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Co-operative learning is widely recognised as a pedagogical practise that promotes learning and socialisation. Although there are many different forms of co-operative learning, consensus exists among the researchers about its positive effects on the student achievement. Numerous of studies that have been published over the past three decades could prove and demonstrate that forms of co-operative learning have benefits for the intellectual development and child’s social gains. Co-operative learning affects the ability to construct knowledge and to build inter-group relations, enhances the child’s self-esteem, and promotes the child’s problem-solving skills (Liu, 1992). Research (Slavin,1995) on co-operative learning has further indicated that co-operative learning improves students’ attitude toward school, learning and others. In fact, Johnson and Johnson who are well-known for their research in this field, argue that there may be no other pedagogical practises that simultaneously achieve such diverse outcomes.
Most of the research took place in the range of primary school up to high school, but it is interesting to examine how co-operative learning can be used and is used in the early childhood institutions, especially in the German kindergarten. Over the years, early childhood education has stressed the importance of co-operative learning for the young child’s development, and it is proved that the early learning of co-operative skills produce a long lasting effect and increase the probability of children’s success throughout their school years (Lui, 1992).
In spite of knowing the benefits and the positive effectiveness for the child’s development, co-operative learning is not a common practise in schools for several reasons. Educators are confused about what co-operative learning is, are not well-educated in the techniques and have a lack of discipline to implement the basics of co-operative learning in the classroom.
In order to these findings, the purpose of the present study was to examine early childhood teacher’s attitude towards co-operative learning, how they define co-operative learning and on how far they are taught in co-operative techniques. Is co-operative learning an appropriate pedagogical practise in early childhood institutions and if, do they apply co-operative learning in the classrooms? Consists an interdependence between the teachers attitude towards co-operative learning and its implementation in early childhood institutions? It is also in the studies interest to discover if the teacher observes the above named benefits for their students while using co-operative learning. And, last but not least, do they see limitations or problems in applying co-operative learning?
° Overview of co-operative learning
Human species seem to have a co-operation imperative; it is an inescapable part of our life. We co-operate every day all day long with our family, work and community. Throughout history, we accomplish feats what anyone could not achieve alone, and even our body is made up of several systems that all are co-operating together. Therefore, co-operation is a non-conscious goal of education (Johnson & Johnson, 1991). In a more complex growing world, the young generation needs to be taught social skills, which are not innate, to direct their own learning, work with others, accept other point of views, respect others and develop ways of dealing with complex issues and problems that require different kind of expertise. It exists a wide variety of reports on education, such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s SCANS Commission report of the year 1991, dealing with the skills who will be needed in the 21st century (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999) and these reports stress the importance of co-operation in classrooms.
Co-operative learning itself is a pedagogical technique where students work together in small groups and share a common goal. Within co-operative activities individuals seek for outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and to all other group members, in fact, all members gain from each others benefit. Students receive an introduction of the teacher, are organised into small groups and work through the assignment until all group members successfully understand and complete it. The students perceive within that work, that they can only reach the learning goals if and only if the other members of the group reach it, and for that reason, positive interdependence develops (Johnson & Johnson, 1991). Besides implementing co-operative learning in educational institutions, teacher could also use competitive or individualistic learning structures, competitive situations are ones in which students work against each other to achieve a goal that only one or a few can attain and there is a negative interdependence among goal achievements. Individualistic situations require the students to work alone to accomplish goals unrelated to the classmates, follow strictly a self-interest and be indifferent to the classmates. Both techniques are only appropriate under a very limited set of conditions and require a number of skills that must be taught to the students (Johnson & Johnson, 1991). However, co-operative learning promotes both, the individual efforts and the group achievement. It develops a positive interdependence and enhances besides the mental potential also the social skills and facilitates the personal growth. Some authors distinguish between co-operative and collaborative learning, collaborative learning involves in their point of view the mutual engagement of participants in a co-ordinated effort to jointly solve problems together while co-operation involves a division of labour across participants and thereby each person is responsible for a part to solve the problem, what is meant to be solved (Meijden & Veenman, 2003). Despite, in the present study both expressions will be used interchangeably to refer to learning environments in which small groups of students work together and share a common goal.
° Theoretical background
The most influential perspectives on co-operative learning is the socio-cognitive theory based on the work of Jean Piaget (1926) and Lew Vygotsky (1978). Both scientists emphasised the role of the social context for the child’s construction of the knowledge and mental development itself and maintained that peer interactions provide necessary contexts for students to verify their own cognitive constructions. And, they propose that children’s knowledge, ideas, attitudes and values develop through interactions with others. In Piagets mind, interaction among students will lead in itself to improve the cognitive structure that means in practise, students will learn from the content of the discussions, problems will arise and a so called “disequilibrium” occurs. By disequilibrium is meant, the former cognitive structure does not match with the experiences in the reality so the student has to revise the structure. Only through this re-construction of the cognitive structures, higher quality understanding will emerge and equilibration is saved. He believed that discussion with peers are more valuable than with adults because the interaction between an adult and a child is unequal and asymmetrical, what destroys the condition of reciprocity needed to achieve a cognitive equilibrium. In contrast, Vygotsky established in his socio-cultural work the “zone of proximal development”, what defines the zone between the actual developmental level and the level of the potential development. In other words, he stressed the importance of the interaction with more able persons, for instance adults or collaborative work with peers and argues that operating within one another proximal zone promotes the child’s growth. He claims, what is first extrinsic, will be intrinsic (Oerter & Montada, 2003).
