All too often the phrases “group work” and “cooperative learning” are used interchangeably. This, in a word, is—incorrect. To me the distinction comes from what the students are actually doing while they are in the group.
Group work means that the students are probably sitting together with their desks all facing each other. They are likely discussing the math, but they are using each other more as confirmation. They work independently and then “check” with the others to see if they are on the right track. Group work can also include working on some type of larger activity. This larger activity would more than likely be a display of knowledge. For example, they might be making a poster or a presentation about a topic they just finished in class. Most often, group work does not involve the students learning something new (BEFORE the teacher has “taught” it).
Cooperative learning, on the other hand, means that the students are relying on each other to actually learn something. They are engaging in academic discussion to figure something out. Most often what they are learning is new material that the teacher hasn’t explicitly stated or an extension of a basic idea that was presented in class. In cooperative learning, students are in charge of their own learning (with a watchful teacher eye, of course). The students ask the questions to each other first. Only after they have exhausted their resources do they ask the teacher. It is critical thinking and problem solving at its best.
In my classroom, I use both. However, cooperative learning is my favorite. Please do not make the mistake of thinking they are the same! You should always ask yourself, “Would I be able to do this lesson without the students in the room?” If the answer is yes, then it certainly isn’t cooperative learning and perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it at all!