In this interview with Dr. Roger Johnson, Author, Director of Cooperative Learning Institute at the University of Minnesota, talks about the what cooperative learning actually means, how it contrasts with competitive learning, and the research that has been conducted around its effectiveness.

“When you put people together to learn, and get them really invested in each others’ learning, a lot of good things happen: achievement goes up, they develop more positive attitudes towards the subject matter, towards each other – even in very diverse settings, more acceptance of differences grows, self-esteem increases. So on lots and lots of different measures, we are saying, essentially, in the classroom when people are learning, people are at their best when they are connected to each other and maybe at their worst when they are isolated from one another for long periods of time.” (TVSBSC Interview)

This is an ideal interview to watch/listen to as a conclusion to this module. Dr. Johnson touches on several themes and ideas that have been covered in the previous pages – the importance of knowing your peers and supporting them, team building, trust building – and ties them together with a theory of teaching and learning that has been well researched, tested, and proven effective in not only creating peaceable learning environments but also increasing educational achievement and preparing students for life and work outside of school.



Reflection Question: At about 5 minutes into the interview, Dr. Johnson describes five elements of cooperative learning that draw from social interdependence theory – positive interdependence, individual accountability, cooperative skills, group processing, and face to face interaction. Think of a learning experience of which you have been a part where at least one of these elements was effectively practiced or demonstrated. What did that experience look like and how was it facilitated?

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20 thoughts on “3.6

  1. The idea of positive interdependence being essential for productive cooperative learning is very interesting to me. I went to a very large urban high school (3,500 students) that was known for churning out many very highly achieving students (sending many students to Ivy Leagues and other prestigious 4-year universities) as well as a pretty high drop out rate (we started as a class of 900 and graduated with 760). So a few years before I started high school a few teachers joined together to form a small school within in the high school, which I became a part of. This small school called CAS had roughly 80 students in each grade and we all took all of our core subjects together for all 4 years of high school. The selection process for the participating in the small school was very intentional about making sure each class of 80 students was representative of the demographics of the larger student body — in other words, it combined those students who were predicted to succeed at high rates as well as those who were unfortunately seen as being at a higher risk of being unsuccessful. (Note that we were not at all labeled as being part of one group or the other, but rather we knew about the intentionality of having very diverse classrooms). The idea being exactly what Dr. Johnson describes as positive intentionality. The rest of the school was very divided along racial and social lines both in and outside of classrooms. Sports teams were generally heterogeneous, advanced placement classes were majority white and asian students or students of highly educated parents, etc. etc. So when we signed up for CAS, we committed to not taking any AP classes for our core subjects that we would be succeeding together. The curriculum also had a social justice theme, for example we ready Howard Zinn as well as the state-provided history texts.

    This program is very successful. There is a very low drop out rate and a much higher than average (for the rest of the school) rate of admittance to 4-year universities. I really believe in this model and even went on to major in Community Development as an undergraduate. I’m glad to now know to call this concept “positive interdependence” and social interdependence theory!

  2. A couple of years ago, I took a class in facilitating online learning. From week 2 of this class we were divided into small learning communities of 4 to 5. At the end of the course, each group was responsible for producing a collection of websites related to an assigned topic. Each person was to research a website and write a summary and citation for it. Then each site was to have 2 peer reviews. Our presentations could take any form but the end product had to be posted electronically. As expected, the rubric required everyone’s fully participation – That forged our cooperative relationship for in order for anyone to be successful, everyone had to fully participate. We successfully implemented the following aspects of cooperative learning:
    Cooperative skills – First we established, in our private forum, the form our end product would take, regular progress check points and deadlines, and who would do what. (Fortunately through our previous interactions we’d already built a level of trust.)
    Positive Interdependence – Because of our group planning and previous weeks’ training in posting voice and tone, we had a health working relationship and as we progressed with the project we grew more comfortable with our interdependence. (Note: Even when one team member lost internet connectivity, we trusted her enough to call in and fax her components and she trusted us enough to key in and layout her materials (website summary, evaluation, and citation as well as her critiques of the other websites) in our collective PowerPoint presentation.
    Individual Accountability – Each person was responsible for selecting a related website, its summary, evaluation, and citation as well as 2 critiques of the other websites.
    Group Processing – because we worked in google docs, we were able to track individual and collective progress daily. And at regular intervals, we stopped to group assess the product via our forum.
    Face to Face interaction – Working is Google docs also afforded us virtual face time. I particularly remember one morning; I logged on and had a great conversation with another team member about her newborn grandchild (I knew who she was by her font color.)
    That week’s facilitator was very effective at keeping us motivated.

