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Cooperative learning: a new strategy for the artroom.

Cooperative Learning: A new strategy for the artroom

Combine a traditional ceramics project with an innovative teaching strategy called Cooperative Learning, and you have the ingredients for a wonderful class project. If a successful art project can be described as educationally rewarding, fun to do, attractive to behold and reasonable in cost, the (ceramic slab) puzzle project definitely has it all.

Cooperative learning

In the same way that our society is comprised of cooperative groups like families, sports teams and political parties, learning in the classroom has been proved to be most effective when individuals cooperate to achieve a common goal within a lesson. Although the spirit of competition has traditionally been nurtured in the classroom, many students are at a disadvantage when one considers the disparity of student achievement levels, or in the case of the art classroom, the disparity of talent and ability. Less able students are often tempted into withdrawal, or worse, anti-social behaviors, in order to maintain their self-esteem in what they perceive as a hostile environment. Educational research has helped put cooperative learning into focus as an effective teaching/learning strategy.

In cooperative learning, students are assigned to work in small heterogeneous groups of four or five, allowing for the integration of gender, race and achievement level. Students work together to master material presented by the teacher. The marked difference between cooperative learning and traditional group projects, is that when cooperative learning strategies are properly structured by the teacher, completion of a project and mastery of a lesson are totally dependent upon the individual contributions of each team member. Giving each group a team score based on an average of each member's grade insures students' accountability for their work.

Another important aspect of cooperative learning is recognition for the teams that most clearly meet the objectives and criteria of the teacher. Lazy students rarely go for a "free ride" with cooperative learning. To achieve recognition and success as a team, individual members encourage each other to complete their tasks.

The project

Slab construction is a traditional hand-building technique, familiar to most ceramic art classes. For our puzzle project, the slab concept was slightly modified to fit into the cooperative learning design. I divided the class into small, heterogeneous groups. Each group had at least one student with recognizable talent to balance overall team abilities. I first asked students to list five or six of their favorite things (i.e., particular sports, favorite foods, music groups, etc.). Requesting a list of this number precludes the usual, impulsive responses. The extra effort forces students to delve a little deeper in extracting more viable ideas. After the lists were completed, students picked the three best ideas (further refining their thinking) and simplified them graphically using basic geometric shapes with the goal of preserving the recognizability of their ideas. International graphics, symbols used on familiar items (computers, appliances, cars, etc.) or road signs are excellent ways of conveying this concept.

After their drawings were completed, each group cooperatively decided on a shape for their slab puzzle. One student in each group, with the help of teammates, drew the desired outline on large drawing paper. The shape, cut out of drawing paper, was then transferred onto 1/4" plywood. Students, under the supervision of their teacher, cut the shapes out of the plywood using a band saw. This cutout served as the backing or support for the ceramic puzzle pieces.

The next step was to roll out a clay slab (a little larger in size than the plywood cutout) using either a slab roller or a rolling pin riding between two lengths of wood of equal height. Students then placed the plywood cutout on top of the large slab. Using the plywood cutout pattern, they traced and cut the clay with a fettling knife or any flat bladed tool. Then they cut the contoured slab into roughly equal sections in the style of a jigsaw puzzle, each student being assigned his or her own piece.

At this point, working individually, students fashioned their names out of clay, letter by letter. (Typography books containing various styles of fonts can be helpful.) By scoring the backs of the letters and brushing on slip (liquid clay), they adhered the names to a particular section of each student's puzzle piece. Students then cut symbols out of smaller clay slabs, conforming to their drawings. They built the slab images up in layers to form a relief, adhered to open spaces (using the scoring and slip technique) around the students' names to create a pleasing design. At the end of each work period, teammates carefully fit the puzzle pieces together on the plywood backing so shrinkage (usually 5 to 10 percent) will be uniform. Then they securely wrap the puzzles in plastic and put them away until the following day.

When the puzzle and its individual pieces met with the satisfaction of the entire team, it was left in the open air to thoroughly dry out for firing. After firing, pieces were colorfully underglazed, fired again, clear glazed and fired a third time. The glazed puzzle tiles were then glued to the plywood base with a tile adhesive (our custodian lent us the adhesive used to replace missing tiles around our building). Grout was then used to fill in the cracks and minimize gaps around the edges. After cleaning off excess grout, a good bathroom tile polish was the final touch. Finally, a hook or wire was installed from behind for display.


The criteria for grades were craftsmanship, imagination, neatness and team work. The team with the highest score got bonus grade points, and more importantly, recognition among their peers and teachers. The winning team from this project made a presentation to our board of education. The winning ceramic puzzle also went on permanent display in our district board room and received much publicity from local and school papers. Accountability and recognition are important criterion for true, cooperative learning.

Most important, cooperative learning brought out certain qualities in various students that were not obvious in the more traditional classroom mode. In fact, one of the most fascinating things that came out of this project was the positive change observed in student behavior. Students who appeared to be quiet, shy and/or apathetic prior to this project began to take an active role in the development of the project. In a few cases, these very same students took on a leadership role by encouraging their teammates to keep pace with the rest of the group, checking for accurate fitting (on a daily basis) and/or supporting their partners in an effort to keep up a certain standard of craftsmanship. All this happened while the teacher played the role of facilitator rather than formal instructor.

It is easy to see why an experience like this is as rewarding to the teacher as it is to the students. Best of all, the concepts of cooperative learning can be applied to a variety of art classroom learning experiences that encompass "hands on" activities as well as content instruction, including art history, vocabulary and terminology.

Gene Bregman teaches art at Memorial Junior High School, Balley Stream, NY.
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Author:Bregman, Gene
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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