by JOANN BENZ, Extension Assistant Youth and Family Logan Extension Unit

and JUDITH M. TAYLOR, Extension Educator Youth Development Springfield, University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service

Have you ever had youth work in a group, but not as a team? If so, then you know there is more to teamwork than just working in groups! Teamwork is one of the important life skills we teach in the 4-H program. Current 4-H curricula that use the experiential learning model sometimes encourage teamwork, but seldom incorporate teamwork in the learning process itself. On the other hand when youth are involved with an approach called cooperative learning they learn teamwork along with subject matter. In addition, their self-esteem is improved, they develop higher level thinking skills, their academic achievement is increased, and they show more empathy for other’s experiences. 

Cooperative learning is working together to accomplish shared goals. Cooperative learning involves structuring groups to take advantage of people’s uniqueness and differences as well as their abilities. It is different from traditional group learning, in that each person is not only responsible for his portion of the work, but for the learning of others in the group. 

There are many variations of the cooperative learning model, most researchers agree cooperative learning must include “positive interdependence” and “individual accountability” to gain its benefits. Positive interdependence is achieved when group members are concerned about and depend upon the performance of all group members as well as their own. Individual accountability refers to the process by which every member is checked for mastery of the subject or individual contributions. 

Some cooperative learning professionals are “structures”. Structures are the way any activity or lesson is carried out cooperatively. Educators first select the topic/subject the youth are to learn, then select the most effective structure for teaching that topic. 

Here’s an example of that process. A 4-H leader/professional would like 4-H members to learn about the parts of a hog and has chosen the crossword puzzle from “Squeal appeal”, NCR 423, pg. 10, 1993 as the activity (please note that terms are included with the puzzle). Next the leader/educator selects a “jigsaw” structure. In the jigsaw structure each person selects or is assigned part of the terms for the puzzle. As the group tries to solve the puzzle, each person contributes his or her terms when appropriate. As with experiential learning, cooperative learning always includes a processing of the activity and identifying goals for the future. Cooperative learning processing includes processing of both the subject matter goal and the life skill goal. When this example activity was tried in one 4-H club the president reported, “That was the best 4-H meeting I have ever gone to.” She also was excited that both younger and older members participated. 

The U.S. Department of Labor’s SCANS report includes “participates as a member of a team” as one of the foundation skills needed in the workplace. This skill is defined as ‘working cooperatively with others and contributing to a group with ideas, suggestions, and effort. Demonstrating competence in participating as a member of a team includes doing one’s own share of tasks necessary to complete a project; encouraging team members by listening and responding appropriately to their contributions; building on individual strengths; resolving difference for the benefit of the team; taking personal responsibility for accomplishing goals; and responsibly challenging existing procedures, policies, or authorities”. 

Experiential learning and cooperative learning can be used together to enhance each process to it’s greatest potential. When teamwork is the life skill being developed, the experiential learning cycle is strengthened by cooperative learning. Experiential learning may be individual, competitive, or cooperative. Cooperative learning is learning in an interdependent group. This interdependent group will not only learn the subject/project skills, but gain the life skills that come from cooperative learning. 

When teamwork is the life skill focus, Extension professionals need to review their own teaching techniques and continue to ‘make the best, better” by incorporating cooperative learning.