Cooperative Learning:

The Future of Academics

 

 

 

By

 

 

 

Bradley C. Stott

 

 

The concept of learning through cooperation is not new. It was proposed by Vygotski that all learning is “social” and occurs within a “social” framework—whether in a family environment, with friends, at work, church or elsewhere, we learn most naturally in social situations. Vygotski’s theories focused a lot of attention on learning and the social connections associated with learning. If cooperation is working together to accomplish shared goals, cooperative learning is true to the spirit of Vygotski’s work and is often defined in the literature as, “the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning.” (Johnson & Johnson, 1989.) The motivation in cooperative learning emphasizes positive reinforcement—if group members work together to solve problems, all group members benefit. Obviously, the negative consequences for not cooperating in a group are that if one or more members of the group refuse to cooperate, all group members may fail to benefit. These positive/negative reinforcements are inherent in the alliance between group members and often serve as the powerful motivating factor at the center of cooperative learning. For the purpose of writing this paper, I have chosen to use “cooperative learning” as the generic descriptive name for small-group work in the classroom. Most often, “cooperative learning” is not the term used by teachers. “About half the instructors described their method as some kind of group activity, project or collaboration. About a quarter used terms referring to teamwork and the rest used a variety of other terms.” (Magney, 1997.)

In this paper, I will discuss the importance of creating a safe and secure classroom community and its connection to group dynamics, examine the evidence showing where cooperative learning is and is not effective in the areas of achievement and intergroup relations, and address various types of cooperative learning and their applications.

Teachers are instrumental in creating environments in which students can participate in a classroom community. As stated in Creating Community in Your Classroom, by Tom Allen, “When students feel safe, they’re more apt to take the kind of risks that stretch them and lead to the type of learning that will stick with them for a lifetime.” (Allen, 2000.) Mr. Allen discusses a number of ways in which teachers can help create a sense of community in the classroom. These include, learning the names of every student early on, using eye contact, and welcoming conflict and diversity of opinion. The creation of this sense of community is intrinsically linked to cooperative learning and group dynamics.

            The trend toward diversity is an important issue in teaching children in the classrooms of today and tomorrow. Students coming from different cultures must learn to work together, form friendships and understand one another if we hope to contain interracial violence, hatred and misunderstanding. The workplace is following a similar trend toward diversity and students must be prepared to work within this dynamic. The subject of diversity is widely addressed in current education journals. According to Robert Slavin and Robert Cooper in Improving Intergroup Relations: Lessons Learned From Cooperative Learning Programs, “Research on the effects of cooperative learning has consistently found that the use of such methods improves academic achievement as well as intergroup relations.” (Slavin & Cooper, 1999.) But how does this relate to group dynamics in the classroom? Although this is a complex question, once the classroom community has been established and students feel safe and secure voicing their opinions, heterogeneous groups should be formed and problems posed that will aid in learning/achievement and prepare children for working in heterogeneous teams.

Research on group dynamics indicate there is a “norming” period in which students (members of a group or team) must tentatively scope out the culture of the group and express individual opinions. I feel cooperative learning in schools can be more complicated and challenging than workplace teaming. Children often have an intensified fear of what others think of them—this is a well-documented psychological stage and is exacerbated by adolescent egocentrism. Many children are afraid to express their own opinions or have difficulty forming opinions. Often, peer pressure and the lack of a developed, secure individual personality cause students to remain silent or conform to the opinions and assertions of high status members in the group. In a hostile environment, many students choose to “sit on the fence” rather than take chances by voicing opinions. Additionally, adolescent egocentrism may make it difficult for children to see problems or situations from diverse viewpoints. Therefore, before basic group dynamics (norming, forming, storming and performing) can be discussed, it is important to assert that cooperative learning cannot be as effective in schools until the teacher and students have created a safe and secure classroom community. This is something we cannot necessarily take for granted in American schools. It could be argued this development is simply part of “norming”, but it encompasses more than that—it takes into account the developmental needs of students and the climate of the school. For example, Elliot Aronson observed the following situation that superbly illustrates the importance of school and classroom climate on learning:

In 1971 a highly explosive situation had developed in Austin, Texas—one that has played out in many cities across the United States. Austin's public schools had recently been desegregated and, because the city had always been residentially segregated, white youngsters, African-American youngsters, and Mexican-American youngsters found themselves sharing the same classroom for the first time in their lives. Within a few weeks, longstanding suspicion, fear, distrust, and antipathy among the groups produced an atmosphere of turmoil and hostility, exploding into interethnic fistfights in corridors and schoolyards across the city.

