In his book ‘Flourish’, Martin Seligman quotes Charles Darwin’s concept of group selection: ‘A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.’ 

In a classroom context, the value of co-operation as a group is obviously not a case of life or death. However, in my opinion, there are huge benefits to developing co-operation in the classroom which I witnessed first-hand as a teacher. As with many behaviours in the classroom, some children are more predisposed to co-operate. Within this, my experience was that cooperation between children did not ever happen automatically and consistently.

With my own class, I devoted a great deal of time and energy to setting the expectations around co-operation, particularly at the start of each academic year. I must admit that there were occasions when children misunderstood the concept, especially when I was in the earlier years of my career. I remember very clearly one of my Year 1 pupils becoming extremely annoyed with a friend for copying his poem during an English lesson. When the friend joined our conversation to resolve the issue, he looked totally baffled by the complaint, explaining indignantly: ‘I wasn’t copyinghim. We were co-operating!’ After further explanation of the key differences between copying and co-operation, which we revisited regularly throughout the academic year, the whole class’ understanding was much improved. Thankfully, this avoided further confusion.

As a teacher, my expectations of co-operation were consistent throughout the year. There were inevitably times when the levels of co-operation dipped a little. This was often clear as children started to get tired and irritable. In our conversations to redirect children towards the purpose and benefits of co-operating, I took care to acknowledge their feelings and we discussed how frustration could get in the way of co-operating well. Quite often, our chats included elaborating on the class’ preferred future, where we talked about the benefits of working together and helping one another compared to doing things alone.

There were numerous benefits to promoting collaboration in class. Quite simply, things were done more quickly and to a higher standard compared to a class where children did not co-operate. This was true in a practical sense, for example when children where setting up a task or tidying away, and also in terms of group work on a task, where success depended on children reaching a consensus and recognising one another’s contributions. On a wider scale, children linked their improved co-operation to increased kindness towards one another. There was definitely a more visible action response to empathy—children generally were more aware of the opportunities and benefits of helping another child. The result was a greater level of inclusion in the class, particularly with those children who their peers may have regarded as a little bit difficult. The sense of inclusion also extended outside of class time to breaks during the school day and also friendships outside of the classroom.

I’ve had the privilege of being a member of several high performing teams over my teaching career. For me, one of the key distinguishing features of these teams was the consistent level of co-operation: the needs of the group were always paramount and each member of the team was happy to put each other first. There was not a sense of individual competition. Rather, there was space to appreciate everyone’s strengths and applaud their achievements, as well as recognising the individual value contributed by each team member. 

Time and time again, I’ve witnessed the positives of developing a co-operative culture within the primary classroom and as part of a high performing team myself. If you’re interested in developing collaboration in your school, please do drop me a line.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being—and How to Achieve Them, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.