  3. My students do a great job of cooperative learning. Before I have a unit test in my health class, we do a jeopardy review game. Its always exciting to see the groups work together to come up with the answers. The individual accountability comes when test is distributed. The students normally do well because of that particular group activity.

  4. The best example I can think of for cooperative learning comes from my past experience working at a radio station. There were many different pieces of the puzzle in that environment, with each person playing their own role in an effort to make the whole puzzle complete. For example, there were editors, writers, anchors, various kinds of reporters (news, entertainment, sports, traffic, weather) and sound technicians. Each person had an individual job that, if not done correctly, would affect the product that would be put on the air. Some of the pillars that Dr. Johnson talked about like individual accountability, cooperative skills and group processing were all part of what made a successful radio station.

    I also thought an interesting part of Dr. Johnson’s interview was the idea of teaching depth versus just merely covering the material. He presented this idea that if you teach the material better and to a greater depth, the students will be able to retain the information better and use it at a later date. Looking back at my past learning experiences, I realize that the material that still sticks in my mind today is the material that teachers spent multiple days or lessons teaching, or material that was presented in an interesting way. As I prepare to enter teaching, this is something I will be conscious of… the importance of not just giving a lecture and glazing over material, but making sure the important points are covered thoroughly and in a way that makes students retain the knowledge.

  5. Their are so many different names for “group work” in education it is crazy. I live on group work because for me students learn more from their peers. The teacher gives the meat of the lesson and then with her students being trained (lack of better words) they go to their groups and discuss what should be done. For me and the dividing of my groups I do it most of the time. I always have at least 4 to 5 students or I call them assistant coaches that know the information well and those are the leaders of the groups. Yes the class knows this and they strive to become an assistant coach. I also speak with my assistant coaches about what i expect from them and having the team work to find the answers, them assisting them in how to look up answers. This also gives me time to travel from group to group to lend my assistance.

  6. I’ve been a part of many small-group learning experiences, especially in classes, professional developments, meetings, etc. However, I would not describe most of these experiences as cooperative learning because many of the elements of cooperative learning were not present, especially positive interdependence, individual accountability, and group processing. One experience I did have with cooperative learning was during a professional development on movement with one of the Kennedy Center’s artist in residency. During pd, we were put into small groups in order to create a living sculpture (I think that’s what it was called) that incorporated various movements, levels, and positions. There was positive interdependence and individual accountability because we all had to decide on how we would move into the space and freeze in order to construct the sculpture. We used cooperative skills, such as communication, trust, decision making, and conflict resolution, in order to decide on and perform a sculpture that met all of the requirements. After we performed the living sculpture for our colleagues, we were given constructive feedback. We used group processing to reflect and discuss the constructive criticism. We were given an opportunity to make changes to our living sculpture and preformed again for our colleagues. Finally, our work together helped us to get to know each other on a more personal level. This great experience was facilitated by the artist in residency and helped me learn the process so that I could incorporate it into my teaching.

  7. All the aspects of cooperative learning mentioned by Dr. Johnson really reminded me of things we were asked to do at workplace teambuilding retreats: trust falls, balance beams, ropes courses, that stuff. Of course cooperative skills ARE important and DO have a place in the classroom, but its a REAL challenge trying to develop these soft skills and focus on teaching content too… building routines and rituals around affirmations, and shout outs, appreciations, can help students celebrate and recognize each others’ successes and can help positive group dynamic.

    Something bothered me though, after finishing the video: I got hung up on the idea of hitchhikers and it seemed to me that assigning roles was the way to avoid this, but Dr. Johnson seems to not be a fan of assigned roles. So what then is his suggestion for how we should be providing individual accountability? I need ideas.

  8. In classes I’ve often been part of group work but not cooperative learning. My strongest experience with cooperative learning was while working with Education Week newspaper. A whole team of people came together to produce a full-length feature article that often also had multimedia features–reporter, editor, photographer, graphic designer–and every person was needed. The end product was so much more exciting than what I could have produced on my own. It was in everybody’s interest to listen to each other’s ideas and work well together. My favorite project was a multimedia presentation of profiles of a wide variety of English-language learners in schools that involved sound, full-page photographs of each child, and interviews.

    I attended a Kagan workshop on cooperative learning toward the end of the school year and realized that while I thought I’d been leading cooperative learning in my classroom, I’d mostly been assigning group work. It was easy for some kids to “hitchhike” with the group and not do anything. Before school let out I experimented with stepping up the level of structure in the pair work or group work (trying to make assignments that fostered interdependence), but I still need a lot more practice with this.

