A Novice Teacher Fosters Social Competence with Cooperative Learning

By Magnesio, Stacey; Davis, Barbara H. | Childhood Education, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

A Novice Teacher Fosters Social Competence with Cooperative Learning


Magnesio, Stacey, Davis, Barbara H., Childhood Education


"Miss Mag, do we have to work in groups?" "Miss Mag, I can't work with him." "Miss Mag, can I work alone?" Dodgeball tactics--duck, dart, and flee--seemed to be the game plan in my classroom whenever I wanted my students to work in groups. "Just try to work together!" I would say again and again. As a new teacher, I was shocked to find that most of my students didn't know how to work in a group.

Many of my 4th-grade students had been together since kindergarten, yet they interacted as strangers. They struggled to keep their heads above water when it came to social skills and group work. And I was drowning, treading back and forth, student to student, trying to keep up. Week after week, I found myself spending more time talking about being team players and working together than I spent teaching multiplication strategies and writing good leads. My soapbox was becoming old and worn, and I was overwhelmed and tired.

Many teachers experience challenges when they place students in a group and expect them to cooperate. As Johnson and Johnson (1990) point out, "Simply placing students in groups and telling them to work together does not, in and of itself, produce cooperation" (p. 29). Trying to get students to work cooperatively was one of the most frustrating aspects of my first two years of teaching. The easy solution would have been to throw my hands up and say, "These kids just can't work together!" I could have given in and assigned individual projects and allowed the students to work alone and be done with it. However, I was learning about cooperative learning structures (Kagan & Kagan, 2009) in a graduate mentoring and induction program for beginning teachers, and I wondered if these structures would work in my classroom.

This wondering became the focus of a classroom-based research project I conducted as part of the graduate program. I hoped this study would help my students build positive social skills and become successful working together. In particular, I wanted them to listen to each other, to solve problems collaboratively, and to teach one another.

I focused my inquiry project on the following questions: 1) How does a structural approach to cooperative learning influence the social skills of 4th-graders? 2) How do cooperative learning structures influence awareness of others' feelings and encourage appropriate choices in social settings?, and 3) What influence do student reflections have on social interactions?

Related Literature

Cooperative learning has been defined as groups of students working together to complete a common task (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2002). Numerous studies have measured the success of cooperative learning as an instructional method regarding social skills development and student achievement across all levels, from primary grades through college. The general consensus is that cooperative learning can, and usually does, result in positive student outcomes in all areas (Johnson & Johnson, 1990; Kagan & Kagan, 2009; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Slavin, 1996).

Social interaction theory (Piaget, 1970; Vygotsky, 1978) and motivational theory (Maslow, 1954) both help explain the effectiveness of cooperative learning. Social interaction theory views learning as a social activity in which people learn by listening and talking to others. As Kauchak and Eggen (2007) explain:

Piaget views this social interaction as a catalyst for students to reevaluate their own beliefs about the world; Vygotsky sees social interaction as a vehicle for more knowledgeable people to share their expertise with others. In both instances, students learn by listening and talking. (pp. 305-306)

In his theory of motivation, Maslow (1954) described a hierarchy of needs that moves from lower needs (e.g., hunger, safety) to higher needs (e.g., esteem, belonging). He argued that people strive to meet their lower needs before attempting to meet the higher needs. …

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