Bad Boys and Cooperative Learning: Using Tribal Instincts to secure outcomes

Allow me to first make a huge disclaimer – Boys and girls are no different in their quest for tribal identity.  Belonging to a Tribe is a very powerful social tool, be it the music you listen to, the football club shirt you wear, the clothes you wear, the part of town you live in – all amount and tap into tribal instincts.  In a school, it is possible to acknowledge, harness and to some extent circumnavigate these to aid outcomes.  What a structured approach to cooperative learning offers is a way for a ‘group learning dynamic’ to be controlled effectively, efficiently and promote the outcomes that are required.  Whether the group are discussing the Hinge Questions (explaining their reasoning to the answers of their multiple-choice questions), responding critically to a deepening thought question, or explaining a method – then Cooperative Learning has a strong role to play.

As discussed in our book ‘The Beginners Guide to Cooperative Learning’, the essential fact that underpins the structure of effective group dynamics boils down to PIES.  Positive interactions, Individual Accountability, Equality and Simultaneous Participation (Johnson & Johnson 1991).  For tribal instincts, these elements that help groups to function effectively in a learning environment, also help to strengthen the concept that the ‘gang of 4’ – vital for Cooperative Learning to run smoothly.  In order to conceptualise this in greater detail, I will put it into the context of a simple CLIP called the ‘Word Round’(if you follow the link you can see it in action from around minute 3 of the video).

Essentially, a Word Round is each person in a group of 4 being given an equal amount of time (15 -30 seconds in primary is my anecdotally observed average) to respond to a question, provocation or request of opinion posed by the teacher after some modelling.  The Word Round is a highly flexible and developmental strategy that allows everyone to speak, listen and develop their own voice. When everyone has had their turn the teacher can then ‘cold-call’ to ask for the opinions of the group or individuals within the group.  It is important to note that the teacher decides who is in the group, there is no magical formula – you don’t need to have a brain, an athlete, a basket case or any other tribes that may be associated with stereotypes in 1980’s movies.  Moreover, the groups can change as the teacher wants them to for each session.  The Tribal instincts, or how the individual in the group identifies is met and for whatever Tribe the pupil believes they may ‘represent’, they will be given a chance.

So now let’s look at the PIES in the Word Round and how each of them can help the ‘tribal instincts of individuals’. 

Positive Interactions

Positive Interactions could also be referred to as ‘politeness’ and are essential for the success of the Word Round.  This is because, whatever Tribe a pupil believes they represent they need to be treated with respect to avoid conflict and focus on learning.  This can be as simple as saying, ‘Thank you’ to the person who has just finished speaking before they begin to speak. These positive interactions validate what has just been said and can release dopamine (EEF 2017).  So it can feel good.

Individual Accountability

All pupils in the group need to contribute so that the table can fulfil its potential, engage with the learning and develop their own.  It is during this part that the tribal instinct and representation aspect comes in.  Basically, pupils get involved as they may not want to ‘let their tribe down’.


As previously mentioned, this relates in reality to time.  Each person is given the same amount of time to express themselves and, by dint, their tribe.  Moreover, as everyone knows that they will all have time to speak there is no need to over assert or dominate the conversation.

Simultaneous Participation.

In a class of 30, one voice can seem quite lonely, especially with 30 pairs of eyes upon you.  The glory of the word round is that everyone is either listening to their table or speaking.  Everyone is participating and will be given the chance to carefully speak and explain themselves.  For tribal instincts, simultaneous participation levels the playing field as not a single group has greater say.  

Harnessing and including everyone in the classroom is vital to raising outcomes.  But more importantly, giving everyone an equal opportunity to listen to a range of voices, thought processes and opinions are vital for a pupil’s personal development – it is here that the tribal instincts can be harnessed. 

About the author 

Drew Howard is a Londoner who has a wide range of experience in a variety of school and college settings, both in the UK and abroad. He was previously an acting headteacher and a deputy’s head and is currently Director of Primary Curriculum and Pedagogy at a multi-academy trust in Norfolk. 

With Jakob Werdelin, Drew is the co-author of The Beginner’s Guide to Cooperative Learning (Crown House Publishing, 2021) – out now:

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