Working together to implement co-operative learning

The advantages of pupils working co-operatively are well documented, yet use of co-operative learning in classrooms is limited, largely because it requires a staged approach to implementation. Wendy Jolliffe cites success in a network of schools in England, thanks to support from a team of in-house experts

Terms such as collaborative group work, peer learning, teamwork, and co-operative learning are often used interchangeably when referring to classroom practices. Genuine co-operative learning between pupils requires certain conditions, particularly “positive interdependence”.

What we know
● Co-operative learning has limited use in classrooms due to the complexity of implementation.
● Professional development should enable teachers to understand why co-operative learning works and how to implement it, and to experience it first-hand.
● Implementation needs to be staged to ensure pupils develop the skills of co-operating.
● Long-term success requires teachers to work together supported by in-house experts.

Positive interdependence exists when pupils know they can succeed in a task only when they work together and where each pupil is required to fulfil their part. Merely placing pupils in pairs or small groups and expecting them to work together, will likely lead to failure unless the teacher has considered the key ingredients that enable co-operation to thrive.

Research over four decades has demonstrated the benefits of co-operative learning in supporting academic achievement and developing interpersonal skills. Yet large-scale studies in England and elsewhere in Europe suggest that in most primary classrooms, although children sit in groups they rarely work together as groups.

This culminated in a call in 2014–2015 by the European Union for research projects to provide new approaches to teaching, learning, and assessment that require collaborative practices, and for support for teachers to be equipped with the skills necessary to implement them.

Our study in England investigated a network of schools working together that demonstrated success in developing cooperative learning. Together with findings from other research on implementation, it provides useful indicators for schools wishing to develop this pedagogy.

Three steps to co-operative learning

Research studies indicate that there are three main phases in implementing co-operative learning:

  • Pre-training preparation for teachers to develop a depth of understanding of co-operative learning, its constituent elements, and why it works. They may also need to reconcile personal beliefs about learning and teaching with this perspective.
  • Training for teachers including opportunities to experience co-operative learning first-hand.
  • The final phase involves sustained support to ensure transfer of co-operative learning to the classroom and maintaining long-term success. This staged approach to implementation proved crucial in the study cited below.

New tricks for all

Teachers need to understand not only how to structure co-operative learning experiences with appropriate tasks, but also how to support pupils in developing skills to engage in co-operative learning. Students need to learn social skills for working together, managing conflict, and reviewing the group’s progress. These factors require particular support to enable teachers to gradually implement co-operative practices.

Our research was carried out between 2004 and 2009 in a network of two secondary schools and eight primary schools in an area of high social and economic deprivation in the north of England. The schools had maintained close links over several years, supported by funding from various government initiatives to help to raise standards for pupils.

Teachers on board

The agreed focus for this network was to improve pupils’ attainment through the use of co-operative learning. By 2008, initial research indicated that the central aim of implementing co-operative learning was achieved. Teachers’ questionnaire answers indicated a 100% (n=97) response to the use of co-operative learning in classrooms; 85.7% of respondents reported that they were either confident or very confident in using co-operative learning and more than 90% of teachers claimed a positive impact on pupils from their use of co-operative learning.

The study aimed to provide a detailed picture of the factors that contributed to this success. We interviewed each head teacher and facilitator (an in-house expert in co-operative learning), together with observations in schools and focus-group interviews with pupils from the observed lessons. Minutes of meetings between the facilitators over five years provided an additional source of data on the implementation of co-operative learning.

The key players
● Headteachers provide sustained support at the whole-school level for the successful implementation of cooperative learning.
● Facilitators play a vital role for cooperation and support within and between schools, and in and out of the classroom.
● Teachers need to provide structure to the learning, and support to the students.
● Students need new skills of cooperation, managing conflict, and reviewing group progress.

Mutual support

Interviews with head teachers and facilitators in 2008 explored the contribution of the network. This highlighted strong partnership and mutual support, and indicated that the role of the network provided independence and ownership over the curriculum at a time of prescriptive national initiatives.

This was demonstrated by the earlier introduction of the Success for All literacy programme in four primary schools in the network in 2000, which provided the stimulus to develop co-operative learning across all schools in the network in 2003. This innovation was due largely to the level of support the network afforded the schools; one long-standing head teacher commented that this support made them “totally independent from the local authority”.

Pupils share and mentor

Observations in seven classrooms in different schools each demonstrated that the children were developing skills for co-operating. Pupils revealed a strong willingness to share in groups, and they were observed mentoring each other.

The facilitators’ enthusiasm and developing expertise were key factors in driving forward the continued development of co-operative learning in their schools. They formed a strongly supportive group over five years; this was a long-term and sustained project, backed by head teachers.

The facilitators proved powerful in the cross-fertilisation of practices, and as a source of psychological support. One facilitator commented that: “The opportunity to work alongside likeminded colleagues has been invaluable”. Facilitators worked alongside the teachers, team-teaching and coaching, and provided teachers with confidence to use co-operative learning.


Effective implementation of co-operative learning requires a sustained and collaborative process. This case study provides an example of successful implementation by creating a network of schools that work together, supported by a community of facilitators who provide in-house support. Implementation of co-operative learning requires schools to establish supportive professional learning communities for it to be successful and sustained.

About the author

Wendy Jolliffe is Head of Scarborough School of Education at the University of Hull and has strategic responsibility for Teacher Education. Her research interests and doctoral study focused on the implementation of cooperative learning. Wendy has published several articles and a book on the subject: Cooperative Learning in the Classroom: Putting it into Practice (Sage, 2007).

Further reading

Gillies RM and Boyle M (2010), Teachers’ Reflections on Cooperative Learning: Issues of Implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 933–40.

Jolliffe W (2015), Bridging the Gap: Teachers Cooperating Together to Implement Cooperative Learning. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education. 43(1), 70–82.

Kyndt E, Raes E, Lismont B, Timmers F, Cascallar E, Dochy F (2013), A Meta-analysis of the Effects of Face-to-face Cooperative Learning. Do Recent Studies Falsify or Verify Earlier Findings? Educational Research Review 10, 133–49.

Sharan Y (2010), Cooperative Learning for Academic and Social Gains: Valued Pedagogy, Problematic Practice. European Journal of Education, 45(2), 300–13.

Slavin R (1995), Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


December 2015