The Group Classroom

In a typical high school, a noisy class usually means there's a substitute teacher on hand. But in room 403 at Pomperaug High School in Southbury, Conn., chatter is actually part of the learning process. Gone is the traditional format: teacher at the head of the class, students lined up at individual desks. The 34 sophomores are grouped in clusters while four teachers mill about, overseeing their work. The curriculum is innovative, too. It's an interdisciplinary course called Project Discovery, which combines English, social studies and biology. Each student within a cluster has a project; on a recent day some were writing biological classifications on note cards while others were putting together essays.

Pomperaug is one of a growing number of public and private high schools around the country that are experimenting with what's called "cooperative learning." Students study in groups and teachers act as guides rather than as policemen or lecturers. The theory is that kids learn more if they are actively involved. The old teachercentered approach, advocates say, turns kids into passive sponges of knowledge, competing with one another for grades and praise from teachers. Cooperative learning encourages kids to spend less time worrying about class rank and more time on their work. In the Project Discovery classroom, each student within the small groups has a specific task. If they don't all do their parts, no one gets credit. In this case, peer pressure is a plus. "It really helps the kid who needs that much more to get interested," says Linda Begin, a Pomperaug teacher.

Cooperative learning isn't a new concept; it's been used in preschools and the early elementary grades for two decades. Japanese schools also use group learning in the early grades. But until recently, most American teachers were reluctant to let older kids have the same academic freedom as little kids. Discipline was a big concern, especially for teenagers. Teachers and principals had to overcome their own beliefs about how classrooms should be structured. Some teachers say group learning makes it harder to keep track of an individual student's progress. The method does put an extra burden on teachers; lessons have to be carefully organized so that kids can work on their own without constant teacher intervention.

Grades were another hurdle. When cooperative learning was first introduced at Pomperaug, the school eliminated individual grades as part of its effort to stem competition. But parents, and some students, protested. Now all students receive individual grades, determined by the teacher's assessment of a student's contribution, along with their group grade-and the results are encouraging. Cooperative-learning students do just as well on standard tests as students in regular classrooms, Pomperaug officials say, and they've had the extra advantage of learning to work as a team. Many are veterans of group classrooms, having started in kindergarten. "In a regular class, if you don't get it, you feel really alone and left out," says Selena Munoz, 18. "This way we can talk about it until we understand."