    It was interesting to me that Alfie Kohn said that assigning roles for students in groups can be really artificial because students switch roles all the time anyway. That was one technique I was going to try next year.

    I think he’s on the mark in saying that supporting intrinsic motivation is much better than extrinsic motivation.

  9. I work with kids at an elementary school, and instead of playing competitive sports or tag, I teach them cooperative games. Often, this is just a variation on the games they already play. For instance, the game of tag can be changed to “blog tag,” which is the same as tag except when you are tagged, you join hands with the tagger until everyone is “it.” We also play a game in which all the kids stand in a circle holding hands and have to get a hula hoop around the the entire circle without disconnecting. These types of games promote positive interdependence because they force the kids to work together to achieve a goal.

  10. For me face to face learning is really important. I think a lot can be accomplished with distanced learning but true cooperative learning is maximized through personal encounters, preferable on a regular basis. I’ve mentioned before my experience in a Peacebuilding and Dialogue course during my undergraduate studies. My professor, an expert in transformative learning, made sure to utilize face to face interactions. In this class we had to complete group interviews, shared storytelling, and dialogue. The dialogue practices she led us through relied on getting to know each other through verbal and written word and by understanding each other’s body language.

  11. Richard Cambridge: The positive interdependence experience which was effectively practiced and demonstrated was Project IMPACT in the Philippines. This project was implemented in an overcrowded primary school with limited teachers. The core concept was that the older students can teach the younger students in an effective way so that real and measure able learning would take place. The persons who facilitated this entire process were the few trained teachers. Indeed, the teachers were specifically trained to manage this process.

  12. While I was a student in Coleman McCarthy’s class I experienced individual accountability in a truly effective manner. Throughout the class we were challenged to do things, but they were never requirements. He would explain why it was helpful, and challenged us to complete it on our own. These suggestions would range from eliminating drinking to writing your childhood teacher’s cards. Though I didn’t complete all of his suggestions, a great amount of the class did and it was awesome to hear their stories of creating their own personal growth.

    I believe this was effective because of the way in which Coleman framed it in terms of bettering yourself, and becoming the best you. At this point, it was our own personal accountability and want to grow that incentivized us. A teacher that can create this atmosphere is one that truly molds education to be about liberation.

  13. Daniel Knoll – Last semester in my US Foreign Policy Class a significant portion of the semester was dedicated to preparing for a round table discussion facilitated by groups of 5 students. We were given a topic (my group had the use of Drones) and we had to become a panel of experts for the class debating each side of the issue. This experience was very much an example of positive interdependence. We quickly realized that our presentation would only be as strong as our weakest link because we had to feed off of one another throughout the presentation. It was not enough to simply be prepared myself. We had to work together as a team, helping one another create the best arguments. This was unlike any classroom “debate” I’d had before because we realized that we weren’t trying to trick each other or “win” an argument. We were on the same team even if what we were saying conflicted. There were also numerous examples of cooperative skills at play, figuring out how to best conduct our group meetings, and how to mitigate conflict between group members, especially as we worked later and later into the night.

  14. For most of my graduate school career “positive interdependence” was key to the learning environment. I have a Master of Fine Arts in Film. This is not a degree one can easily get on their own. Filmmaking is inherently a group activity that requires people to be dependent on each other for success. Even the most gifted filmmakers work in groups. There is such a huge amount of work that goes into making a film that though you might be the director, you are often dependent on the lowliest intern for your film to be a success. In all of the filmmaking classes I took (and that was more than half of my 52 credits), we were required to work in groups to create our films. There was no opting out and there was complete trust required in your group mates to complete a task for you to be successful. As far as facilitation goes, there wasn’t a lot of intervention from the professors. We were grad students and therefore had to work out problems amongst ourselves, like in the professional world. In most cases, though, we were able to pick our own group mates, sort of like hiring your own crew.

  15. As an undergraduate student I was a “Leader Fellow” at my university and as part of the fellowship we were all enrolled in a leadership development class. Assigning a group of identified leaders to one class and asking us to work on assignments in a cooperative team was a challenging task, but one of my most rewarding learning experiences. One instance I recall was a weekend outdoor teambuilding adventure course that employed many of the skills Dr. Johnson spoke of. Most of the teambuilding exercises utilized the positive interdependence element. For example we had to make it over a 10 ft wall.. no one could do this alone. We had to plan a method and build a support frame to work as a group to get each individual over the wall. Throughout the course we used many of the cooperative skills like trust building and communication. The achievement of the tasks provided were all entirely dependent on the ability of the group to work together.

