Cooperative Learning
This was a position paper I wrote for a class in curriculum design in the Spring of 1998.  My own teaching style emphasizes this approach in concert with other learner-centered methods that foster greater initiative and critical thinking from students.

Postman (1979) states that, "[b]y its nature, teaching is an elitist activity, for elitism implies a hierarchy of values, as does teaching.  All good education is elitist in that it says to a student, 'You are not adequate as others are.  There are better people than you.  And you will be taught how they think, how they write, how they talk, and what they know'" (p. 174, cited in Kaufman, et al., 1997, p. 122).

One has to question the validity of the assertion that any inherently demeaning form of teaching is "good."  Reinsmith (1993, as reported in Stahl, 1996) defines learning as a process which "occurs only when an individual's mind is engaged."  This is difficult to accomplish when the prospective learner feels perpetually on the outside.  The method known as cooperative learning distances the classroom from the top-down model of education.  In this approach the teacher no longer serves as the supreme authority, and the student enters an unconventional realm in which debate is encouraged rather than frowned upon.

My first experience with cooperative learning was in my last placement of three in my student teaching.  I imagined that I would have little left to learn in terms of teaching methods, that my style was already pretty well set for the upcoming year.  I soon learned I was wrong.

I discovered a new layout which was somewhat surprising.  Here in a 9th grade biology class were students arranged in groups of four, with their desks facing one another.  My first thought was that they must have been uncomfortable taking notes from the overhead at the front of the class.  I thought this arrangement must be an anachronism from the middle school years.  The last thing on my mind was that this configuration was the basis for an approach to teaching which was far more effective than anything else I had encountered up to this point.

The concept defined

Cooperative learning, according to Stahl (1996a), is an "often-claimed but not well understood or effectively used approach..." (p. vii).  Cooperative learning is more than mere groupwork, more than "small group instruction," or any other similar sounding, but vastly different approach.  The goal of cooperative learning is to provide learning in a more meaningful package.  Students are commonly grouped together to labor collectively on a given task.  Cooperative learning differs from other approaches.  It is by cooperation that students grasp concepts through their verbal interaction.

The simplest method of cooperative learning involves arranging four or five students into microcosms of the class, resulting in the most heterogeneous groups of students of varying ethnic backgrounds, genders, and -perhaps most importantly- academic ability (Slavin, 1991).  This helps to ensure a collection of diverse opinions from which group members may draw in their learning process.

This model begins to reflect Dewey vision that schools should be institutions of democracy.  Sharan and Sharan (1992) declare in fidelity of this philosophy, that "citizens should be able to think critically for themselves as well as be able to exchange ideas and opinions freely with others" (p. 4).  They point out (after Baron & Sternberg, 1987) that it is widely acknowledged that the present incarnation of public schooling "is not particularly successful in cultivating students' ability to think critically about knowledge, about themselves, or about their world" (p. 4).

The benefits of cooperative learning

This process of socialization is a factor in many academics' arguments for cooperative learning.  Solomon, et al. (1990) advocate cooperative learning as a procedure for promoting "prosocial orientation," that is, "an attitude of concern for others, a commitment to the values of fairness and social responsibility, and the ability and inclination to act on these values in everyday life" (p. 231).  If used effectively, cooperative learning seems to be a stratagem by which moral education may maintained in public schools without the encroachment of lessons of the same content, only of a more religious bent.

Sharan and Sharan (1992) report that cooperative learning embodies Dewey's process of learning as equal parts social, emotional, and intellectual events.  Dewey's argument is summarized as modeling students' experience in school after what they will experience in real life.  This continuity between lived experience and schooling environment is essential to maintaining a democratic society from generation to generation.

The only means by which students demonstrate their individuality is through competition.  Whether this competition is directed toward positive goals (e.g., higher grades, student government) or more dubious endeavors (disruption) is perhaps irrelevant.  Sharan and Sharan (1992) argue that the emphasis be placed on cooperation.  Roy and McMullen (1996) report that the authors of Survival on the Fast Track (Kovack, 1989) advise that employees should abandon their competitive drive in favor of a more team oriented frame.  In the book When Smart People Fail by Hyatt and Gottleib (1987), the number one reason why people loose their jobs was poor interpersonal skills.  This is corroborated by a government study which found that 85% of instances where individuals loose their jobs occurs not for lack of technical skills, but rather interpersonal ones (reported in Roy and McMullen, 1996).