The school superintendent called me in to see if I could do anything to help students learn to get along with one another. After observing what was going on in classrooms for a few days, my graduate students and I concluded that intergroup hostility was being exacerbated by the competitive environment of the classroom.

Let me explain. In every classroom we observed, the students worked individually and competed against one another for grades.

The teacher may have started the school year with a determination to treat every student equally and encourage all of them to do their best, but the students quickly sorted themselves into different groups. The "winners"…then there were the losers”. (Aronson, E., 1978.)

 

What Aronson observed can be applied to virtually any classroom environment. There are two major problems witnessed by Aronson—the competitive atmosphere of the school, and racial tensions brought about by fear and a lack of understanding. Let’s look at both of these issues as they relate to cooperative learning.

Whenever a classroom is placed in a highly competitive atmosphere (racial issues aside), there must necessarily be “winners” and “losers”. A classroom community should not be competitive. As stated by Tom Allen, “Pitting students or groups of students against one another can quickly kill the community-building spirit of cooperation that a teacher must so carefully nurture.” (Allen, 2000.) This issue is also addressed at length by Johnson & Johnson when discussing how competitive motivation works, “Success depends on beating, defeating, and getting more than other people…other people are a threat to one’s success…competitors value extrinsic motivation based on striving to win rather than striving to learn... high performing students are often feared because they can win and low performing students are often held in contempt as losers who are no competition.” (Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R., 1989.) Yet, teachers and administrators continue to structure classrooms and schools into competitive laboratories that run counter to the goals of schooling—ensuring that every child receive an adequate education.

Another form of motivation, more effective and less damaging than competitive motivation, is that which comes from individualistic efforts. “Each individual perceives that he or she can reach his or her goal regardless of whether other individuals attain or do not attain their goals. Thus, individuals seek an outcome that is personally beneficial without concern for the outcomes of others.” (Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R., 1989.)  Both competitive and individualistic learning are probably the most common forms of learning most of us experienced in school. Although Johnson & Johnson are critical of individualistic learning as isolated, impersonal and purely self-serving (they do have a point), I believe that an ideal education would emphasize a healthy mix between cooperative learning and individualistic learning. Although learning takes place in a social environment (as put forth by Vygotsky), learning and application can only reside in the shell of an individual human mind. I see nothing wrong with a person being proud of their successes, nor do I decry the experience that comes from learning personal lessons from failure. This is part of life and learning. Most teachers seem to recognize the importance of individual responsibility in education. Although teachers use cooperative learning techniques in some education areas, others are devoid of cooperative learning. For example, John Magney states, “Both surveys reported frequent use of cooperative learning activities when working on laboratory assignments, practicing problem-solving techniques and discussing lectures and course material. But only about a third of instructors permit students to work in groups on term papers, projects and class presentations. Less than 10 percent of instructors allow group work on quizzes and exams.” (Magney, 1997.) Clearly, cooperative learning is not a panacea and is not always the best way to get at desired results.

The second major issue that was faced by Aronson is racial tension and cultural difference. There is a lot of evidence supporting the idea that cooperative learning helps students create both cordial and enduring friendships across racial lines. “The effects of cooperative learning methods are not entirely consistent, but 16 of the 19 studies reviewed here demonstrate that, when the conditions of contact theory are fulfilled, some aspect of friendship between students of different ethnicities improves.” (Hendrix, 1999.) Also, Hendrix indicates, “positive social relations among students of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds help students to transcend and transform shared cultural norms and attitudes that can prohibit meaningful cross-cultural interactions. Such transformation does not require students to ignore or eliminate the differences that exist among their classmates, in their histories, communities, and families, but rather to understand them using a different cultural paradigm.” (Hendrix, 1999.) In more simplistic language, cooperative learning helps students to see and value other members of the group in ways that are not racial or cultural. It allows them to relate to other individuals as individuals—not stereotypes. They are able to see their team members more objectively and learn to rely on them to accomplish shared goals. Ideally, these positive developments can be applied outside the classroom and into adulthood (Hendrix indicates that more research is needed to determine whether this is happening).

