It is the kind of scene that warms a parent's heart smack in the middle of the cold winter school year. A fifth-grade math class at Mount Vernon Elementary School in Alexandria is visibly hard at work and nothing is going to distract them -- not even a one-minute warning that a reporter and photographer will be visiting their classroom.

Twenty-eight students sit in groups or "teams" of four, two boys and two girls, at seven small tables in a large room. Their teacher, Brenda Lamberson-Sias, works with students in one corner while teacher Edward Slavinskas and his aide, Colleen Harlow, move from table to table, watching for stalled pencils or raised hands. Each day, Slavinskas brings his nine "special" (emotionally disturbed) students in for their hour-long math lesson with the "regular" students who represent three levels of learning aptitude -- low, average and above average. There is no way for a visitor to distinguish which children are from which class or at what level.

"We all look forward to this class," says Slavinskas. "It demystifies my students. This way they are not up on the third floor all day away from everyone else."

The method being used in this classroom is called cooperative learning, a supervised method where students at varied levels work together in groups or "teams" toward the same goal. In other forms of cooperative learning, students can be at the same level of ability (all high, all middle or all low) and teams can range from two to five students. When possible, teams represent a fair mix of gender, race and economic status. Based on the belief that "two (or more) heads are better than one," cooperative learning challenges the traditional concept of education -- where the student is singularly in competition with other students for "good grades, teacher approval and other rewards," says Robert Slavin, director of the Elementary School Program, Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, at Johns Hopkins University and creator of the cooperative learning program used at Mount Vernon.

In the traditional system, bright kids do well, says Slavin, but middle and low students receive little or no encouragement from their peers to do better. Unfortunately, he says, such students may even discourage each other by declaring that "studying too hard is for nerds or sissies, or teacher's pet." Individual competition also creates and "reinforces a pecking order" says Slavin, "with the most able students at the top and the least able at the bottom." And for a lot of students, he adds, "there is a bind between what teachers and parents are saying ('study hard, get good grades') and what their peers are saying."

Considered by many educators as "the answer" to mainstreaming, cooperative methods claim to dramatically improve minority students' performance as well as the performance for the learning disabled. It also is "very effective for improving student achievement at all levels," says Slavin. Studies at the University of Minnesota school of education show that cooperative learning enables students to feel better about themselves and get along better with others. Another plus, says one young Mount Vernon student, is, "We don't have to listen to a teacher all day."

While this method may be promising, it is not new. Teachers have independently and imaginatively used cooperative methods for centuries in such areas as science laboratory projects, class skits and peer tutoring. But after 15 years of research and development, cooperative learning is now a highly structured method that usually requires one to three days of intensive teacher training, special workbooks and follow-up supervision.

"You can't just throw students together in small groups and say, 'Work,' " says Frank Lyman Jr., a University of Maryland teacher education coordinator for Howard County who emphasizes cooperative learning training for his student teachers. "A teacher has to know what he or she is doing. {At first} teachers may consider this method too difficult. But once they realize it is structured and that they still have control of the class, their teaching is changed forever."

Typically, these teachers select and purchase the work materials from one of the five cooperative learning groups (Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, University of Minnesota, University of Tel Aviv and a California conglomerate of major universities), which also offer training and follow-up supervision. Cooperative learning on a schoolwide basis -- all teachers, all courses -- is relatively new, however. There are only a dozen or so demonstration schools throughout the country. Mount Vernon Elementary, after a successful year of using cooperative learning methods in math classes and some English classes, will soon be a full-fledged demonstration school under the guidance of Johns Hopkins.

According to Neil Davidson, associate professor at University of Maryland and the president of the Mid-Atlantic Association for Cooperation in Education (MAACIE), the methods presented by Johns Hopkins and the other four groups can vary considerably, but teachers can and should "mix and match" the programs according to their needs and beliefs.

For example, the reward system is vital to Slavin's method at Johns Hopkins while it isn't in the Minnesota program. In Slavin's math program at Mount Vernon, teams named "Wildcats" and "Alf" compete for points that qualify them as "winner of the week." The reward for the winning team can be a certificate, a night off from homework, lollipops or simply a proud show of points at the top a chart centrally displayed in the classroom.

Another variation is Lyman's method, called "Think, Pair, Share," which he says "allows every student to have his/her mental capacity respected."

Citing research that shows brighter students respond to a teacher's question in "a matter of seconds," Lyman's method gives the other students an equal chance. After hearing the question, the class breaks into varied and integrated pairs to discuss the possible answers. Each pair shares its conclusions with the class.

For the past four years teacher John Strebe has combined Slavin's and Lyman's cooperative learning techniques along with his own variations in five classes of mathematics -- from beginning Algebra to advanced calculus -- at Mt. Hebron high school in Ellicott City, Md. The results, he says, are "fantastic at all levels. The kids don't want me to give it up.

"We try to have a better class within the framework of team-to-team competition," says Strebe. To avoid problems of intense rivalry that can often exist between teen-agers, Strebe has the teams regularly change players. "My kids get to know each other intimately by the end of the year. They have been on at least seven teams and they have had to adjust to many personalities."

"The best part," says Lyman, "is that students who would not normally be communicating with each other, are." This is particularly dramatic, says Lyman, in the upper elementary grades and high schools where peer polarization is greater. "When two kids from different social and cultural backgrounds work together to compare Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and 'Macbeth,' once they have left the classroom and are in halls or cafeteria, the hope is that they will eventually continue to communicate."

Cooperative learning is not snag-free. There are students who are used to working independently and refuse to cooperate with the team. Or, says Lyman, there may be a student who consistently dominates the team, just as he would have if he competed individually in the traditional classroom. And students have to be taught -- not always an easy task for any teacher -- how to respond to each other without being cruel or insensitive.

Another major hurdle is convincing parents that this method will not keep their child from advancing if they spend their time helping others -- a particular concern of parents of children who are "average" or "high achievers." Jean Reid, a reading specialist at Mount Vernon, points out that "in the cooperative method, students still individually and initially learn at their own level" and that the additional time spent "working together and expressing what they have learned actually sharpens their skills."

Jim Fitzgerald of Alexandria is pleased that his daughter Karen is "doing very well" with the cooperative method in her third-grade math class at Mount Vernon where she is an above-average student. But he still "keeps a close eye on Karen's performance" and remains "cautious" about the system because he is not sure that it works for children who are not as sociable and team-oriented as Karen.

Some parents are hopeful that the cooperative method will free their child from the American education system of "tracking" (sometimes referred to as "grouping" or "level teaching") where students are placed and taught according to their test scores. Generally, tracking is considered ideal for high-level students, but as Lyman puts it, it is "an evil spell" for the low and middle students, who are "stuck" in levels unable to meet the challenge of higher placement.

To date, "cooperative learning doesn't replace tracking," says Lyman. "But it does enhance it." Acting as a "wedge" into tracking, cooperative learning allows students more "flexibility," says Lyman, and it "helps teachers reevaluate a student who is showing an interest where he didn't usually."

Strebe believes that the best part about this system is that it allows a teacher to say, " 'I want you to be good in math, but I want something more than that, I want you to be a good person, capable of honesty and sharing, caring and encouraging another person' ... things that someday an employer will want.

"This method comes the closest to simulating real life that I know." Cooperative Learning workshops will be given by the Mid-Atlantic Association for Cooperation in Education (MAACIE) on March 25 and March 26 in Landover, Md. Advanced registration required. For more information, call Thelma DeLaGrange: 1-301-224-5423 or 1-301-224-5427.