Cooperative learning for creative collaborations

Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” That may be true for Einstein, but how about for the rest of us? Lynda Baloche investigates how to establish cooperative-learning practices that foster creativity

For more than 50 years, researchers have systematically investigated children’s curiosity, imagination, and creativity. Their work has showed that, in general, creativity tends to decrease as children “grow up.” Is this trend natural or should we be concerned? In one recent study, a group of children who were given a creativity test when they were young were revisited as adults. The creative thinking abilities they exhibited as children were much stronger predictors of their adult accomplishments than their IQ scores. For these adults, creativity seems to have been very important indeed.

What we know
● As children mature, their creativity often declines.
● Creativity and collaboration have been identified as important 21st Century Skills.
● Researchers have identified ways to develop and sustain the “natural” creativity of children. One finding is that cooperative contexts are important for creativity.
● Educators can utilize both creativity and cooperative-learning research to help them establish cooperative learning practices that foster creativity.

The 21st Century Skills movement specifically identifies creativity and collaboration as important skills. Yet schools often feel overwhelmed by mandated curriculum and testing requirements. It seems reasonable to ask whether there is time in the school day to encourage collaboration and creativity.

Researchers have learned a great deal about fostering creativity. And, fortunately, cooperative learning has the potential to foster attitudes towards learning – such as curiosity and hard work – that are essential to creativity. Here are six things that educators may want to consider when they wish to utilize the power of cooperative groups to foster creativity.

Develop student-to-student questioning

Young children might ask 100 questions a day. Researchers have observed that, in some classrooms, by the time students are age 12 or 13 they may not ask any questions for as long as two hours at a time.

It is important to encourage student-to-student questions and to explicitly teach good questioning strategies. For instance, students can be taught to:

  • Ask why… “Can you tell me why you liked that character the best?” “Can you tell me why you think that will work?”
  • Ask how… “Can you show me how you did that?”
  • Ask for more information… “Can you show me where you read that?” “Can you give me more detail to help me understand your idea?”

Give students enough time to ask questions, and signal the expectation that students need to respond thoughtfully to their peers. One strategy is to have each student interview a partner, cuing students that they need to be prepared to summarize and report what their partner said. This simple strategy helps them to develop their listening, questioning, and verbal organizing skills.

Signal that creativity is valued

Researchers have found it important to signal that creativity is appropriate and desired. It is also important to avoid using language that suggests creativity will be rewarded or rated.

For instance, it can be helpful to say:

  • “Be as creative as you can be.”
  • “List all the ideas you can.” But less helpful to say:
  • “The group with the most creative ___ will get ___.”
  • “See if you can list more ideas than the other groups.”
  • “That’s the most creative ___.”

Plan individual think time

Think time is important in cooperative group work. Some students tend to “jump right in” while others are still gathering their thoughts. Strategies to mitigate this include emphasizing think time with directions such as:

  • “Before you talk in your group, I want everyone to answer in their own mind.”
  • “Let’s have two minutes of quiet time so that everyone can write or make a quick sketch of their ideas. Then we will share with our groups.”
  • “Take a moment to create a mind movie of how you think this experiment might work (or how this story might end). Notice details, so that you can share in your group.”

Encourage group planning time and choices

Sometimes groups begin their work without discussing how they will proceed. This may indicate that they have not thought through the task carefully, or considered their options and different ways they might do their work. Research has repeatedly found that people work more creatively when they take the time to explore their work materials and consider multiple possibilities. Research also suggests that when children are given multiple choices, and encouraged to explore those choices, their work is more creative and they demonstrate greater task motivation.

Emphasize equal participation

Research suggests that the first person who talks in a group, or the first person who handles the materials, will be seen by other students as more important and influential. Unfortunately, this same research suggests that students who talk less and have less access to the materials are seen as less important and tend to learn less. Teachers need to find ways to ensure that all voices are heard and that groups acknowledge the ideas of all members.

Take time for reflection, planning, and closure

Closure is a powerful learning tool and when implemented in small groups can be both effective and efficient. To encourage future collaboration and creativity, make sure closure is positive. Make sure students consider both what they are learning and how they are learning. Strategies include asking students to consider:

  • What is something interesting that I learned?
  • How did my group help me learn?
  • What skills were important to our success?
  • What worked? Why did it work?
  • What did we learn from another group?
  • What would we like to try next time?
  • What do we want to learn more about? How could we learn it?

Prompts to encourage exploration
When teachers wish to invite students to explore multiple possibilities, they can encourage students with directions such as:
● “In your group, make a list of your questions and what you want to learn.”
● “Your group needs to make a plan. Together decide on your first two steps.”
● “Think of three ways your group could show us what you have learned.”

This is how groups of 10-year-olds described their plans:
● “We did it together first. Then we did it by ourselves to see who had a problem. Then if someone had a problem we would help.”
● “You have to take the time to split it up so all of you can do or be part of something instead of just one person.”
Prompts to encourage helpful behavior
Teachers can prompt helpful group behaviors with explicit directions such as:
● “Everyone needs to share an idea. Start with ___ in your group and go clockwise.”
● “Before you share your idea, you need to paraphrase what the person before you said.”
● “You need to include an idea from each person in your final work.”

This is how groups of 10-year-olds described what they learned about equal participation:
● “We listened to everything that someone said. We let them finish their idea.”
● “If you give all the ideas and someone keeps on saying ‘I have an idea’ let them give the idea, because if you don’t and that person’s idea is good, you won’t be able to use it.”
● “We each gave our thoughts and put together our ideas.”


In conclusion, a note of encouragement – be patient and persistent with yourself and with your students. Young children tend to be expressive but it often takes time for older students to believe that their more imaginative ideas are welcome. Just keep in mind that imagination is important for everyone.

About the author

Lynda Baloche is Co-president of the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education and professor (retired) at West Chester University, USA. She is author of The Cooperative Classroom: Empowering Learning and enjoys helping teachers and administrators to develop collaborative communities of learners.

Further reading

Scherer M (2013), Creativity Now! (Themed Issue), Educational Leadership, 70(5).

Baloche L and Platt T (1993), Sprouting Magic Beans: Exploring Literature through Creative Questioning and Cooperative Learning. Language Arts, 70(4), 264–71.

Baloche L (2005), Developing Cooperative Contexts for Creativity. In D Shepherd, (Editor), Creative Engagements: Thinking with Children, 53–9.

Amabile T (1996), Creativity in Context. Boulder, CO: Westview.


December 2015