Powerful idea: learn from each other

`IT used to be,'' says David Johnson, ``that young people worked closely with their parents all day long - either on a farm or in a small business. That's where they learned character - and responsibility to a community.'' Dr. Johnson and his brother Roger are the developers of a powerful classroom teaching method called ``cooperative learning,'' which implicitly demands that students learn to work, communicate, and listen to one another on a daily basis. Students take responsibility for each other's progress, both academic and social.

The method is developing a groundswell of approval around the country. Elementary and high schools alike - in districts from Connecticut to California - are picking it up.

The idea is simple: Class members split into groups of from two to five students after receiving instruction from the teacher. While that's not new, sustained, formal attention to structured group work is. Whether it's a science, math, or history problem, students must work through the material until all members understand it. Day after day, they must put aside personal differences and work together.

A Greenwich, Conn., high school teacher said ``cooperative learning'' helped the ``greasers, preppies, freaks, and jocks - who all sat in different corners on the first day of class - come to be on close speaking terms by the end of the year.'' Students learn to drop stereotypes. The method demands a lot of the teachers, who must learn to work closely with groups.

In Linda Shirley's New Lebanon Elementary School class in Greenwich, Conn., pairs of fifth-graders write the answers to math word problems on a sheet of paper until they disagree on one. Then they discuss it. ``It might be a simple calculation problem, or a procedural mistake - either way, they work it out,'' says Ms. Shirley.

``Children come to realize there's an academic task to be accomplished,'' says Carol Sarabun, the principal at New Lebanon. ``They get involved in this - come to have a stake in helping each other. I've seen some incredible discussions going on.''

Student learning isn't just a matter of passively hearing facts imparted, says Greenwich curriculum supervisor Susan Ellis. Students need to verbalize knowledge, turn it over in their minds - think about it from different angles. ``They need to talk about what they are thinking and learning while they are thinking and learning,'' she says.

The Johnson brothers, who have offices at the University of Minnesota, say the paradox of modern education is that while schools need to help students be autonomous, research shows that such development comes from caring, supportive relationships, strong friendships, and reinforcement from adults.

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