Children are capable of incredible things and they have the capacity to surprise us in so many different ways and yet we don’t have high enough expectations of them. We need to trust our children and the young people we teach to do a good job and to take responsibility for their own learning journeys alongside us – if we trust our students then they will repay that trust many times over.

During my time as a teacher, and now as a teacher-educator, learning to trust my students is something that I have had to try to understand and then develop this trust in my work. In particular this has occurred through my use of cooperative learning – a student-centred pedagogical model that places emphasis on students’ learning together and being dependent on one another in order to learn. In my earliest attempts at using cooperative learning, and as I tried to move from a do-as-I-do approach, I put students into heterogeneous teams, tried to say less, and tried to move from being the ‘sage on the stage’, so to speak. But did I trust them? Did I trust them to learn for themselves without direct instruction from me? I’m not sure I did. At least, not fully. 

Looking back on those early units, it was clear to see that I felt a degree of frustration. I found it difficult to give students with the chance to learn with, by, for and from each other and create their own learning experiences (which were at times different to what I had in mind). But it was perseverance with cooperative learning that allowed me to see the benefits and, more importantly, see that students could do it for themselves and, in fact, learn more by making mistakes without me telling them to “stand like this”, “throw it like that”, or “use these teaching points to help” your peers.

Cooperative learning, I would argue, is one approach that promotes child-centred learning. My own experience tells me that using this approach can bring significant gains in learning, but in order for it to be ‘truly’ child-centred, the teacher needs to learn to trust their students. Certainly this takes time and for me, as someone who has been using cooperative learning for nearly a decade, there are still times when I’m not sure I always have the timings correct of when to say something, when to remain silent, when to pause group work and allow for reflection, and when to help them (my students) progress to the next task.

Dyson’s paper (explored in this blog) was one of the first to empirically explore cooperative learning in physical education. It highlights the benefits to student learning and the challenges for teachers in adopting and using Cooperative Learning. This paper not only helped me learn how to use cooperative learning but it also helped me feel that I was not alone in finding it difficult to use a new approach and trust my students to learn. I hope this blog and the paper does something similar and helps us all to understand that ‘breaking the norm’ is not easy and it is something that takes time and persistence.

The Paper

Dyson begins with the message that working in groups is not the same as working cooperatively and argues that cooperation needs to be planned for and monitored if it is going to occur in a meaningful and developmental way that enhances student learning. Drawing on a large body of work from other curricular subjects Dyson positions five elements as the keystones of cooperative learning. He then argues that only with the deliberate, sustained and careful use of these elements can ‘we’ say we have taught through the Cooperative Learning model. The five key elements need for success:

Positive Interdependence – students learning to depend on the rest of the group while working to complete the task.

Individual Accountability – The “answerability” of the student to the task.

Promotive Face-to-Face Interaction – literally head-to-head discussions around the group.

Small-Group and Interpersonal Skills – listening, shared decision-making, taking responsibility, learning to give and receive feedback and so on.

Group Processing – time allocated for discussing how well the group members achieve their goals.

The study itself explored the physical education experiences of two grade 5/6 classes and their physical education teacher. The students were assigned to learning teams (a very popular structure in cooperative learning) and assigned one of six roles: demonstrator, coach, checker, recorder, encourager, and trainer.

Dyson reported on four main themes:

Goals of learning – the main commitment of the teacher and the students was to develop motor and social skills and both parties saw “content achievement and cooperative success” as being important. These shared goals were a significant part of the reported success of the unit and as the teacher reported, “Cooperative Learning benefitted students’ skill development in many ways, such as the analysis of group members’ performance, the trusting atmosphere it created, and the increased accountability.

Cooperative learning roles – As each student has a specific responsibility there was a reported increase in positive interdependence and participation. While all the roles were seen as vital, the participants most frequently mentioned the roles of encourager and coach. The coach was valued for having good knowledge and a strong work ethic and was often preferred to the teacher in terms of giving instructions. In contrast to the focus on ‘academic achievement’ the encourager was “primarily concerned with social and affective goals.” The students were expected to encourage all their teammates and the teacher gave over time at the start of the unit so that students could learn this skill by focusing on encouraging one person.

Benefits of cooperative learning – One of the reported benefits was that using Cooperative Learning strategies “invited students to care about each other” and “develop a sense of responsibility for the group”. Significantly students of various abilities and personalities “seemed to gain from this learning format.” Importantly “those who were less skilled than others and therefore normally reluctant to participate were not marginalised.” Of similar importance was the reported finding that “highly skills students did not seem disadvantaged” by the model.

The implementation of cooperative learning – there were three aspects stressed in this theme. Firstly, the use of Cooperative Learning allowed the teacher to shift some of the responsibility for learning to the students. She did this by structuring lessons “so students could take a dominant role in the own learning by deciding what skills they needed to practice.” This approach was developed through the second reported aspect - identifying student strengths. The teacher went out of her way to help student understand the “strengths of their group members and to devise a strategy for applying those strengths.” Thirdly, despite her confidence in the model the teacher reported that she constantly reflected on and tried to improve her implementation.

In summarising the paper, Dyson reminds the reader that setting up cooperative learning takes time and active supervision. However, once students learned to learn through the model then a “trusting atmosphere” was created “in which to learn and make mistakes.” Significantly students learned to “care about and take responsibility for others’ skill improvement.”

Dyson highlights the significant benefits to learners and their learning when they are taught through cooperative learning. Students become more independent and interdependent learners where the learning environment is inclusive, supportive and challenging for all.  Yet despite these gains, cooperative learning in physical education still might best be described as innovation. We know now from my own accounts, and from Dyson’s, that it takes time for the teacher to learn how to use and trust their students. But is it too hard to use? Is this investment of time too much? I would be really interested to know how we can make this easier – so I suppose my questions are (1) what has helped you in being able to trust your students when using child-centred approaches? And (2) how can such changes in pedagogy be made easy while still better serving the needs of learners?

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- ThinkActChange (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Dyson B. (2001/). Cooperative Learning in an elementary physical education program. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 20(3): 264-281.