Cooperative Learning – Critical Review of Literature

Published: 2019/12/09 Number of words: 6557

Literature review


Mahatma Gandhi stated, “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children” (Crowe & Wertz, 2007, p. 2). The CooperativeLearningCenter at the University of Minnesota stressed the importance of positive conflict in schools. The literature suggests that conflicts should be structured and encouraged between students. By doing this, schools empower students to improve their classroom climate, thus improving the quality of instruction. However, to accomplish this, students need to be trained on the necessary skills required to resolve interpersonal conflicts in a positive manner (Johnson & Johnson, 2002).

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is the use of small groups of students working together to increase their personal learning and that of their group members. Students are placed into small groups. The teacher then gives directions and an assignment. The group works together until all members of the group understand and complete the task (Johnson & Johnson, 2005a). Participants in the groups work together for the benefit of everyone in the group. The slogan is, “we will sink or swim together.” A key outcome of cooperative learning is positive interdependence. The work of Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology best exhibits this concept: we can be no stronger than the weakest member of the group. Positive interdependence is defined by the concept that students will succeed only if the entire group obtains their goals (Deutsch, 1962; Johnson & Johnson, 1989). A key underlying concept is that no single group member has all the answers to every question. Success depends on both individual and group efforts.

Cooperative, competitive and individualistic efforts in the classroom have different effects on the learning of students. Cooperative learning uses small groups of students working together to achieve academic goals. The opposite of this concept is competitive learning. In competitive learning, students work against each other to achieve an academic goal or grade, though only a few students will achieve this goal. In the middle is individualist learning. Students work by themselves and achieve goals unrelated to the other members of the class. The advantage of cooperative learning is that the teacher may use it with any subject and curriculum. There are limits to competitive and individualistic learning (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998).

History of Cooperative Learning

The first use of cooperative learning occurred over 3000 years ago in the Talmud. The Talmud has two parts: the Mishnah, which is the written components of Judaism’s Oral law; and the Gemara, a discussion of the Mishnah. The terms Talmud and Gemara are often used interchangeably. The Talmud is the book of authority for Jewish law, stories, ethics, and customs. While studying the Talmud, Rabbis had their students work in pairs and engage in lively debates. The Talmud states that for someone to learn they must have a learning partner (Chevelen, 1998) Around 250 B.C., a reference in the Old Testament refers to cooperative learning. This reference is found in Ecclesiastes. This book, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Koheleth, a word meaning “one who convenes an assembly,” is sometimes referred to as The Preacher. Ecclesiastes consists of reflections on some of the deepest problems of life, as they present themselves to the thoughtful observer. The author describes himself as “son of David, King in Jerusalem.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-11 states, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow” (Old Testament, unknown, 1979).

Other early philosophers stressed the importance of working cooperatively. Quintillion, in the first century, felt that students could benefit from teaching one another (Krostenko, 2001). Around the same time period, Seneca, a Roman philosopher, believed in the phrase “Qui Docet Discet.” Translated, it means, “When you teach, you learn twice” (Johnson & Johnson, 1994, p. 14). Johann Amos Comenius, born in 1592 in Moravia, now the Czech Republic, was an educator, writer and scientist. Comenius was an early proponent of universal education. He supported this principle in his book Didatica magna in the late 1600s. He felt that students would gain knowledge by teaching and receiving instruction from one another (Gundem, 1992).

Over a century later, in the late 1700s, Dr. Andrew Bell, a Scottish Anglican priest and educator, developed the Madras System of Education. This system became known as mutual instruction in schools in England (Pachori, 1983). A contemporary of Andrew Bell, Joseph Lancaster, an English Quaker and public education innovator, founded a free elementary school in Southwark, England. Lancaster’s ideas were not as original as Dr. Bell’s. Lancaster’s theory, precursory in nature, required students to show proof of learning the material. Students were rewarded for their accomplishment by teaching the information to the next student. Today, we refer to this as peer tutoring. Lancaster wrote Improvements in Education. He came to America in 1803 to promote and lecture his ideas. The height of his success came in the early nineteenth century. Lancaster established The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor in 1808 (Rayman, 1981).

