Cooperative learning is a teaching strategy for organizing classroom activities. Grouped into small teams, pupils work together to achieve shared goals. This structured group is an effective tool to address learning, organizational and communication problems at school.
The early forms of cooperative learning appeared in the 18th century when pioneered by English educators Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell. The Common School Movement in the United States in the early 19th century laid a strong emphasis on collective learning methods. The promotion of cooperative learning in the 20th century was marked by the work done by John Dewey, and later Alice Miel and Herbert Thelen.
It was in the 1950s that American sociologist James S. Coleman campaigned for cooperative learning as a technique to reduce competition in schools and to minimize negative components in the education system. He took the view that competition impeded the process of learning. Instead, teachers should resort to a more collaborative approach to education. The 1966 Coleman report, the first government-commissioned study of private and public schools in the United States, elaborated on the equality of educational opportunities. Coleman coined the terms "climate of values," and "adolescent society," which had an impact on future understanding of collective learning.
In the 1960s, the U.S. education system showed clear preferences for individual learning methods. Cooperative learning experienced a revival in the 1980s, when teachers returned to the extensive use of this method.
Robert Slavin published research on cooperative learning in 1994, referring to the cooperative learning method as Student Team Learning. Defining cooperative learning as "instructional programs in which students work in small groups to help one another master academic content," Slavin praised it as a way to capitalize on "the developmental characteristics of adolescents in order to harness their peer orientation, enthusiasm, activity, and craving for independence within a safe structure."
Cooperative learning shifts the focus in teaching from lecturing to interaction. The teacher serves as a facilitator and observer during all cooperative learning activities. Although the teacher's role is not so overtly dominant, he or she remains actively involved. Teachers are expected to join the student groups for brief periods to facilitate the learning process and to make sure that students do not digress from the task. They should also be available to answer questions that may come from students.
James A. Duplass (2006) enumerated the characteristics of cooperative learning as follows: heterogeneous groups, positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual accountability, social skills and group processing.
Some of the techniques used in cooperative learning include: jigsaw, student teams achievement divisions, think-pair-share, numbered heads together, three-step interview, round robin, inside-outside circle, and round table.
Cooperative learning has proved to boost academic achievement, improve behavior and attendance, increase self-esteem and motivation. The method promotes the use of critical thinking skills and peer coaching.
The groups comprised of students of different levels help the participants capitalize on each other's knowledge and skills and gain from each other's efforts. The teacher has to make sure that the teams have a diversity of viewpoints, abilities, gender, race and other characteristics.
This method of learning promotes team-work. Students recognize that all group members share a common fate. While independence and accountability are considered to be the major assets offered by this learning method, they are coupled with positive interdependence and cooperation. The method appears to be particularly effective in the work with Hispanic American and Native American students, whose culture is more oriented toward cooperation and sharing, as research done by Myra Pollack Sadker (1991) has shown.
Teachers are sometimes reluctant to use cooperative learning as they have to give up part of their control. While the method is believed to be beneficial for gifted students, slow learners may feel intimidated. Quiet students may also feel uncomfortable in such a situation. The teacher has to ensure balance of power and prevent more dominant students from taking over the team. Psychologists also argue that this method can place greater burden on children by making them responsible for each other's learning.