Cultivating a Cooperative Learning Environment

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX



It is a widely-held truth among educators that students who are provided with the ability to self-assess and act will be more successful than those who are completely dependent on their teachers. In order to support a child’s development, it is important that directors view students as contributing members of the ensemble, rather than as merely empty vessels in need of educating. Students should be actively involved in decisions that directly affect them in order to develop critical thinking skills and the ability to advocate for themselves as independent entities. By being open to feedback and making small concessions to student leadership, educators can foster a cooperative rehearsal experience and encourage the development of each student’s voice.

Viewing students as active contributors

While it is true that the decision-making portion of the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties, it is necessary to begin presenting children with opportunities to make decisions in order to begin working towards eventual autonomy. Leah Shafer of the Hardvard Graduate School of Education, believes that “the process of becoming engaged as active partners can give young people a set of strategies they can use to create positive change in future classrooms or communities.” She encourages “positive and authentic partnerships” between students and school administrators in order to teach children how to voice an opinion and improve the learning environment. Shafer concedes that “listening to young people doesn’t mean unilaterally” agreeing to their suggestions (which at times might be slightly off-base), but instead asserts that students should be viewed as “stakeholders in their own learning” and be encouraged to provide an educated prospective. This philosophy is also supported by medical research which shows a correlation between a child’s self-worth and their relationship with adults in positions of authority. Dr. Imelda Coyne in her 2006 study, Giving Children a Voice: Investigation of Children’s Experiences of Participation in Consultation and Decision-making in Irish Hospitals, concluded that children who experienced a “lack of involvement in the communication process” about their own treatment resulted in the subjects “feeling unimportant and uncertain.” The study showed that “taking the time to provide children with sufficient information” allowed patients to prepare themselves for procedures and encouraged cooperation, which in turn, saved time (Coyne). Dr. Coyne urges health professionals to treat young patients “as an active participant with an important contribution to make to the communication process” in order to minimize stress and build the children’s self-confidence.

In order to develop critical thinking abilities, students must have opportunities to evaluate situations without teacher-input. In a 2016 study from the University of Illinois titled, Improving Children’s Competence as Decision Makers: Contrasting Effects of Collaborative Interaction and Direct Instruction, researchers compared “the efficacy of collaborative group work with conventional direct instruction at promoting students’ ability to make reasoned decisions (Forrest).” Nearly eight hundred fifth-grade students were selected to participate in the six-week study in which they were presented with two unrelated tasks; making a decision about a local wolf population and considering a moral dilemma based on the story “The Pinewood Derby (Forrest).” Researchers found that the children who had worked in collaborative groups on the wolf project were more likely to recognize multiple viewpoints and took the time to weigh “the cost and benefits associated with different decisions (Forrest).” In sharp contrast, the teacher-led groups “were no better at making a decision […] than children in the control group (Forrest).” This is likely because individuals in the dependent (teacher-led) group did not have the opportunity to evaluate the situation on their own but instead were allowed to be passive learners in an unengaging environment. This study further reinforces the theory that students must be actively involved in the learning process in order to develop critical thinking abilities and autonomous thought. 

What does this look like in rehearsals?

Cultivating a participatory learning environment is not something that can be accomplished in a single rehearsal, but the students who will be most successful in reaching this goal are those with the greatest number of opportunities to practice. In the 2009 study, Watching Learners Learn, executed by Dr. Robert Duke and Janice J. Buckner of the Center for Music Learning (University of Texas at Austin), the lessons of twenty experienced piano teachers were observed in order to determine the pedagogical differences between successful and unsuccessful educators. For the purposes of this research, success was defined as reaching the target goals of the lesson. Of the twenty educators, the five deemed most successful were those whose students “performed approximately 38 percent more student performance trials per rehearsal frame” than the students of the fifteen remaining teachers (Duke). An “infrequent occurrence among the most successful teachers in the sample,” Duke shares, was identifying targets to students and then moving “ahead to work on something else.” The enormous disparity in the two sub-groups of educators illuminates the importance of providing students with ample opportunities to attempt new concepts and receive immediate feedback during rehearsals.

Educators can facilitate the creation of this cooperative learning environment with simple acts like soliciting student feedback or including student representation on leadership teams. Shafer advises implementing periodic class discussions or forming a team of class officers in order to provide students with opportunities to express their level of satisfaction with rehearsals. While long-term strategies and goals should be determined by the trained professionals, students can be involved in small decisions about everyday events like suggesting a piece for a (non-contest) concert, giving feedback on the warm up routine, or deciding on the appropriate punishment for tardiness (Coyne). According to Gerison Lansdown in his UNICEF-sponsored study Every Child’s Right to be Heard (2011), several countries have taken measures to empower students with acts like implementing a complaints procedure (Denmark, est. 1998) or allowing every pupil to attend a hearing before any disciplinary decision is made (Germany, est. 1996). Through these small concessions of power, educators can elevate students from dependent recipients to valued members of the music program. To encourage student opinions on the quality of music being made in rehearsals, directors can incorporate questioning into the lesson plan. Asking students whether they think the articulation is the same across the ensemble, if the volume is appropriate, or if they hear a section that is not quite in tune can all inspire participation and aid in the development of aural skills. By implementing a “variety of interactive learning methodologies,” Lansdown believes, educators can fulfill their role in facilitating “participatory learning rather than simply” transmitting knowledge.

In addition to training future musicians, educators are also grooming future citizens. It is imperative that these individuals, by the time they graduate, be able to independently develop a quality musical opinion and advocate for themselves. In order to facilitate this type of growth, directors must provide opportunities for regular student involvement in rehearsal procedures and minor leadership opportunities within the program. Students must be viewed as active participants in the learning process and be provided with immediate feedback about the quality of their contributions. Developing a culture of cooperation between students and educators is critical to the development of problem-solving abilities and self-confidence.




Coyne, Imelda. (2006). Giving Children a Voice: Investigation of Children’s Experiences of

          Participation in Consultation and Decision-making in Irish Hospitals. Pp.34-40. School of

          Nursing. Dublin City University. Office of the Minister for Children. Dublin. Ireland. Web. 2  

          August, 2018.



Shafer, Leah. (2016). Giving Students a Voice. Usable Knowledge. Harvard Graduate School of

          Education. Cambridge. Massachusetts. Web. 2 August, 2018.



Lansdown, Gerison. (2011). Every Child’s Right to be Heard: A Resource Guide on the UN

          Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 12. Pp.100-102. Save the

          Children UK. UNICEF. London. England. Web. 2 August, 2018.



Duke, R. A., & Buckner, J. J. (2009). Watching learners learn. MTNA e-Journal, 1, 17-28.



Forrest, Sharita. (2016). Group Learning Makes Children Better Decision-Makers, Study Finds.

          Illinois News Bureau. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Champaign, IL. Web. 8

          August, 2018. <