Learning together and alone

David Johnson and Roger Johnson argue that peers have positive influences on learning only within a cooperative context, and explain the basic elements that make cooperation work

There are three types of cooperative learning – formal, informal, and base groups. These types were derived from social interdependence theory, which has been validated by more than 1,200 research studies.

Power of peer interaction

Traditionally the interaction between adults and children is viewed as the most important vehicle for ensuring: effective learning; cognitive, moral, and social development; and socialization into the competencies, attitudes, and values needed to be contributing members of society.

What we know
● Peer interaction may promote achievement; healthy cognitive, moral, and social development; and socialization into the competencies, attitudes, and values needed to be contributing members of society.
● Constructive peer interaction requires that students spend most of the day in cooperative learning groups.
● To be cooperative, a lesson must include positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, appropriate use of social skills, and group processing.
● The interaction among theory, research, and practice makes cooperative learning one of the strongest instructional procedures available to educators.

Peer interaction is frequently assumed to be an unhealthy influence resulting in anti-social behavior. But theorists such as Sigmund Freud, Erik Erickson, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Jean Piaget disagreed. They argued that high-quality peer interaction is essential for cognitive, moral, and social development, psychological well-being, and academic learning.

In a recent meta-analysis, we demonstrated that positive relationships with classmates accounted for about one-third of the variance in achievement. Not all peer interaction is constructive. To be constructive, peer interaction needs to occur primarily within cooperative contexts. For positive peer interaction to occur day after day, schools need to ensure that most instruction is structured cooperatively.

Learning Together and Alone

The power of cooperative learning lies in the inter-relationships among theory, research, and practice. In our research reviews, we located more than 1,200 studies that reported enough data to calculate effect sizes. The studies were conducted from the 1890s to the present. We organized the findings within the framework of social interdependence theory. In addition, we personally have conducted more than 100 research studies to validate, modify, and refine social interdependence theory.

From the validated theory, we derived practical procedures for implementing cooperative learning from preschool through graduate school and adult training programs. These practical procedures are known as Learning Together and Alone. We have helped to implement our cooperative learning procedures in schools, universities, businesses, hospitals, and other settings in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific Rim, the Middle East, and Africa.

Our experiences in implementing cooperative learning highlighted shortcomings in social interdependence theory that needed to be corrected. We conducted new research, modified the practical procedures, and implemented the revised procedures in schools and universities. It is this combination of theory, research, and practice that gives cooperative learning its strength and longevity.

Social interdependence theory

Social interdependence theory has its roots in Gestalt psychology. Kurt Koffka proposed in the early 1900s that groups were dynamic wholes in which interdependence among members could vary. In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin stated that the essence of a group is the interdependence among members created by common goals. In the 1940s, Morton Deutsch developed a theory of cooperation and competition in which he noted that goal interdependence can be positive (cooperation), negative (competition), or non-existent (individualistic efforts).

Beginning in the 1960s, we have extended and refined social interdependence theory. The basic premise of social interdependence theory is that the way interdependence is structured determines how individuals interact, which in turn determines outcomes.

Positive interdependence results in promotive interaction, in which individuals encourage and facilitate each other’s efforts to achieve. Negative interdependence results in oppositional interaction, in which individuals discourage and obstruct each other’s efforts to achieve. In the absence of goal interdependence there is no interaction as individuals work independently.

Typically, cooperation tends to promote greater efforts to achieve, more positive relationships, and greater psychological health than do competitive or individualistic efforts.

The three types of cooperative learning

Three types of cooperative learning may be derived from social interdependence theory: formal cooperative learning, informal cooperative learning, and cooperative base groups. From these procedures, any lesson in any curriculum in any subject area for any age student in any level of schooling may be structured to be cooperative.

Formal cooperative learning consists of students working together for anything from one class period to several weeks to achieve shared learning goals and jointly complete specific tasks and assignments. For formal cooperative learning, teachers:

  • Make pre-instructional decisions to plan and structure the lesson.
  • Explain the task and the positive interdependence to the students.
  • Monitor students’ interactions and intervene to provide task or teamwork assistance.
  • Assess and evaluate students’ learning, and help students process how well their groups functioned and how effectively they have been working together.

Informal cooperative learning consists of having students work together to achieve a joint learning goal in ad-hoc groups that last from a few minutes to one class period. Students in informal cooperative learning groups engage in three-to-five minute focused discussions before and after a lecture and two-to-three minute turn-to-your-partner discussions interspersed every 10 to 15 minutes throughout a lecture. The brief dialogues ensure that they cognitively process the material being taught.

Cooperative base groups are long-term cooperative learning groups with stable membership in which members provide the support, encouragement, and assistance they need to make academic progress and hold members accountable for striving to learn. Typically, cooperative base groups last for the duration of the semester or year. Base groups meet at the beginning and end of each class session (or week) to complete academic tasks (such as checking each member’s homework), routine tasks (such as taking attendance), and personal support tasks (such as providing guidance for writing a paper).

A typical class session may begin with a base group meeting, followed by a short lecture using informal cooperative learning, a formal cooperative learning lesson, another short lecture involving informal cooperative learning, and a closing base group meeting.

These three cooperative learning procedures form the basis for organizing the cooperative school. At the school level, faculty and staff can meet weekly in teaching teams (base groups), engage in school-based decision making (formal cooperative learning), and engage in short pair discussions during presentations at faculty meetings (informal cooperative learning).

When to be competitive and individualistic

From social interdependence theory and our research, we formulated the conditions under which competition and individualistic efforts may be constructive.

Competition tends to be more constructive when winning is relatively unimportant, all participants have a reasonable chance to win, and there are clear, specific, and fair rules, procedures, and criteria for winning.

Individualistic efforts tend to be most appropriate when the goal is perceived to be important, students expect to be successful, the task is unitary and non-divisible, directions for completing the task are simple and clear, where there is adequate space and resources for each student, and when the fruits of the individual efforts will be used subsequently in a cooperative effort.

About the authors

David W Johnson is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. He has authored more than 500 research articles and book chapters, and more than 50 books.

Roger T Johnson is a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. Roger and David are Co-Directors of the Cooperative Learning Center.

Further reading

Johnson DW and Johnson RT (1989), Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson DW and Johnson RT (1994), Leading the Cooperative School (2nd Ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson DW and Johnson RT (2009), An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365–79.

Johnson DW, Johnson RT, and Holubec E (2013), Cooperation in the Classroom (9th Ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

What we know l Peer interaction may promote achievement; healthy cognitive, moral, and social development; and socialization into the competencies, attitudes, and values needed to be contributing members of society. l Constructive peer interaction requires that students spend most of the day in cooperative learning groups. l To be cooperative, a lesson must include positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, appropriate use of social skills, and group processing. l The interaction among theory, research, and practice makes cooperative learning one of the strongest instructional procedures available to educators.

 

Published

December 2015