Diverse society – Diverse classrooms

How student diversity benefits social diversity with a special focus on cooperative learning within multicultural groups.

Teachers: Marie Carroll, Fergal Timmons, Maura Connelly and Conor Devaney

Location: Borgarnes, Iceland


Our course

The idea of ‘Cooperative Learning’ is the main topic for discussion for the week. This, coupled with the idea of ‘Intercultural Education’ is our main focus and we will bring back ideas, templates and methods that will be implemented in the classroom in RCC on return.

What is cooperative learning and why do it?

We learned that ‘Cooperative Learning’ is a method used quite a lot in classrooms in Iceland. Every classroom in almost every country of the world has a diverse range of students in it. There are students for whom the language of instruction is not their native language, there are students with special educational needs, there are students who come from many different cultures and there are a whole range of personality types also.

Co-operative learning is a system of learning whereby the students are at the centre of the learning. It is a system of learning that enhances key life skills and competencies that students can bring with them as they leave school while also it allows for the curriculum to be learned in a way that allows for them to be more active and for the teacher to become more of an observer of the learning. We, as teachers must realise that students are part of a society that will need many different skills and competences in order to enter adulthood and to best adapt to an ever-changing world. If one was to look at any job application in any part of the world one would find the same skills are always required, such as critical thinking skills, listening skills, communication skills, problem solving skills, empathetic skills etc. If we reflect upon our classroom, we often will not see any of these skills being developed. We must then ask ourselves, what are we preparing our students for?


Who benefits from Cooperative Learning?

During the first two days we observed situations which clearly demonstrated how cooperative learning ensures the students must take charge of the lesson. Often teachers this will be done in very structured groups. The teacher will divide the class in groups of, say, four. It is essential the teacher takes great care on selecting the groups for each task in such a way that they are mixed ability and that they all have additional assigned roles to the overall outcome of the task. This is essential or cooperative learning will not take place. We have all seen groupwork that does not work (e.g. the dominant student will take over and complete the task him/herself, the student with a specific SEN will not be given equal opportunity or the student for whom English is a second language will not understand the task and become disengaged). Cooperative learning is a method that caters for all of these individuals. We must not just give a group a task and let them complete it independently. We must carefully issue instructions, assign additional roles, ensure there is time for everyone to speak and design the task such that the other students on the team must listen or they cannot complete the task. Students must be creative….

New classroom practices – the role of the teacher

Cooperative learning cannot take place immediately without previously establishing new norms and new rules. Firstly, there must be trust. The most difficult thing for teachers is often the idea of ‘letting go’ of the classroom. We must step back and allow for noise and active learning to take place. We must move from the traditional lecture type scenario to a student led situation. We all tend to agree on the skills we would wish our students to learn, however, we do not always facilitate a classroom environment that allows for those skills to be developed. Cooperative learning most definitely facilitates all of these competences to flourish in every individual.


Group work is not equal to Cooperative Learning

On our first training day in Borgarnes, we observed the differences between group work and cooperative learning in an Icelandic setting. Often teachers like to try to use groupwork and hope it is effective. In contrast, we learned cooperative learning is always group work but group work is not always cooperative.  We must ask ourselves why the students or the teacher did not like it to make us not try it again. Groupwork often is given without clearly identifying a structure and roles. Individuals are not accountable for their work. There is not equal participation (one pupil may take over and others may be left out for various reasons). In this way groupwork can actually end up being a microcosm of the injustices of society rather than being an equal process where every team member is valued. To move from this situation which we may be familiar with to a space where real learning takes place will take time. We must have very structured groups, designed according to personality and skills. All members of the group are responsible for everyone in the group understanding the topic or task. Everyone has one ADDITIONAL special role within the group (e.g. Facilitator/Organiser, Reporter, Material Manager, Planner/Timekeeper, Harmonizer). The tasks must require interaction, cooperation and a range of skills and abilities. Nobody can be finished until everyone has finished. We observed this in action and it was amazing to see a mixed ability class so engaged. This is something that works, we just need to change our mindset.


Is this practical for teachers in an Irish setting with such dense curricula to cover?

