Cooperative learning was first proposed in response to traditional curriculum-driven education. It is a strategy in which small groups of students with different levels of ability engage in a variety of activities to improve their understanding of the topic. Each member of the group is responsible for learning what is taught, but also for helping other group members learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement for all. Students work through the task until all members of the group understand the concept. Inherent in cooperative learning is the assumption that learning is an active, constructive process that depends on rich context, that it is social in nature, and that it works best with diverse learners.
Cooperative learning is based on the social interdependence theories of Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch.
These theories and associated research explore the influence of social structure on individual interactions within a given situation, which then affect the outcome of those interactions. David Johnson and Roger Johnson (University of Minnesota), Elizabeth Cohen (Stanford University), and Robert Slavin (Johns Hopkins University) have spent years researching cooperative learning and are considered pioneers in this area.
Cooperative learning groups typically include the following key components: social interaction of students within groups, group incentives that motivate students to urge others in the group to perform well, equal opportunity for each member, specialization of tasks, individual accountability, and competition among groups. It is important that educators do not mistake this strategy as group work, in which students are merely seated next to each other and possibly create a product together. Cooperative learning, instead, is characterized by both individual and group accountability and achievement. Students should be arranged in heterogeneous groups, and should be given clear expectations for cooperative learning tasks.
Five elements are crucial to cooperative learning groups:
- Positive interdependence means that the efforts of each group member are required in order for the group to succeed. It is based on the belief that each group member has something unique to contribute because of his or her resources and/or role or responsibility in the task.
- Face-to-face interaction refers to the group members promoting success for each other. Group members teach what they know to the other members and orally explain, describe, and talk their way through solving problems. Each group member checks to see that other members are gaining understanding of the topic or task.
- Individual and group accountability means that no one gets out of doing work and that each member is responsible for contributing. This element happens more easily when group sizes are small, when they are observed for participation, and when members are assigned roles or tasks.
- Interpersonal and small group skills refers to the various social skills that must be present (and often must be taught) to cooperative learning groups. They include, but are not limited to leadership, conflict management, communication, trust building, and decision making.
- Group processing refers to the ability of the group to discuss how well they are achieving their goals, how effectively they are working, what they are each doing that is helpful, and the ability to make decisions about behaviors that are helping (or hurting) the group.
Cooperative learning is thought to be popular and easy to implement at any grade level. Results have included: improved behavior and attendance, increased motivation and self-confidence, increased liking of school and fellow students, and improved academic achievement. Cooperative learning is also thought to increase self-esteem, utilize higher-level thinking skills, increase students’ appreciation of different points of view, develop social skills, and enhance students’ satisfaction with their learning experiences.
Classroom activities that promote cooperative learning include: think-pair-share, round-robin brainstorming, jigsaw, numbered heads, literature circles, and reciprocal teaching.
- Balkcom, A. (1992). Cooperative learning. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
- Deutsch, M. (1949). A theory of cooperation and competition. Human Relations, 2, 129–152.
- Eble, K. (1976). The craft of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction.
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