I’m frustrated by my sixth graders. When they’re supposed to be working cooperatively, they are unfocused—it seems more like a social event. By middle school, shouldn’t students know how to work cooperatively? Or are they too immature? – G., Virgina
Immaturity is not an excuse. I’ve seen wonderful cooperative learning taking place in kindergarten classes, with teacher guidance, modeling, and monitoring.
One might assume students have specific skill sets and experiences, but I’ve learned never to take anything for granted. If the students attended different elementary schools, their science backgrounds and the emphasis schools placed on science investigations will vary. You may have to teach (or remind) students what cooperative learning in science looks like.
Defining roles is a key component. Common roles in middle level science labs include group leader, presenter, data recorder, measurer, equipment manager, liaison/questioner, artist/illustrator, online researcher, timekeeper, and notetaker. Depending on the size of the groups, some roles can be combined.
It may help to have students define the roles, giving them ownership in the process. Ask, “What would a data recorder do?” (Students must answer without using the words data or recorder.) You can add suggestions, especially on safety. Job descriptions could be shared as posters, student-created videos, or put into students’ notebooks. Rotate roles periodically so all students have a chance to experience each one.
If some students lack polished interpersonal skills, start with brief, structured activities. Model cooperative behaviors and share examples of appropriate (and inappropriate) language.
To keep the groups focused and on-task, be sure students understand the purpose and the learning goals for the project or investigation and monitor them as they work.
Middle schoolers are capable of working cooperatively, and their enthusiasm is a bonus!