As a group we reflected, thus far, on what we have learned and we feel there are huge benefits to using this methodology. However, the main concerns appear to centre around the nature of our school system. We have a very pressurised exam centred system with dense curricula which is in contrast to a lot of Scandinavian countries, including Iceland, where there is a much broader scope for learners and less emphasis on exams at an early stage. Cooperative learning allows for both knowledge to be gained while also enhancing the skills and competences students need for life. In Ireland, we all agreed, that there is often a lot of knowledge gained for exams but we do not teach the students the skills required for the adult or the professional world. This is where cooperative learning comes in.


We also had some free time….


This course is quite intense during the day but we do have some time to see some of this beautiful country. We were lucky enough to have a very clear night Saturday night and so we saw a fantastic display of Northern Lights in the sky. This is a Geographers heaven! See some photos below.


Ms Connelly + Northern Lights

Gullfoss Waterfall



Diverse society – Diverse classrooms

How student diversity benefits social diversity with a special focus on cooperative learning within multicultural groups

Teachers: Marie Carroll, Fergal Timmons, Maura Connelly and Conor Devaney

Location: Borgarnes, Iceland

DAY 3 + 4


Today we discussed assessment strategies. There are many different nationalities and education systems represented on this course so it was particularly interesting to see how assessment is used as a tool for progress in other countries. One noticeable aspect of the Irish system that is not a part of any other system represented here is the idea of the standardised state exam. This is unheard of in any of the other countries and so this was the starting point for a lot of reflection that took place today on forms of assessment.

Types of assessment we use

There are two main forms of assessment we can use in a school setting; summative and formative. Summative assessment tasks are generally a traditional ‘test’ which is usual written and completed after a unit of work is finished. Standardised tests such as our Junior Cert or Leaving Cert are also summative assessments. 


Formative assessments focus more on ongoing monitoring of progress and achievement with feedback. There are many ways to do this and most can take place in the classroom on a daily basis. Examples include; group work assessment, performance/creative assessment, peer assessment, self-assessment and portfolio/project assessment. Formative is also used unbeknownst to students during the co-operative learning process.

Students must have a chance to improve and monitoring must be regular. Otherwise we will not know where we stand until the end which leads to frustration. We should cater for all students and so we should consider our forms of assessment with great care. Our traditional written exams, which are summative assessments, tend not to examine the skills we try to learn in the classroom. They are usually a test of isolated facts which can be memorised. It then requires written skills to put it together coherently in a given timeframe. This type of exam will only appeal to a minority of students and because students are not using different skills, the knowledge is not retained long term. We discovered a study whereby 80% of students failed the exact same written exam which was given one week after their real written exam was completed. This shows that retention of knowledge does not happen when crammed for a written exam. In Ireland we must practice a lot for these types of written exams because our school system requires us to sit summative state exams.


We must, at the very least, mix our forms of assessment. If we use some formative assessment such as peer assessment, for example, students get the chance to take responsibility which increases motivation and engagement. We can then combine teacher and peer feedback for each individual. Before good formative assessment can take place there must be clear criteria. Often the creation of rubrics is a good idea so that students have clarity as to how they can improve. Once they have the rubric they can see progression and have a greater chance of success. It is advised to link assessment to the real world. This is where, sometimes, our written exams fail us. We could use performance or creative assessment strategies so that it is an ‘authentic’ experience. Learners can produce, design, experiment, create a game, create a tv interview talk show, make a film, make a map, use music etc. This is far more meaningful than a written test as students can see its purpose and are often learning the knowledge and facts without even realising it. It also is more inclusive for situations where there is a diverse classroom as it is more inclusive.


Our thoughts after trying out formative assessment after a co-operative learning task

We carried out a number of tasks within a group. We all were assigned roles just as the students would be in class if attempting cooperative learning. This was found to be very useful as we all participated within the group and roles were assigned of time manager, harmonizer, organiser and reporter, in addition to their other duties worked very well. After we discussed the topic and answered all the questions, we then had to put all the information together in a performance or creative type assessment. Some groups decided to do some acting, some did a live TV show where the two sides of the argument were presented, some made posters and some made film. This was the assessment part of the lesson and we all felt that the information was retained a lot more than if we were initially given a sheet of paper and asked to learn the facts and then subsequently handed a written test. It was an eye-opening experience. We do realise that this type of learning cannot be brought about immediately, there must be new classroom norms set, the correct climate must be there for learning like this to exist and we must take great care to ensure students have clear roles, clear instructions and clear criteria for success before it begins.


Ms Connelly in her role as group organiser