When we talk about basic skills we usually talk about the 3 R's, but "knowledge and skills are of little use if the student cannot apply them in cooperative interaction with other people. . . There is nothing more basic than learning to use one's knowledge (collaboratively)" (Knight et al., 1982). Perhaps the most basic skills of all are those that help us work and play together.

The skills students learn to be productive members of groups have been well-documented in the literature on cooperative learning. Johnson et al, 1984 found that groups generally develop through four predictable stages:
  • Stage 1: Forming - Establishing roles, directionless stabs at task.
  • Stage 2: Functioning - Giving and receiving information and clarification.
  • Stage 3: Formulating - Opinion sharing, criticism, tentative joint decisions.
  • Stage 4: Fermenting - Implementation, joking, release of tension, mutual support, off-task discussion, building of friendships, evaluation.

How a given group functions in each of these stages depends on many variables (the task, the personalities of the group members, level of social skills, etc.) In traditional groupwork, much of the functioning of the group is left to chance: the group is given a task, a certain amount of time to do the work, and a warning that everyone is expected to do their share. Cooperative learning differs from traditional groupwork in that a cooperative group initially would receive instruction and guided practice using the skills necessary to divide the job equitably and provide support for each to perform a role. In a properly structured cooperative learning lesson, it would not be possible for one student to dominate or do all the work and teacher intervention would be minimal.

Teaching Getting-Along Skills

  • Cooperative skills have to be taught. Structuring lessons cooperatively is not enough. Students are not born with interpersonal and group skills, nor do they magically appear when we need them. Johnson et al, 1984

  • It is wise teaching practice to make no assumptions about student's social skills. Direct teaching of the skills required for the task at hand is always the safest approach. Male et al., 1989

In cooperative learning social skills are most often taught one or two at a time and, since transfer of the skill must also be taught, they are only taught when they are going to be used in the task at hand (Johnson et al., 1984). According to Johnson and Johnson (1989), the steps involved in teaching a skill are:
  1. Help students see the need for the skill.
  2. Explore what a student or group using the skill would look like and sound like.
  3. Practice and practice again. Use role playing and real groupwork situations.
  4. Have students self-assess their use of the skill. "Name three things you did well and one thing you could have done better."
  5. Persevere with practice until the behavior no longer feels awkward or phony and the skill is internalized.

It is important that the skills to accept, appreciate and take advantage of differences in interests and abilities and styles be taught to the whole class -- not to the individuals in one group with a problem. It would be nice if we could anticipate all of those problems and teach the skills to deal with them in advance. But often the whole class will need to get together to work out a solution to a problem after it emerges. Direct teaching of group skills involves modeling and role-playing what the skill looks like and what it sounds like. The same technique can be used to help students develop a repertoire of appropriate responses to inappropriate remarks such as put-downs, personal attacks, etc. (Schniedewind and Salend, 1987).

What are the skills that students need to learn to be effective group members? There are numerous lists in the literature but the list in Johnson and his colleagues (1984) is especially useful in that they group the skills under each of the four stages that teams typically go "through when working on a project:

  1. Moving into cooperative learning groups without undue #noise and without bothering others
  2. Staying with the group
  3. Using quiet voices
  4. Encouraging participation of all members
  5. Using names
  6. Eye contact
  7. No "put-downs"
  8. Space respecting

  1. Stating the purpose of the assignment
  2. Stating time limits
  3. Planning of procedures
  4. Expressing support and acceptance verbally and non-verbally
  5. Asking for help
  6. Offering help
  7. Paraphrasing
  8. Energizing with enthusiasm or humor
  9. Describing one's feelings when appropriate

  1. Summarizing from memory
  2. Seeking accuracy
  3. Seeking elaboration
  4. Demanding vocalization
  5. Asking others to plan out loud
  6. Seeking clever ways to remember important ideas

  1. Criticizing ideas, not people
  2. Articulating areas of disagreement (as a third party)
  3. Synthesizing ideas
  4. Asking for justification
  5. Extending another's idea
  6. Probing for deeper understanding
  7. Generating more ideas
  8. Checking against reality

Teachers experienced in cooperative learning distill this list to fewer skills that they have found particularly effective in keeping groups on track. For example, the following "people skills" were permanently displayed in Nancy Nameth's classroom in Eugene:
  • Begin promptly and quietly
  • Stay on task physically and mentally
  • 20 centimeter voices
  • Make everyone feel good
  • Watch the time
  • Reinforce
  • Disagree politely

In deciding to spend valuable class time teaching skills of cooperation and motivating students to work together, the teacher assumes that students who are properly skilled and motivated will learn the material so that they can contribute to the group. This assumption is supported in numerous studies (Wilkinson, 1986; Slavin, 1983; Yager, 1985; Ziegler, 1981; Dishi et al, 1983; Ascher, 1986a; Hansell and Slavin, 1979; Warring et al., 1985; Hansell et al., E1981; Slavin et al., 1982; Glasser, 1986; Kagan, 1989; Slavin, 1989; ESlavin, 1988; Slavin, 1987; Ascher, 1986b; Johnson et al., 1984).