesting multiple steps,
clicking once or did she say twice, etc.

After a year I had a premonition: teach with two kids
per computer! What a revelation that has been.
Computer Literacy is very complex, not like mastering
a pencil (as so many liken it to, for reasons beyond
me). With the opportunity to work with another
student, they were able to stay on top of the
directions and follow me through a whole series of

Now I have first graders who can type their I Spy
riddles, create the picture to go with it, and print
it out in a reasonable amount of time. I have second
graders typing thank you letters using the thesaurus,
splll checker, and even the tab key. Yes, they still
have individual assignments, but they help each other
through it. Comprehension levels of how and why we
click here, pull this menu down, use that key are sky

We feel cooperative learning has given our students
great success; and isn't that the purpose for learning
after all, is to feel successful after having to take
a risk?!
MaryLiz Pierce GateWay Community College Phoenix, Arizona

I cannot say I deliberately chose cooperative learning. I have taught from
Kindergarten through Community College as well as in a two room school and in
juvenile corrections. I have tried a variety of different approaches and
found that different methods worked in different situations. Because my own
learning style is somewhat different from the normal ones addressed when I
went to school and the whole topic didn't appear to be discussed back then I
had to find my own way of learning better. I was a junior in college before
I really started coming into my own. Later, while doing volunteer work in a
kindergarten, I found many children in different stages of development and
with different strengths who learned in different ways. Then I started
substitute teaching and saw a lot of different approaches. In the two room
school, cooperative learning was great with my first graders who would work
together sounding out words and then come to me to read. It also worked
great in other areas where I could work with students of different levels on
the same topic.

When I was in Juvenile corrections, it didn't work at all because of the
volatile nature of the students and the situation. In a college situation I
use it as one of several methods in my classroom. In my technical math
classes, I use it a lot and have a lot of situations where they can use the
technical geometry and trig principles and apply them to situations. It
works fantastically and I use it in almost every class. In my Arithmetic
Review class, a lot of my students are resistant to it. I am introducing
them to it gradually by assigning reviews in the text that they work
together. Many of my students in this class have limited English and limited
math skills. They get very embarrassed when working with someone else and
tend to shut down. Therefore I'm also starting working with them in the
computer lab on Nova Net and other software programs. After spring break
I'll find out how our first attempt worked (on ratio and proportion). In
addition I might work with students individually and try different
explanations/algorithms with different students. We just finished fractions
and some of my students come from countries where fractions are not
emphasized or even covered until algebra. I also have a lot of math anxiety
in that group so I tried stressing a different algorithm (changing to
improper fractions in all problems) from the text to eliminate borrowing and
carrying. Although I taught both algorithms I did not stress the text one.
I use writing with most of my classes including the first class of the tech
math block and am always looking for new ideas, which I incorporate with
different classes. I rarely teach things exactly the same way -- even in two
sections of the same course because of the personalities and learning styles
of my students. In fact with one section of my Tech Math 2 classes,
cooperative learning is fantastic. With the other, I have too many students
trying to goof off and change groups more often. The class has younger, more
immature students and I must be much stricter with them.

I guess the answer to your question is that although I always use
student-entered learning, I use cooperative learning as only one of my tools.
Other tools I use include giving liberal extra credit for catching me or the
text in mistakes, modeling how to correct my mistakes, and having the
students correct their own mistakes. They get full credit on homework only
if they have corrected any mistakes and ask questions in class. (They must
show their work.) They also correct any mistakes of tests (for partial
credit) by doing the whole problem over. I even go so far as to give them a
long practice test with answers/solutions (depending on level). In the
solutions I deliberately make calculation or copying errors for them to find.

The method, however, is correct. I do this for my limited English students
so they can be sure of what the wording of a particular problem means and so
they have a basis for study. My practice tests are double the length of most
tests and include absolutely everything I've taught plus some problems they
have never seen before where they apply what they've learned.
Well, I've gone on enough. I don't know if this will help or not. I hope it
Neil MacNeill <nmacn@highway1.com.au>

It's Sunday morning and I am catching up on my mail. There seems to be
a dearth of responses to Ted's helpful posting, so here goes!
Ted (and others) I am a principal in Perth (Western Australia) and I
have just moved into a new school.

The teachers use a mix of pedagogies but none is student centred.

My problems are:

1. I need to help bring about a development in the teachers' repertoire
of teaching methods (professional development);

2. I have to convince staff and parents that the new curriculum
framework and student outcomes approach to education is based on a more
student centred learning approach; and

3. While I am convinced that the future of society and public schools is
predicated on teaching students to work together, I have to convince

So, in answer to Ted's second question, I am taking my first few
tentative steps into the domain of student centred learning.
To bring about a change in mindset I will use the executive summary from
Bransford, J.D. et.al (eds). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience
and school. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press for the National
Research Council. The executive summary captures the changes in
learning theory since teachers left university and promotes active
learning (student centred learning). On our school development day in
May I will pose the question- "How do kids learn best?" and while there
will be a range of answers, I will use the text to push into student
centred learning.

This still needs a lot of thought but that is my intent. As someone
said, the biggest problem we face is getting teachers to let go. I have
just ordered a book (unseen) to be released soon in the US called
"Teaching with your mouth shut" which I hope it is about student
centred learning because the title sort of encapsulates the change in
teachers' approaches to education for real learning.

OK, that's it from me. I am just getting started but I have found Ted's
advocacy professionally useful, even though he writes for the tertiary
education sector.
  Esther Garber <blessedcan@netscape.net>

In actual fact, I had the opportunity of taking a 3-credit university course
in collaborative learning, and have since decided to practice what I learnt in
my classroom, not without doubts though. I usually introduce CL to my class
the second or third term, after having studied their strength and class
participation. Again, as a language teacher, I have discovered that nothing
can be more fun for my French immersion students  or peaceful & quiet for me,
than having them work & chat together in the language of instruction in groups
of 3 or 4. It has reduced the noise considerably in my class and my
intermediate students seem to be happier and more ready to learn. The CL has
proved advantageous in my math class. I have discovered that weak and quiet
students are more active with their peers and freely contribute to the group
of 4 or 3, when they are tackling a math problem. I am kind of satisfied too,
I don't have to talk too much before my point is assimilated.

I sometime have to face the problem of one or two who really want to work
alone. Grading has not been easy, sometime I feel it's unfair. But I will have
to rely on students' comments. But what happens when a group dislikes one
student in particular and can really frustrate his/her individual efforts no
matter what?

But the advantages are more to me than the few disadvantages and so it's worth
Robyn" <scott.robyn@clear.net.nz>

"Why did you start using student centered learning in your courses?

I started using student centred learning two years ago almost by the direction of
my 11/12 year old students. They love to talk and they love to share and it
improved the classroom tone as well as the relationships within
the classroom.  I enjoy being able to facilitate this kind of learning
and to be a part of the class rather than the controller.  The children
now automatically lead discussions and take a lot of pride in the way they
are able to take greater responsibility for their own learning.