Early Childhood Today: Tell us Dr. Katz, why is cooperative learning so important for children?
Lilian Katz, Ph.D.: We know that one of the major achievements of the first five or six years of life is communicative competence, which includes all aspects of language. Communicative skills develop when there's something meaningful for children to communicate about-when they are taking an active role. What are they doing? Who's going to visit? What do they want this person to show them? In cooperative learning, you have a purposeful, meaningful, and authentic context in which children can sharpen their communicative skills.
Also, as children are involved in doing research, reasoning, thinking things through, investigating, generating questions, predicting-they engage in what some people call "constructive controversy." They argue, but in a constructive way, about the nature of their findings, how to do something, information they've gathered, or the best way to represent something. And this sharpens their ability to communicate-a skill essential in life and in cooperative learning.
ECT: What can you tell us about the teacher's role?
Katz: During the preschool years, teachers have a much larger role in monitoring what goes on. They need to step in to make sure that every child is having a participatory experience and that no one is being left behind. This kind of monitoring is not nearly as important as children get older Of course, in any group you have a range of abilities and experience. Teachers can take advantage of this by encouraging children with more experience to help less experienced children. It's important to remember that the younger the child, the smaller the group that can successfully work together. That usually means about three or four children in a group in preschool-one or two more in kindergarten.
ECT: Can you give us a specific example of how a teacher can help children learn?
Katz: Certainly. In the first five years, young children become able to talk about what's meaningful to them, to accommodate other's opinions, and to take others' perspectives. Teachers have a huge role in this process. For example, in cooperative learning a group might need to report to classmates, so the teacher could say, "I'd like you to work for the next few minutes on how you plan to tell the story of ... ." Then everyone listens, and the teacher can encourage other children to comment and make suggestions.
ECT: In one of your most recent books, you describe the Project Approach to learning. Can you briefly describe this approach for us?
Katz: When I use the term Project Approach, I mean incorporating into the curriculum projects that are investigations into worthwhile topics. During project work, children usually do research in three phases. First, they establish what their questions are about the topic, what they already know, and what experience everyone in the group has had. In the second phase, they collect data, which usually includes fieldwork, going to various sites, interviewing people on the site, or bringing people into the classroom. In the third phase, the teacher helps them bring it all together and plan a culminating event to share what they've accomplished.
ECT: How does this approach support the idea of cooperative learning?
Katz: No matter what topic the group is investigating, the whole class works together in small groups. That's cooperative learning.
Children involved in project work are encouraged to serve the group needs and share responsibility for what's accomplished. In both cooperative learning and project work, the teacher encourages children to talk to one another. This helps them pay attention to each other's efforts and ideas. Children take to these kinds of exchanges very readily, but the teacher really needs to encourage this interaction.