Cooperative learning: Using CLIPs in the primary classroom

Written by: Drew Howard | Published:
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The cooperative learning approach allows pupils to practise their knowledge and skills and is guided by ‘CLIPs’. In this article, Drew Howard explains how to introduce this approach to your primary school

As a school leader, I have seen the power of cooperative learning and Cooperative Learning Interactive Patterns (CLIPs) to help improve pupils’ engagement, outcomes, and behaviour.

Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is an approach to teaching. Knowledge and skills are modelled by the teacher and then learners are able to practise these skills in a series of structured activities (called CLIPS).

As Johnson & Johnson state (1994), in cooperative learning: “Students’ learning goals may be structured to promote cooperative, competitive, or individualistic efforts. In every classroom, instructional activities are aimed at accomplishing goals and are conducted under a goal structure.

“A learning goal is a desired future state of demonstrating competence or mastery in the subject area being studied. The goal structure specifies the ways in which students will interact with each other and the teacher during the instructional session.”

As Johnson and Johnson noted, cooperative learning induces pupils to promote each other’s success, form multidimensional and realistic impressions of each other’s competencies, and give accurate feedback.


A CLIP is a series of content-free action steps that micro-manage how learners interact with each other and your teaching materials. These steps are pre-organised to support (if not directly enforce) at minimum four things: positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation, and simultaneous interaction.

Once you add the content – that is, your tasks, questions and materials – into the action steps of the CLIP, you have created an activity.

As CLIPs can be used in any subject, they provide an ethos for delivery of content and a clear, evidence-based “way we play” to maximise pupils’ interaction with the learning.

Implementing CLIPS

What follows is not an exhaustive list, but a top five implementation guide when considering how you would wish to use CLIPs to empower staff and teachers.

Before I launch into that, I will give you a brief overview of one CLIP in particular called the Catch One Partner. This CLIP is great for retrieval and embedding vocabulary and is mentioned in my co-authored book The Beginner’s Guide to Cooperative Learning (2021) in more depth. But in short, it goes like this: after teacher modelling of the problem or the focus of the learning:

  • Students mingle and find partners (walking around the classroom).
  • Partner A poses his/her question.
  • Partner B answers.
  • Partner A praises and thanks.
  • Partners switch roles.
  • Partners swap materials.
  • Partners bid farewell and begin the process again.

There is a video available on the Stalham Infant and Junior School website to give you a clearer idea (see further information). So now, let’s look at five tips for embedding CLIPs in the primary classroom.

1, Know the learning issue you want it to solve

Before embarking on any form of implementation it is vital to know exactly what you, as a leader, want to solve. Sometimes this isn’t directly obvious. But with a little analysis, not just of data, but also of how certain areas of the curriculum are being modelled and explained, then you should be able to identify what needs to change in the classroom.

It is easy to get side-tracked and be defensive, seemingly turning all failures of teaching into wider global wicked problems such as lack of reading at home, the demographics of the neighbourhood, previous initiatives, the last headteacher, Michael Gove – the list is endless.

However, if you as a leader can hone-in and pinpoint the crux of the issue, then the implementation of cooperative learning can be extremely successful.

A large element of analysis of learning issues could find its root in the idea that thought and verbal language are very much linked (Fernyhough, 2016). With that as a starting point, look at the learning issue through the following lenses:

  • What language is the teacher using in their direct instruction?
  • How is that language affecting the pupils’ thought process?
  • What opportunities are there for pupils to practise turning their inner thoughts out?

If none of the above are happening – there is your answer. Pupils in a mainstream classroom do not learn as effectively when the above does not occur.

2, Select the CLIPS that fit what you want to solve

Once you have identified the learning issue, you can select the CLIP that is best suited to enable the success you desire (see the book for a toolkit of various CLIPs).

There are a great number of different CLIPs with each having a specific role to play. The key is setting the expectation for teachers and the training. The training ideally should be learning to do the CLIP by doing the CLIP.

A further piece of advice for training is to ensure that there are no more than three CLIPs introduced at any one time, that they are called the same thing by all members of staff, and that their use is clearly pre-defined. If you are stuck on retention, spaced learning, and retrieval then the Catch One Partner (the central focus of the book) is the answer.

If pupils are having problems with algorithmic learning, step-by-step ideas, find and retrieve, then the Sage and Scribe or Sage Read CLIP are ideal for that. If you want pupils to summarise and answer a range of comprehension questions effectively, then the Role-Rotate-Read CLIP works well.

3, Model at every tier in the school

By “modelling”, I mean explaining both the language you want to use and the process and patterns of the CLIPs. For example, if you are running a staff meeting then use a CLIP to allow staff the time to formulate their thoughts and summarise to their colleagues (you can even do a Catch One Partner on any number of key principles and priorities in the school).

In the classroom, the key to success is essentially how the teacher explains, models, and directly instructs using clear and precise language. Teachers must also model (sentence stems are great here) our expectations for the language we want pupils to use.

As a leader in staff meetings, by modelling the process and patterns of the CLIP, you are reminding staff (via your instruction-checking questions) of the actual patterns and responses of the CLIPs that you are wanting the teachers to use in their classrooms. As a result, it keeps the CLIPs as fresh as possible, it shows that you believe in them, and it avoids lethal mutation in the classroom.

4, The CLIPs are not the work – they are the practice

Our book talks about the teaching and learning cycle – a model for learning which enables one to contextualise learning in terms of short interactions, parts of a lesson, a whole lesson, or a scheme/unit of work.

Please note that this is not a lesson plan. Within the cycle is joint construction – the practice of the modelled thoughts and ideas. It is where pupils get to practise explaining their thoughts with their peers. They get to share their developing ideas in a safe environment, a risk-free space where the worst that can happen is they hear a better explanation to solve an issue, or they hear a teacher’s remodel.

In some CLIPs there is writing involved, but this does not need to be kept, marked or used as any form of assessment. The fundamental purpose of the joint construction is that teachers can listen and hear pupils’ thought processes and address misconceptions immediately. To do this you can encourage teachers and staff to engage in active listening, targeting specific pupils in a group to be near when it is their turn to speak so that you can check and help them if needed.

5, Avoid bureaucracy

One of the great failures of implementing any change is the “checklist” and the judgements associated with that. By insisting that CLIPs are used you may run the risk of resentment to their existence. Instead, consider them a toolkit, a set of skills that can address the issues within a classroom.

Fortunately, we have moved away from the days of judging individual lessons. However, as part of on-going school improvement we are engaged in the concept of tweaking practice. It is here that CLIPs can support teachers to improve areas of their practice.

For example, if you were concerned about pupils’ lack of recall of the six times table (thus hindering their progress in a maths lesson on second to minute conversion), it is supportive to recommend to a teacher that they may wish to start the lesson with a Catch One Partner on the six times table.

But whatever occurs, don’t insist that every lesson starts with this or that CLIP, as by doing so people focus on doing the activity and not the purpose of what they want it to achieve.

  • Drew Howard 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 head and is currently director of primary curriculum and pedagogy at a multi-academy trust in Norfolk. He has co-authored The Beginner’s Guide to Cooperative Learning (Crown House Publishing, 2021) with Jakob Werdelin. Visit

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