Cooperative learning has proven to be remarkably effective in many areas of learning, so why isn’t it the natural choice of teachers—being that it is superior to other types of instruction? Magney addresses this in part when he states, “A common drawback instructors cited was difficulty with time management. Instructors need more time to prepare classroom activities in addition to their lectures. They also need more classroom time to oversee student work, which may affect how much material they present during a lecture. Instructors also need to revise their grading systems.” (Magney, 1997.) Not surprisingly, time is a scarce commodity for many teachers, but why would grading systems be an issue? The answer is, ultimately, students must be evaluated in order for teachers to find out what has been learned, and teachers must adjust instruction accordingly. Additionally, teachers must report the results of assessment to interested parents and administrators. Objective evaluation is not as easily accomplished with cooperative learning techniques.

            Unfortunately, cooperative learning (although powerful) is not always enough to create successful situations in and of themselves. High and low status levels among students, exacerbated by competitive environments and culturally and racially diverse student backgrounds can nullify even the most carefully planned cooperative learning situations. For example, Elizabeth Cohen discusses the plight of Miguel:

Miguel was a shy and withdrawn child who spoke no English and who stuttered when he spoke Spanish. His Spanish reading and writing skills were very low, and although math was his strength, nobody seemed to notice. Even when he had a specific role, other members of the group would take over and tell him what to do. Miguel was obviously a low-status student. When I observed Miguel's group I saw that the other members simply wouldn't give him a chance. Cooperative learning was not helping him at all.

The story of Miguel is not uncommon. Teachers who use cooperative learning are asking for help with problems like this one. Teachers choose cooperative learning precisely because they want to see all students actively talking and working together.

Teachers are also asking for help with problems of social dominance. Some students take over the group, telling other people what to do and trying to do all the work themselves. Strangely enough, social isolation and social dominance are two sides of the same coin. They are two ways in which cooperative learning reveals status differences among students. (Cohen, E.G. & Lotan, R.A. 1998.)

 

This example illustrates some of the difficult challenges faced by teachers attempting to implement cooperative learning in today’s classroom. If teachers can make classrooms and groups more equitable, (the teacher may publicly promote, demonstrate and implement Miguel’s mathematical abilities to and within the group) cooperative learning can proceed more effectively for everyone. Teachers need to receive instruction and practice in the technique in order to give them a sense of efficacy in being able to promote the learning of students with different needs. (Shachar & Smuelevitz, 1997.)

            What methods of cooperative learning are being used in the classroom and which are most effective? There are many types of cooperative learning structures used in the classroom, however, the literature consistently focuses on a number of well-researched cooperative learning methods. These include Learning Together, Student Teams—Achievement Divisions (STAD), Academic Controversy, Teams-Games-Tournaments (TGT), Team-Assisted Individualization (TAI), Jigsaw, and Group Investigation. In Cooperative Learning Methods: A Meta-Analysis, all of these methods are compared and analyzed. The Meta-Analysis used 164 studies done on cooperative learning since 1970 covering various types of cooperative learning methods. The study claims, “all the methods have substantial effect sizes and all of the methods have been found to produce significantly higher achievement than did competitive or individualistic learning. Any teacher should feel quite comfortable using any of these cooperative learning methods.”  (Johnson & Johnson, 1999.) The methods analyzed are as follows:

Learning Together: “…students work on worksheets in groups of four or five. At the conclusion of their work, each group submits its worksheets to the teacher and receives praise and rewards based on the group’s work.” (Hendrix, 1999).

Student Teams—Achievement Divisions (STAD): “…combines a group-study structure with a cooperative incentive structure in which student teams earn rewards based on individual learning” (Hendrix, 1999.)

Teams-Games-Tournaments (TGT): “TGT involves the use of weekly tournaments to demonstrate individual student learning. Also, TGT groups are homogeneously grouped by past performance. The implementation of the TGT method begins with instruction by the teacher to the entire class. Students then form three-member teams, called “tournament tables.” High performing teams earn team rewards.” (Hendrix, 1999.)