    This experience was effective because we first used a “hands on” approach to cooperative learning by doing this adventure course. Then throughout the semester we were able to draw from the skills we developed in the adventure course and apply them to the classroom setting. Having a visual and physical experience of how cooperative learning can be successful (adventure course) made it more desirable to utilize these skills to have a successful cooperative learning environment within the classroom as well.

  16. I like the statement that cooperative learning involves an idea that others can’t be successful without you and you can’t be successful without them. This is an important concept to think about when designing a cooperative learning environment. In my student teaching I worked in a combination classroom of first, second and third graders. Basically they had two classrooms and two teachers combined who worked together and separated the students based mostly on level versus grade and set up a lot of cooperative learning circles around the room allowing for a lot of self-teaching with teacher support. The older students were sometimes grouped with younger students in order to model the behavior or cooperative skills they had learned over the past two years. Younger students learned not only from the teacher but from older students and from students in their own group. There were a lot of group projects where students had to work together not only on what they were learning but on monitoring each other’s behavior and holding themselves and others accountable. It was a great way for students to really learn how to be independent and make good decisions. Teachers were there for support and to help the students resolve conflicts but everything was student generated. I think this was a great example of cooperative learning that the students really enjoyed. They felt a part of this community of PMAC (primary multi-age classroom) and felt like they had a lot of control over their own learning and behavior (although it was sometimes difficult for them to then move out of this environment in grade 4 and sometimes not have the same trust or involvement- I remember one of my past students having a hard time with not being able to get up and go to the bathroom when he needed to after leaving PMAC… 🙂

  17. I’ve had many learning experiences at AU that included these elements, but far fewer in high school. One that I can remember was in an AP literature and composition class, which required students to peer edit reflection papers. It was quite a personal experience because we got to learn about classmates’ reactions, but it also was an early lesson in individual accountability. Our friends were responsible for making sure there were no glaring mistakes before the assignment was due to be graded. It also facilitated discussion among the editing pairs, where opinions could be shared without the obvious prompting of our teacher.

  18. The lab that I worked in as an undergrad comes to mind when I think of cooperative learning. The research that I did was in cognitive psychology and my research professor did a fantastic job of encouraging us to work together. We each were responsible for pieces of what the group was doing, which held us accountable individually, but also created a situation where we were the expert on whatever piece we were working on and we couldn’t put together a coherent project without using everyone’s input (positive interdependence). We had a weekly time allotment to process as a group and gather input and suggestions from the larger group. I remember taking some time to adjust to working in this lab because the experience was new for me.

    My classroom is eventually built around cooperative groups and at this point in the year, we are really starting to work toward that. Usually I notice that my students really struggle with holding themselves accountable and we are currently working on those skills in the classroom. I structure this a lot in the beginning – i.e. writing down who did what in a group project, explicitly choosing group roles, each person showing work and turning it in – eventually, most students will do this on their own.

  19. This week I am launching my “Lesson Leaders” plan to my 10th grade Honors English students. The idea is that now that I have laid the foundation of our class over the last four weeks, the students will now rise up and take control. I want them to lead the class as a small group. They will need to meet with me ahead of class to get the lecture notes and materials, and then devise the best way to deliver this information to their classmates. In addition, they will run the rhythm of the class from bell to bell – guiding their classmates through each routine, delivering content, and fielding questions and confusions. I will be in the background, troubleshooting, participating, monitoring their comprehension of the material. I am nervous, but excited. I have never taught this way before, but it’s something I’ve been longing to do for years now and I finally think I’m ready to release control and allow the students to be more interdependent and independent. I think it will be messy and frustrating at first, but I also believe the students will develop their cooperative and group processing skills to a degree I have never before fostered.

  20. I have been a part of cooperative groups as both a teacher and a student. To the extreme was my educational psychology class as a sophomore in college. The professor rather enjoyed his daily crossword puzzle. I have a feeling this was not the cause of the class arrangement, but I do remember he was quite adept at it.

    The class was split into groups of four. Each group was required to teach each other the material. The teacher provided benchmarks for content, but was very hands-off with instruction, save about ten to fifteen minutes at the end of each 90-minute class.

    The individuals of each group were bound to each other for instruction (positive interdependence), but were individually accountable for grades and performance on tests. There was face-to-face interaction, and group discussions or processing through cooperative skills.

    Perhaps my professor knew what he was doing…

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