Cooperative learning has many other practical benefits.  Students participate in activities which resemble those in which they will be expected to take part in the modern job market.  Stahl (1996a) points out that effectively operated classrooms succeed in nurturing shared thinking, debate resulting from analysis, and group consensus-reaching under this so-called corporate model of education.  Furthermore, cooperative learning not only accommodates multiple learning styles, at its best it actually reaches those students who might otherwise have been forsaken by traditional teaching methods.

Stahl (1996b) points out that, because of the verbal interaction inherent in this strategy, situations where cooperative learning is employed maximize students' opportunity to master difficult language associated with various subjects, particularly the sciences where a new vocabulary must be adopted for concepts to be assimilated.

Compared to students engaged in other, more traditional academic approaches, cooperative learners tend to demonstrate a higher proficiency in critical thinking situations, are generally more engaged in more on-task behavior, and have more positive attitudes toward faculty, classmates, and subject matter.  Sharan and Sharan (1992) elaborate that cooperative learning affects students positively from four (somewhat overlapping) angles: the sense of academic achievement, the intrinsic motivation of the students, the social interaction which makes cooperative learning seem such a bright contrast from traditional methods, and, finally, the teacher's style of addressing students and conversing with them which seems to change as the class roles have shifted.

Achieving real learning

The benefits having been tallied, why, then, does cooperative learning work?  Knight and Bohlmeyer (1990), summarizing several studies suggest that "group rewards and individual accountability... [create] peer norms and sanctions that encourage children to learn" (p. 8).  Further, the active role students take in the learning process aids in retention as well as increasing interest and participation in learning situations.  Cooperative learning is a self-sustaining process wherein success is a likely outcome.  The more the learner has the opportunity to participate the more he/she will actively participate.

Cooperative learning allows teachers to move students from mere imitation to intrinsic ownership of the material.  Students create their own knowledge in an active manner and should be allowed to express their understandings in their own unique manners.  This tends to result in a more profound sense of ownership of the class, which inclines students to feel they have a stake in the class, and should not disrupt it lest they loose their new, active role.

Making the transition

Much of the resistance to transforming a traditional classroom into a cooperative learning environment springs from the stark contrasts between the two very different approaches.  Roy and McMullen (1996) list some of these differences:  In a traditional classroom students must complete their own work; cooperative learning expects them to work with others.  Desks in the traditional classroom are typically situated in an "eyes forward" arrangement, quietly listening to the teacher's instruction, whereas cooperative learners face and learn from their peers in a less-than-serene atmosphere.

Should teachers feel at ease with this frequently unsettling method and choose to implement it in their own classrooms, they should be aware that habituating students to this novel arrangement can be a major obstacle.  Roy and McMullen (1996) contend that "students will not develop group process skills unless they are taught them directly and have an opportunity to practice those skills with a cooperative group setting" (p. 18).  The authors suggest a number of strategies for conveying expectations both directly as well as indirectly.

Indirectly, teachers might communicate desirable characteristics through both whole class and team building exercises.  Students would be informed directly of what norms they were expected to adhere to (no put-down policy, no interruptions while others are speaking, etc.).  Additionally, performance which teachers crave from their students should be recognized with praise, particularly where instances of cooperation and trust are apparent among group members.

Because this approach differs so markedly from more traditional methods, care is needed to implement cooperative learning effectively.  Stahl (1996b) summarizes from numerous studies a list of fifteen essential elements of cooperative learning.  For the sake of space only a few of these items will be enumerated here.  It is recommended that instructors make learning outcomes clear to students.  Teachers should ensure that all students buy into the task set forth.  In other words, students should see these objectives as their own.  Heterogeneous groupings disrupt cliques and demand that students acquaint themselves with a diverse set of viewpoints and ways of thinking.  Students should also be individually held accountable for mastering the learning objectives.  A final strategy and arguably the most important element to this design is to take time to reflect on behaviors and accomplishments of groups in what may be considered a "debriefing" session.

It seems, then, that the issue of discipline in the class has been altered somehow.  Deliberation is the goal, yet in some teachers' eyes it will perpetually remain a management issue.  Reinsmith (1993, as reported in Stahl, 1996a) points out that "for authentic learning to happen, time should occasionally be wasted, tangents pursued, side-shoots followed up."  In reality, time is never "wasted" when skills and other knowledge has been internalized in a meaningful way.  Traditionalists who attempt this approach may have to acclimate themselves to a new level of noise.  Cooperative learning rejects the postulate that the number of decibels in the classroom is inversely proportional to the amount of learning which may occur.  It may be difficult for some teachers to yield to students' more active presence, but relinquishing "control" is the most important step in making the cooperative learning classroom successful.