In the early nineteenth century, the Common School Movement was organised in the United States. Horace Mann originated the term “common school”. Common schools were meant to serve students of all religions and social classes, or at least white children. An elected school board usually controlled these schools. Many of these schools used cooperative learning in their curriculum (Kaestle, 1983). During this same time period, Colonel Frances Parker brought his strong belief in cooperative learning to the public schools. While serving as the superintendent of public schools for Quincy, Massachusetts, over 30,000 visitors per year came to examine the successful use of cooperative learning strategies (Campbell, 1965). The belief in cooperative learning continued to be felt throughout the beginning of the next century. John Dewey, a colleague of Parker, used cooperative learning groups in his famous project in education (Dewey, 1924). Cooperative learning became part of John Dewey’s experimental classroom and was present in most American schools until the 1940s, at which point it fell out of favour for about 30 years.

Johnson and Johnson, in the 1960s, started teaching educators how to use cooperative learning at the University of Minnesota. They found that cooperative learning was a new paradigm of teaching. The old paradigm (Johnson et al., 1998) was based on John Locke’s theory that students are like blank sheets of paper waiting for teachers to write on these sheets (Appendix A). They organised the Cooperative Learning Center to help synthesise the research and information about cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1974). The center helped to develop models about cooperative learning and its important parts. A program of research was conducted to validate a theory of strategies to be used in classrooms and schools. A central part of the centre was to build a network of colleges and schools that used cooperative learning in the United States and other countries throughout the world (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Seminars conducted at the center helped teach educators how to use cooperative learning in their classrooms and schools. The development of cooperative learning continued from the 1970s through the 1990s. These were prolific decades and many new cooperative learning techniques were developed to improve student learning (see Appendix B).

Social Interdependence Theory

The theoretical roots of cooperative learning are: a) social interdependence, b) cognitive development, and c) behavioral learning theory (Johnson et al., 1998; see Appendix C).

Human interaction is essential for human survival. The definition of social interdependence in education can be summarised as “students’ efforts to achieve and develop positive relationships, adjust psychologically, and show social competence” (Johnson et al., 1998, p. 318). The classroom strategies implemented by the teacher determine how students interact with each other. The goal is positive interaction, which creates an environment of cooperation, thus resulting in students encouraging fellow classmates’ academic efforts (Johnson & Johnson, 2005a).

In the early 1900s, Kurt Kafa, a founder of Gestalt psychology, found that groups “were dynamic wholes in which the interdependence among members could vary” (Johnson et al., 1998, p. 36). In the 1920s and 1930s, Lewin (1948) added to Kafa’s theory. He found the common goals shared by group members created a dynamic whole that changed the attitudes of other members or subgroups. In addition, Lewin reported that group tension helped motivate the group to achieve their desired outcomes. Morton Deutsch, one of Lewin’s students, developed a theory around competition and cooperation (Deutsch, 1949, 1962). A graduate student of Deutsch, Roger Johnson, in the 1960s, developed the social interdependence theory (Johnson & Johnson, 1974, 1989). Johnson et al., (1998) stated, “Positive interdependence (cooperation) results in promotive interactions as individuals encourage and facilitate each other’s efforts to achieve. Negative interdependence (competition) typically results in oppositional interaction as individuals discourage and obstruct each other’s efforts to achieve” (p. 36). When there is no interaction between the group members, members work individually and no interchange occurs.

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Cognitive developmental theory is based on the work of Jean Piaget and Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. Piaget (1950) found that students working in cooperative groups would participate in discussions. As a natural part of these discussions, conflicts would occur and solutions achieved. Vygotsky (1978) concluded that knowledge was social. His theory is based on students working together to solve, learn and understand problems. The exchange in the group would provide insights and weaknesses, which would correct the group’s understanding. This understanding enabled the group to correct its ideas and grow from each other. Later, Johnson and Johnson (2005a) discovered the importance that academic controversy plays in learning. According to Johnson and Johnson (2005a), conflict helped group members to pause and consider others’ views. When group members were presented with opposing views, it caused a cognitive restructuring. This resulted in improved academic performance of group members (Johnson et al., 1998).

Behavioral Learning Theory

Behavioral learning examines the rewards of group learning. This theory stresses the importance of examining the reinforcers for the group. Johnson et al., (1998) stated,

Skinner focused on group contingencies, Bandura focused on imitation, and Homans as well as Thibaut and Kelley focused on the balance of rewards and costs in social exchange among interdependence and individuals. More recently, (Slavin, 1980) has emphasized the need for extrinsic group rewards to motivate efforts to learn in cooperative learning groups. (p. 39)

Behind the learning theory perspective is the premise that actions followed by extrinsic rewards (group contingencies) are repeated. Thus, cooperative efforts are powered by extrinsic motivation to achieve group rewards.

Why Use Cooperative Learning?

