by Lesha Myers

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the August 1998 issue of The Parent Home Educator, the print magazine that was the predecessor to CHEA’s current digital e-newsletter, The CHEA Connection. As part of CHEA’s 40th Anniversary celebration, we are revisiting some articles that have stood the test of time that we feel would still be beneficial to home educators today.

As more and more families are looking for cooperative learning environments for their children, this article shares some points to consider and be wary of when forming a co-op group.

Several times over the past 12 years of our homeschooling journey, our family has participated in cooperative learning groups (co-ops) for teaching California history, as well as a variety of other subjects.

Ideally, co-ops offer potential teaching and learning advantages: a shared workload, high quality teaching, fellowship, and group rates on field trips.

On the other hand, every co-op I have been involved with has experienced problems at some point, ranging from severe to quite minor. Unless these situations are approached with tact and diplomacy, friendships can be wounded and resentment fueled. I’d like to share some of my experiences with co-ops, victories as well as defeats.

Two Methods

Although co-ops can be organized in various ways, I have found two to be most successful. First, one person heads the class, provides a structure, and invites others to sign up for various activities. My California history classes were structured using this model. While I taught all of the classes, the other moms signed up to organize various crafts and activities.

The other co-op model offers a more decentralized approach, requiring each family to be responsible for a specific unit. For example, in our biology co-op, I was in complete charge of the unit on botany from presenting the material to organizing field trips. At the completion of my unit, other families continued with zoology, microbiology, and anatomy.

After determining a method of organization, the best way to avoid conflicts with respect to expectations is to hold a meeting of all parents. Each August, while I taught California history, my living room was filled with parents who had come to learn about the class structure, my educational philosophy, and their own responsibilities.

I learned the hard way the importance of discussing my educational philosophy. After just a few classes a mom, who had been unable to attend the meeting, challenged me on my presentation of a particular event. It turned out that she did not hold to a providential approach to history, that is that history presents the record of God’s dealing with man in the past. We parted amicably, but it would have been better if she had clearly understood my presuppositions before the class began.

Two Organizational Issues

Two other organizational issues may present problems at some point.

The first concerns the class composition. Exactly who will attend, one student or the whole family? Will parents be allowed, encouraged, or required to attend with their student? If so, how often? If parents aren’t in attendance, how will disciplinary problems be handled? Will liability be an issue? I very much dislike splitting up my family, but because of the age span between my children, sometimes having them in the same class just isn’t feasible.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t consider participating in any activity where parents weren’t allowed. Well-behaved siblings have always been welcome in my classes and parents greatly encouraged to attend. If I have a consistent behavior problem with a particular student, the “greatly encouraged” becomes a requirement.

Finally, consider the motivation or reasons for joining a co-op. Years ago I was involved in a co-op designed to teach a complex high school course. We divided the material among the six or so families with the idea being that each family would be required to master a small part of the course instead of the overwhelming whole.

Some Potential Problems

Immediately, we ran into problems. Just before beginning the first unit, the family who was to be in charge bowed out. Some left the co-op all together, while others didn’t follow through on their commitments leaving the rest of us scrambling. It was an awful experience. In retrospect, we learned that the families involved didn’t have the same goals. Some looked at the class solely as a way to meet a requirement that they didn’t feel equipped to teach. A class, rather than a co-op, would have better suited their needs.

Even if all of the families share the same motivation, co-ops will still have a problem with division of labor just because of the varieties of life. Unexpected situations and illness will arise. Some co-ops try to plan for this possibility by assigning an “assistant” to each component. However, I have found that in far too many cases when I agree to be the assistant, I soon end up fully in charge. Evolving over the years, my current viewpoint is that if a family, for whatever reason, cannot fulfill its commitment, it’s not my responsibility to bail them out.

Overall I have found co-ops to be a very valuable addition to our home school. Not only have my children and I built relationships with other like-minded families, we have enjoyed a superior level of teaching than we would have on our own. Additionally, we have saved money by enjoying economies of scale.

Co-ops aren’t problem-free, but neither is life. By anticipating potential problem areas ahead of time, conflicts can be reduced, making more time for quality learning.

Lesha Myers served as the administrator of a private school satellite program for 15 years while also home educating her own children. She wrote two history books, His California Story and Continuing the Journey, and the homeschool resource, Making the Grade. Lesha also wrote The Elegant Essay and Windows to the World: An Introduction to Literary Analysis to encourage and equip parent teachers to teach essay-writing and literary analysis. After a long battle with cancer, Lesha went home to be with the Lord on June 29, 2012.