Making it work

There are a number of general strategies for operationalizing the concept of cooperative learning.  For one, teachers may assign groups to individually work to explore parts of a larger object or concept.  For example, individual groups may perform presentations on the organelles of a cell, with each member of each group assigned a specific task such as researching, recording information, generating visuals, or coordinating the presentation.  Another strategy (which provides management benefits in and of itself) might be to foster competition between groups in a contest type activity such as a Trivial Pursuit styled review before a test.  Typically, however, the more abstract and open-ended the objective, the better.  Providing students with questions examining the ethical issues of a new medical procedure will surely generate much new thinking and lively debate.

In the methods described above the teacher has an active role at the beginning of a lesson in delivering the assignment and stating the objectives.  The classroom is a cooperative learning environment from that point on.  Or is it?  Roy and McMullen (1996) recommend a debriefing session at the end of a lesson.  This generally serves to connect the lesson to the larger picture and reinforce important details in the material, but it can also be used to enhance cooperation among and between groups by inquiring what processes were effective and which produced no worthwhile results.

Cooperative learning is not for every teacher and even with the best teachers it will not work with every activity.  However, teachers would be wise to forsake some more traditional methods and make an honest effort to investigate this approach as a viable option even if used only intermittently.


Baron, J. and R. Sternberg (Eds.). (1987). Teaching thinking skills. New York: Freeman.

Hyatt, C. and L. Gottleib. (1987). When smart people fail. New York: Penguin Books.

Kaufman, R., C. Westland, and R. Engvall. (1997). "The Dichotomy Between the Concept of Professionalism and the Reality of Sexism in Teaching." Journal of Teacher Education, 48 (2), 118-128.

Kovack, B. (1989). Survival on the fast track. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company.

Knight, G. P. and E. M. Bohlmeyer. (1990). Cooperative learning and achievement: methods for assessing causal mechanisms. In S. Sharan (Ed.), Cooperative Learning: Theory and Research (pp. 1-23). New York: Praeger Publishers.

Postman, N. (1979). Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte Press.

Reinsmith, W. A. (1993). Ten fundamental truths about learning. Educational Leadership, 51 (5): 11-13.

Roy and McMullen (1996) Cultivating group process skills. In R. J. Stahl (Ed.), Cooperative Learning in Science (pp. 17-48). U.S.A.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Sharan, Y. and S. Sharan. (1992). Expanding cooperative learning through group investigation. New York: Teachers' College Press.

Slavin, R. E. (1991). Student team learning: a practical guide to cooperative learning. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association.

Solomon, D., M. Watson, E. Schaps, V. Battistich, and J. Solomon. (1990). Cooperative learning as part of a comprehensive classroom program designed to promote prosocial development. In S. Sharan (Ed.), Cooperative Learning: Theory and Research (pp. 173-202). New York: Praeger Publishers.

Stahl R. J. (1996a). Preface. In R. J. Stahl (Ed.), Cooperative Learning in Science (pp. vii-viii). U.S.A.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Stahl R. J. (1996b). Cooperative learning: a science context and an introduction to its essential elements. In R. J. Stahl (Ed.), Cooperative Learning in Science (pp. 1-16). U.S.A.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Yager, R. E. (1996). Foreword. In R. J. Stahl (Ed.), Cooperative Learning in Science (pp. ix-xii). U.S.A.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Postscript: Some other useful information
Fourteen essential elements of cooperative learning
1. clear set of specific student learning outcomes
2. collective "buy in: to outcome by all students in the group
3. clear and complete set of task-completion instructions
4. heterogeneous groups
5. equal opportunity for success
6. positive interdependence
7. face-to-face interaction
8. positive social interaction behaviors and attitudes
9. access to must-learn information
10. opportunities to finish must-complete information-processing tasks
11. sufficient time spent learning
12. individual accountability (and personal responsibility for learning the targeted content and abilities)
13. public recognition and rewards for group academic success
14. post-group reflection (debriefing) over w/in-group behaviors
(From R. Stahl, 1996b cited above.) 
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