Throughout these perspectives, co-operative learning requires 5 basic elements to implement in co-operative groups to make it work. Not all group work is collaborative, placing students in groups and telling them to work together does not in and of itself result in co-operation. Therefore, Johnson and Johnson developed the following and essential components of co-operative learning who need to be applied in collaborative work. These are: positive interdependence, individual and group accountability, face-to-face promotive interaction, interpersonal and small group skills, group processing (Johnson & Johnson, 1991). If all these conditions will comply co-operative learning will work and the above named benefits will occur.
As written, in literature not many studies of collaborative learning in early childhood institutions exist. One of the few examines the early experiences of co-operative learning in an American preschool classroom (Lui, 1992). This research indicates that children are involved in small group learning situations and that co-operative work has benefits for both intellectual and social development. The scientist claims that play is the children’s way of learning and early experiences of collaborative learning can be observed in co-operative play situations. The impact of co-operative learning is first of all that it enhances the children’s ability to construct knowledge, second that it helps to build healthy inter-group relations, third, that it enhances the child’s self-esteem and last, that it promotes the children’s problem-solving skills. They conclude that co-operative techniques can easily be used in preschool and that it produces a long lasting effect on children’s development and increase their success throughout their school years. Another research, done by Kotloff, investigates a Japanese preschool of collaborative learning and could confirm the above named outcomes (Kotloff, 2000). A different scientist could demonstrate through examining 5 different studies on collaborative learning, that the benefits of co-operative learning are enhanced when groups do not exceed four members, are gender- balanced and of mixed ability, instruction is designed to meet the students needs and teacher have been trained on how to implement this pedagogical strategy (Gillies, 2003).
To summarise, the literature could prove that co-operative learning can be applied to early childhood institutions, produces long lasting effects on the children’s development, and has social benefits for a child as well.
Most of the former studies examined the role of co-operative learning in the child’s developmental process; the present study is dedicated to the practical realisation and the teacher’s perception. With regard to the co-operative learning, the specific purpose of the present study was to examine the early childhood teacher’s attitude towards co-operative learning and the implementation of co-operative learning in the classroom. First, this study expects that most of the teachers do not know what co-operative learning exactly defines. And second, it is expected that most of the teachers do not implement co-operative learning in early childhood institutions. The assumption is that most of the educators are not well-taught in the techniques of collaborative learning and are insecure about using it. And, it is supposed that between both factors interdependence consists. If the educator is having a positive attitude towards co-operative learning, it is expected that the educator uses co-operative techniques more often in class than dissenting educators.
To rationalise the first expectation, co-operative learning is not simply putting the students in groups and make them work. As written above, collaborative learning has to have a certain structure and to implement the five basic elements (Johnson & Johnson, 1991) as positive interdependence, individual and group accountability, face-to-face promotive interaction, interpersonal and small group skills and group processing to make it work. It depends on the teacher’s education and experience if they are informed about this structure. Regarding the second expectation, co-operative learning as a pedagogical technique is infrequent used because lots of educators are confused about what co-operative learning is, are not well-educated in these techniques and have a lack of discipline to implement the basics of co-operative learning in the classroom (Lui, 1992). Teachers do need to have discipline to structure the classes and it does take efforts for them.
As former studies (Johnson & Johnson, 1991) could proof, co-operative learning in school promotes learning and socialisation and leads the students to work co-operatively together. They learn to give and receive help, share their ideas and listen to other students’ perspectives, seek new ways of clarifying differences, resolving problems, and constructing new understandings and knowledge. The result is that students attain higher academic outcomes by learning co-operatively. These former outcomes stress the relevance of examining co-operative learning as a pedagogical practise. As shown above, most of the former studies in this field took place in the range of primary school up to high school and examined the role of co-operative learning in the classroom. They dealt with the outcomes for every single child by implementing co-operative learning. The present study itself gains insight into co-operative learning in early childhood institutions. It examines the value of implementing co-operative learning in the early childhood education for a child. Not many studies exist in early childhood institutions until today. Regarding to the studies of Lui (1993) and Kotloff (1993) who both examined early childhood institutions, the present study looks from a different point of view, namely the educator’s attitude towards applying co-operative learning in the early childhood classrooms. The relevance in the present study laid on the teachers side. For reviewing the main interest of the study, the research question are presented below.
1. What do early childhood educator know about co-operative learning? (open question)
2. What is the early childhood teachers attitude towards co-operative learning in classroom?
3. Do early childhood educator implement co-operative learning in class?
4. And, consists a relation between the educators’ attitude towards co-operative learning and the educators’ frequency of implementing co-operative learning in class?