A Common Cause; the buzz that is cooperative learning

The buzz right now is “Cooperative Learning”; staff are on courses for it so students can do it! Our own school’s whole school staff CPD has encouraged us [teachers] to be collaborative and cooperative learners. Recently I was interviewed by a student teacher for her dissertation – Cooperative Learning in the Workshop. And it got me thinking!

Reflecting on this I concluded: We throw the phrase about, but what does it actually entail? What should it actually be and look like?

Here’s my take, my wee bit of CPD reading and research.

Some definitions:


Let’s start with: What is Cooperative Learning?

Well, it’s more than having students working in groups, more than working together in the workshop or on a class project. The teacher is required to structure interdependence and independent learning among students within a cooperative structure. The teacher’s role changes from that of giving information to facilitating learning; the rationale being that everyone succeeds when the group succeeds. Interestingly, the SQA support this hypothesis:

SQA quote1

Ross and Smyth (1995) describe successful cooperative learning tasks as intellectually demanding, creative, open-ended, and involve higher order thinking tasks. I find that Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) minor but significant modifications to Bloom’s (original) taxonomy a useful rubric to inform my lesson structure in this regard.

Johnson et al. (2006) assert the structure for cooperative learning involves five key components which can be employed in a variety of ways and is more than simply putting students into groups to learn. There are also different types of cooperative groups appropriate for different situations.

Five Key Elements (Johnson et al., 2006).

Positive Interdependence: This can be achieved by way of mutual goals, division of labor, materials, roles, or by making part of each student’s grade dependent on the performance of the group. You’ll know when you’ve succeeded in structuring positive interdependence when students perceive that they “sink or swim together.” Group members must believe that each person’s efforts benefit not only them, but all group members.

Individual Accountability: The essence of individual accountability in cooperative learning is that of “students learn together, but perform alone.” This ensures that no one can “hitch-hike” on the work of others. A lesson’s goals must be clear enough that students are able to measure whether (a) the group is successful in achieving them, and (b) individual members are successful in achieving them as well.

Face-to-Face (Promotive) Interaction: Important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics only occur when students promote each other’s learning. This includes oral explanations of how to solve problems, discussing the nature of the concepts being learned, and connecting present learning with past knowledge. It is through face-to-face, promotive interaction that members become personally committed to each other as well as to their mutual goals.

Interpersonal and Small Group Social Skills: In cooperative learning groups, students learn academic subject matter (taskwork) and also interpersonal and small group skills (teamwork). Thus, a group must know how to provide effective leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict management. Given the complexity of these skills, teachers can encourage much higher performance by teaching cooperative skill components within cooperative lessons. As students develop these skills, later group projects will probably run more smoothly and efficiently than early ones.

Group Processing: After completing their task, students must be given time and procedures for analyzing how well their learning groups are functioning and how well social skills are being employed. Group processing involves both taskwork and teamwork, with an eye to improving it on the next project.

Via serc.carleton.edu

Brown & Ciuffetelli Parker (2009) and Siltala (2010) discuss the 5 basic and essential elements to cooperative learning:

  1. Positive interdependence
  • Students must fully participate and put forth effort within their group
  • Each group member has a task/role/responsibility therefore must believe that they are responsible for their learning and that of their group
  1. Face-to-Face Promotive Interaction
  • Members promote each other’s success
  • Students explain to one another what they have or are learning and assist one another with understanding and completion of assignments
  1. Individual and Group Accountability
  • Each student must demonstrate master of the content being studied
  • Each student is accountable for their learning and work, therefore eliminating “social loafing”
  1. Social Skills
  • Social skills that must be taught in order for successful cooperative learning to occur
  • Skills include effective communication, interpersonal and group skills





Conflict-management skills

  1. Group Processing
  • Every so often groups must assess their effectiveness and decide how it can be improved


What becomes apparent as I read through these ‘essential elements’ to cooperative learning is that the phase ‘Life Skills’ comes to mind time and again. As an ex-engineer I’m more than aware that teamwork is essential in modern workplaces. Most projects need different kinds of experts, or at least a division of labour. All jobs require the ability to communicate, cooperate, assess, and delegate. Even outside of work, it is generally necessary to get along with and communicate with other people.

Johnson et al., 1998 stress that the most successful individuals in business, research, and school are the least competitive.

These ‘essential elements’ to cooperative learning remind me of something I once saw/read:


In discussing my take on cooperative learning with the student teacher I realised how much my teaching has changed and just how much cooperative learning happens in my classrooms, whether intentionally or by natural evolution.

Cooperative learning is no panacea, it is one of many approaches that needs to be embraced by teachers in the 21st century. It’s also fraught with challenges; not least of which is the spector of failure. That said if you, like me, have a supportive culture (particularly from senior management) in your school, then “To Dare is to Do”!

Having explored what cooperative learning is my next assignment is to look at the benefits and then how my teaching has changed and in this context what happens in my classroom … Watch this blog!


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