A Vietnamese parable has a young monk asking his master what the difference is between heaven and hell.
‘There are no material differences,’ the older monk replies, ‘except that the people in hell are thin and starving, and those in heaven are plump and well fed.’
‘Ah, so those in hell are being punished for their evil deeds by being deprived of food,’ the young monk deduces.
‘Not at all,’ his master replies. ‘Heaven and hell each have a huge dining room with an enormous pot of delicious noodles in the centre of a large table in the middle. The size of the enormous pot and of the bowl of sauce in front of each person is identical. However, each diner is given a pair of chopsticks one-metre long which they must use to eat the noodles. In hell, the people are always hungry because no matter how hard they try, they can’t get the noodles into their mouths.’
‘I see. So I suppose the people in heaven are given normal-sized chopsticks,’ the novice remarks.
‘No, their chopsticks are exactly the same length as those given out in hell, but the people in heaven eat well because they have learnt to feed the person sitting opposite them at the table. That is the difference between heaven and hell.’
In this issue, we look at ways in which learning English can be seen as a cooperative enterprise and one in which our interaction with others and our contribution to their learning can be beneficial to our own.
In the main feature, Jason Anderson examines the origins, principles and practice of cooperative learning, and sees what it has to offer today’s communicative language classroom.
Both Graham Perry and David Wilson look at the benefits of peer-teaching, concluding that students gain a deeper and more lasting understanding of things if they are required to go on to teach them to other people.
Chia Suan Chong recognises that interaction and collaboration can open the door to conflict, and she sees the development of conflict management skills in ourselves and our students as key to a harmonious classroom.
Paul Carr once had a ghastly experience of team teaching, when cooperation was the last thing the other teacher involved had in mind. However, he believes that, done properly, it has advantages for teachers and students.
Irish Farley explains how taking the time to answer the questions that she gets from her students’ parents is important in getting them to work together with her to improve their children’s chance of long-term success – and not always by simply getting the children out of specialist language programmes as quickly as possible.
For Maksim Gusev, eliminating competition from the classroom entirely is not desirable, but he finds that frustration is reduced – and enjoyment of learning increased – if language games are adapted to favour cooperation over rivalry.
Derek Wong uses the ‘mastery model’ of learning, whereby the whole class can only progress once every single member has grasped a particular learning point. Had this system been employed when the unfortunate teachers at my school were attempting to teach me maths, my poor classmates would still be sitting there now. Nevertheless, it does appear to promote a genuine sense of class unity and a healthy interest in everyone else’s welfare, which has to be a good thing.