Team-Assisted Individualization (TAI): “TAI combines the use of cooperative teams with individualized instruction…Students work in four-to five-member teams on self-instructional materials at their own levels and rates. Students themselves take responsibility for all checking, management, and routing and help one another with problems, freeing the teacher to spend more time instructing small groups of students working on similar concepts.” (Slavin, 1996.)

Jigsaw: “Students are placed in six-member “home” teams to work on material that has been divided into sections…placing students in a situation of intense interdependence. Each member of the group is then assigned a section to study on which he or she becomes an “expert”. Next, each expert meets with the expert in other groups who have studied the same section to discuss the best way to present the information to other members of their home teams. After students have learned and mastered the material, they return to their home teams to teach other members the material.” (Hendrix, 1999.)

Group Investigation: “a classroom organization plan in which students work in small groups to inquire, question, discuss and plan projects.” (Hendrix, 1999.)

            Some of these eight methods are more direct (easy to apply and require little time investment for teacher use), but are somewhat rigid in how they can be employed. Others are more conceptual (require more time for the teacher learn how to use, but once understood can be applied to almost any situation). There are two schools of thought on whether a method should be more direct or conceptual. Certainly direct methods are easier to pick up and apply quickly, but conceptual methods are more useful in the long term. Teachers must make individual philosophical choices regarding teaching methodologies and employ direct or conceptual varieties of cooperative learning based on what works for them.

            Some methods of cooperative learning may be more effective than others when matched with the subject and curriculum to be covered. For example, Team Assisted Individualization (TAI) may be more effectively applied to mathematics than literature, history or social studies—while Group Investigation (GI) will likely prove less valuable to a teacher of mathematics and more valuable to literature, history or social studies applications. A teacher of mathematics may find it difficult to use cooperative learning, while social studies teachers may find it highly effective, easy to apply and directly relevant to the subject matter. For example, James Hendrix states, “Cooperative learning is particularly suitable for social studies teachers concerned with the difficult task of teaching content mastery while also attempting to nurture democratic values and interpersonal skills.” (Hendrix, 1999.)

            In conclusion, the evidence suggests that cooperative learning is a superior teaching methodology to both competitive and individual types of learning. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that cooperative learning helps students achieve more in the classroom, form lasting friendships both inside (but more importantly) outside of their own race or cultural group, that female and minority students have a preference for cooperative learning and that cooperative learning prepares students for a working world that is more and more diverse and challenged with the tackling of complex problems through team-based organizational structures. However, most of the validating studies on methods of cooperative learning have been conducted by the researcher-developer who originated the method. Obviously, this introduces potential bias into the results. It seems there is a need for additional studies by independent investigators. Additionally, there are many unanswered questions about cooperative learning that researchers have not yet addressed:

The reality of the current situation is that cooperative learning, while extremely effective, is time consuming for teachers—who may have 20 or 30 students to teach. Teachers should adjust their lesson plans to take advantage of cooperative learning wherever possible and use individualistic teaching methods when time dictates while avoiding competitive environments in order to create a successful situation for every student in the classroom.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Allen, Tom. Creating Community In Your Classroom. Virginia Journal of Education, 2000 Jan; 93:6-10.

 

Aronson, E., N. Blaney, C. Stephan, J. Sikes, and M. Snapp. The Jigsaw Classroom. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1978.

 

Cohen, E.G. & Lotan, R.A. Producing equal-status interaction in the heterogeneous classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 32 (1):99-120.

 

Hendrix, James C. Connecting cooperative learning and social studies. The Clearing House, 1999 Sept-Oct; 73:57.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company, 1989.

Leonard, Jacqueline & McElroy, Keith. What one middle school teacher learned about cooperative learning. Journal of Research in Child Education, 2000 Spring-Summer; v14:239.

Magney, John. Working and learning together. Techniques. 1997 Sep; v72:571.

 

Shachar, H., & Schmuelevitz, H. Implementing cooperative learning, teacher collaboration and teachers’ sense of efficacy in heterogeneous junior high schools. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1997; 22:53-72.

 

Slavin, Robert E. Research on cooperative learning & achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1996; 21:43-69.

 

Slavin, Robert E. & Cooper, Robert. Improving Intergroup Relations: Lessons Learned From Cooperative Learning Programs. Journal of Social Issues, 1999 Winter; 55:647.