Some educators and parents ask why use cooperative learning? This question is answered by analysing the research. The first cooperative learning research was conducted in 1898. Since that time, over 600 experimental and over 100 correlational studies have been conducted (Johnson et al., 1998). They stated, “The multiple outcomes studied can be classified into three major categories: efforts to achieve, positive relationships, and psychological health. From the research we know that cooperation, compared with competitive and individualistic efforts, typically results in higher student achievement” (pp. 16-17).

First, students experience a greater effort to achieve when engaged in cooperative learning. This increased productivity was observed in high, medium and low-achieving students. Other positive results are increases in motivation, critical thinking and time-on-task. Second, students also experience more affirmative relationships with fellow students, valuing of diversity improves and students truly become cohesive in their groups. Third, students experience improved psychological health. Researchers have noted improvement in psychological adjustment, self-esteem, social competencies, self-identity and coping with stress (Johnson et al., 1998).

What Makes Cooperative Groups Work?

Cooperative learning is not simply having students work in groups. Students will not automatically cooperate with one another, as many teachers can attest. A teacher must structure his or her lessons. These lessons must be prearranged cooperatively, with thought and purpose (Johnson et al., 1998). The five essential components of cooperative learning are: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills and group processing. If these elements are integrated, cooperative efforts will occur and students will achieve great success. First, positive interdependence happens in a group when the members are linked to one another. The Cooperative Learning Center reported that positive interdependence emphasises: (a) the importance of each group member, (b) individual group members are vital for the group’s success, and (c) each group member has the potential to make a large contribution because of their individual resources and assigned group task. When a group creates this positive interdependence, the success of the group and the members become the “heart of cooperative learning” (Cooperative Learning, 2005, p. 3).

The second element of cooperative learning is face-to-face interaction. By sharing each other’s resources, students learn to encourage and support one another. Essential cognitive activities that occur during face-to-face interaction help explain how to solve problems, teach one another, check for understanding, and discuss the concepts being learned. Through this process, the students become committed to each other and their educational goals (Cooperative Learning, 2005). Individual and group accountability is the third element of cooperative learning. Each group member is assigned a task and is responsible to the teacher and their fellow group members for the accomplishment of this task. Next, the group must be held accountable for reaching its educational goal. The CooperativeLearningCenter reports, “The purpose of cooperative learning groups is to make each member a stronger individual in his or her right. Students learn together so that they subsequently can gain greater individual competency” (p. 3).

Cooperative Learning Research

A recent meta-analysis by Johnson, Johnson, and Roseth (2006), researched over 4,000 articles concerning cooperative learning. This meta-analysis focused on three elements: effect on achievement, effect on relationships and effect of relationships to achievement. The results confirmed that students using cooperative learning scored higher academically than students exposed to traditional teaching strategies. In addition, cooperative learning promotes positive relationships between students. Students need to have caring friends and a supportive peer group. Teachers using cooperative learning help students establish these relationships (Johnson et al., 2006).

Ryan, Reid, and Epstein (2004) found in research conducted with Emotional Behavior Disorder Students (EBD) that successes were achieved in all subject areas and grade levels when cooperative learning was used. Holliday (2002) found strong positive results using cooperative learning with 503 inner city middle school students in Gary, Indiana. The achievement results showed that cooperative learning strategies worked well with at-risk students. Further, cooperative learning was the preferred method of learning by the students.

Gewertz (2006) reported that the Hidalgo, Texas school district saw a steady increase of students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills between the years 1994-2003. Over 90 percent of the students met educational standards in all core subjects. Most Hidalgo students were poor and from Latino families. The main educational strategy used was cooperative learning. Officials noted that school attendance increased dramatically, as well as the number of students enrolled in advanced placement courses. Cialdella, Herling, and Hoefler (2002) conducted an 8-week study involving cooperative learning and multiple intelligences to increase student performance and motivation. The data showed an increase in grades at the elementary and middle school levels. An increase in positive behavior was noted along with fewer missing assignments. Atsuta (2003) conducted research on motivating English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) at-risk learners in Japanese high schools. One major finding of the study was that cooperative learning was extremely successful with this particular group. The students in cooperative learning classrooms were more successful academically and more responsible. In addition, a more comfortable classroom atmosphere was achieved. Jenkins, Antil, Wayne, and Vadasy (2003) interviewed 21 educators who used cooperative learning on a weekly basis. The teachers’ unanimously responded that cooperative learning has many benefits for at-risk students. Teachers observed improvements in student self-esteem, classroom atmosphere, academic performance and assignment completion.

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