Vol. 1. No. 3 R-10 March 1995
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Learning Together in the Multicultural Classroom

Elizabeth Coelho (1994)
Markham, Ontario: Pippin Publishing Limited
Pp. 108. ISBN 0-88751-064-7 (paper)
US $15.00

This short, readable addition to the Pippin Teacher's Library presents a systematic approach to cooperative learning and describes what such an approach can mean for teachers and students. The book is written for the teacher who works with culturally mixed student populations aged twelve and older. Although not targeted specifically to ESL teachers, TESL professionals will find this a valuable summary of arguments to support cooperative learning in classrooms, with lots of practical suggestions for designing activities and managing interaction. Coelho's work draws on research in three areas: cooperative learning, the language-across-the- curriculum movement, and second language acquisition studies showing that students learn languages best when they are engaged in real interaction.

The book has six short chapters, a foreword and afterword, appendices and references. The first three chapters lay out the research basis for Coelho's arguments in support of cooperative learning, the fourth chapter describes her system for supporting cooperative learning, and the last two chapters provide suggestions for beginning and advanced group work. Appendices to the book include a jigsaw crossword puzzle, worksheets to record the language that groups use to encourage cooperation, and an extended model of a jigsaw activity based on an environmental issue.

Coelho begins by debunking the "myth of healthy competition," showing how cooperative, not competitive, skills are most needed in today's economy, and how competition in classrooms supports a system in which few students can succeed. She then argues that cooperative learning is especially appropriate for multi-cultural classrooms. She draws on research showing that students from a variety of cultural backgrounds learn best through cooperative activities and that such activities enhance the learning of all students. The theoretical section of the book ends with a discussion of the relationship between language and learning, citing studies indicating that students in most classrooms get few opportunities to talk, even though small group conversation about subject matter is increasingly shown to be crucial for real learning to occur. Coelho particularly stresses the importance of group interaction for ESL students. Since ESL students typically spend a short time in special language classes, she argues that cooperative learning in the mainstream classroom is necessary for them to engage in the negotiation of understanding that leads to language acquisition. The research review is written in an accessible, non-academic style, and [-1-] the studies that she cites are listed in references at the end of the book.

Following these introductory chapters, the next section of the book lays out Coelho's components of successful classroom collaboration: group formation and management, task design, the social component, and exploratory talk. Coelho recommends heterogeneous groups of about four students, and suggests management routines which will help make the groups cohesive and cooperative. She gives examples of how cooperative tasks can be designed to foster interdependence and accountability, and provides suggestions for incorporating an evaluation component into group work. In addressing the social component of cooperative work, Coelho discusses the relationship between skills such as managing disagreement or turn-sharing and the functional language that students need in order to develop and use these social skills, and provides suggestions for ongoing evaluation of skills development. In her section on exploratory talk, Coelho encourages teachers to have students explicitly discuss the value of cooperative work, the needs of ESL students, and other issues that emerge from a move toward more cooperative learning.

The remainder of the book is filled with specific activity ideas. These include icebreakers for students to learn about each other, activities to reinforce the learning of new concepts, and activities to develop strategies for oral interaction. A focus on language skills for ESL students is a consistent component of the suggested activities, with assurances for teachers that such activities will also be of value to native speakers of English. Throughout, Coelho stresses careful observation of the students' group work by the teacher, who manages and guides the students in specific ways to achieve particular objectives that are developed as the teacher observes students talking and working together.

A strength of Coelho's book is her focus on the teacher as active manager and facilitator of classroom interaction. She emphasizes the importance of explaining task objectives and rationales to students, as well as bringing to their explicit attention the social skills they are developing as they work together. In Coelho's approach, the teacher is a researcher, constantly observing and identifying rough spots in group interaction, and then posing these difficulties to the whole class as problems to be discussed and addressed.

Coelho notes that one of the biggest barriers to teachers' doing cooperative activities is that they may have tried group work, found it to be chaotic or difficult to manage, and so went back to the more comfortable teacher-fronted classroom style. She encourages a thoughtful and deliberate approach to group work and has designed this book not as a manual of ready-made activities, but as a broad introduction to the value of cooperative learning, with a strategy [-2-] for implementing and managing cooperative work. As Coelho points out, designing cooperative activities takes a lot of effort, and her book appropriately ends with a call for teachers to work together to design such activities.

This book will be most valuable when used by groups of teachers working together. It could be used in a workshop setting to consider Coelho's suggestions for task management, evaluation, and supervision and structuring of activities. Teachers could then focus on how their own curriculum could be adapted to encourage cooperation. Although full of activity suggestions, the book will be of less value to the teacher who picks it up hoping for quick, recipe-like solutions to the problem of implementing cooperative learning.

Coelho convincingly argues that cooperative learning helps both ESL and non-ESL students in multicultural classrooms to develop more appropriate skills for their futures. She provides a thoughtful and innovative approach to implementing group work.

Mary J. Schleppegrell
University of California, Davis


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