Using Cooperative Learning Strategies in Social Work Education

By Steiner, Sue; Stromwall, Layne K. et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Using Cooperative Learning Strategies in Social Work Education


Steiner, Sue, Stromwall, Layne K., Brzuzy, Stephanie, Gerdes, Karen, Journal of Social Work Education


      Cooperative learning strategies employ formally structured groups of
   students working together to maximize their own and other students'
   learning. This educational approach changes the classroom environment from
   one in which students are passive recipients of the instructor's knowledge,
   to one in which they are active participants in their own education.
   Cooperative learning strategies have received little attention in the
   social work education literature, despite proven educational benefits
   elsewhere. This article defines cooperative learning, reviews the
   educational theory and research that support it, demonstrates its relevance
   to social work education, and provides case examples for use throughout the
   social work curriculum.

CREATING A CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT that fosters active learning and engages students in the learning process is a challenge for many educators. Fortunately, well-researched educational methods exist to help faculty transform the classroom into a lively learning community. Structured methods of small-group instruction, collectively known as cooperative learning strategies, offer faculty one such tool. Cooperative learning has been shown to produce numerous benefits for students, including increased student achievement through development of critical thinking skills and through an increase in social interdependence and support (Slavin, 1996).

Cooperative learning strategies parallel many of the skills that social work educators teach to prospective practitioners. Their use can aid in teaching small-group skills, effective communication, and critical thinking. It can also model concepts such as empowerment, interdependence, and diversity. Cooperative learning strategies are important resources for social work faculty, yet they are relatively unknown in social work education journals. This article defines cooperative learning, reviews the educational theory and research that support it, demonstrates its relevance to social work education, and provides case examples using cooperative learning strategies throughout the curriculum.

Literature Review

The use of cooperation as a centerpiece of learning can be traced to its extensive use in England in the late 1700s, and subsequently in the United States in the early 1800s (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991b). At various periods in U.S. history, cooperative learning was widely used and actively promoted to further popular educational goals. Colonel Francis Parker, the superintendent of public schools in Quincy, Massachusetts, was a strong advocate of cooperative learning in the late 1800s. Educational pioneer John Dewey promoted this form of learning in the early 1900s. The late 1930s brought an emphasis on interpersonal competition in K-12 schools and colleges and universities. This meant that student learning was more focused on encouraging competition between students than supporting techniques that encouraged cooperation and collaboration. In the 1970s, a sustained focus on cooperative learning emerged again, and efforts by David and Roger Johnson resulted in the formulation of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota (Johnson & Johnson, 1975). At the same time, others were developing cooperative learning methods at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991b; Popp, 1987; Slavin 1983a).

Cooperative learning strategies use small-group instruction and formally structured groups of students to meet specific educational goals (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991b). Although cooperative learning is a type of small-group activity, it differs from other small-group techniques: "It should be clearly understood--and this cannot be emphasized too strongly--that cooperative learning is not simply students working in groups, sharing materials, or merely helping one another" (Totten, Sills, & Digby, 1991).

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