Monday, March 28, 2011

Cooperative Learning...or...Heterogeneous Learning Groups

Ah, a safe topic. Or not.

Cooperative learning is one of the most commonly used, yet poorly implemented, strategies in the classroom teacher's toolbox, and it seems each individual teacher and administrator is either strongly in favor of using it often and for many different types of tasks, or strongly opposed to using it at all for anything. Personally, I'm in the middle. Having been the child who was expected to teach material to my classmates regularly and remembering how frustrated I felt (I'm talking to YOU, certain elementary school teacher who I will not name), I've always been wary of using it with regard to gifted and academically advanced students.

However, cooperative learning groups have undeniable advantages when it comes to learning to work with human beings who have a wide range of backgrounds, skill sets, interests, and talents. Since I'm a gifted resource teacher, this post will focus, as usual, on cooperative learning as it relates specifically to gifted students, though I will also briefly touch on some issues relevant to other ability groups.

One thing is critically important to keep in mind; this scenario (and the accompanying example lessons) is specific to public schools with relatively large class sizes. It would be wonderful to have very small classes such that we could effectively individualize education, and it would be wonderful to have a situation where teachers could function more as 'guides' who help students design their own educations rather than 'instructors' who must often attempt to deliver knowledge as if it was a newspaper, but THIS IS NOT REALITY for the vast majority of American children. Most teachers face daily challenges to creativity and autonomy due to SOLs, pacing guides, administrative directives, common lesson plans and assessments, and other imposed parameters. Should we work to change the structure of public school? I would argue 'yes' but, at the same time, we continue working within that structure because we have no choice.


Imagine a scenario in which a gifted student, Steve, is expressing general unhappiness and boredom in his fifth-grade class. His teacher, Ms. Goodman, recently attended a professional development workshop focused on cooperative learning groups, and she has been regularly implementing the strategy since returning to the classroom. Steve's mother has contacted Ms. Goodman to express her concerns, and stated that Steve feels he is expected to constantly teach material to the less-advanced students in his group in order to keep up and complete assignments. Ms. Goodman tells the mother that the other children are showing some academic enhancement and advancement as a result of working with Steve, and she expresses her strong conviction about cooperative learning as a tool for developing skills in working with a large range of backgrounds and behaviors. Steve's mother is dissatisfied with this response and tells Ms. Goodman that it is not Steve's responsibility to teach or inspire other students at the expense of his own continuous academic progress.


First, what exactly is cooperative learning? According to Johnson and Johnson (1994), cooperative learning has five essential elements:

1. Clearly perceived positive interdependence
2. Considerable promotive (face-to-face) interaction
3. Clearly perceived individual accountability and personal responsibility to achieve the group’s goals
4. Frequent use of the relevant interpersonal and small-group skills
5. Frequent and regular group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness

Ideally, cooperative learning groups should consist of a range of abilities, backgrounds, interests, and skills and, in order to be effective for both average- and high-ability students, should be used mainly for tasks requiring complex-level thinking skills. Work which could be completed alone or a task which will be assessed with a single collective grade are particularly poor candidates for this strategy because they directly violate the first and third principles, respectively (Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Huss, 2006).

And now, back to our scenario...

Steve’s mother is correct in several areas. Steve should not be expected to ignite other children "at the expense of his own continuous progress”. Ms. Goodman is using cooperative grouping for most, if not all, of the students’ independent practice time; this type of implementation is generally not appropriate for a gifted student (Huss, 2006; Johnson & Johnson, 1994).

Asking (or simply expecting) Steve to teach the material to the other students in his group is not fair to him or to them. Though cooperative learning can be marginally helpful for average and struggling students with regard to basic knowledge and skills (as measured by standardized tests, themselves known to be unreliable indicators for gifted children, at best), the strategy has not been shown to consistently address the higher thinking levels critical for advanced students (VanTassel-Baska et al, 1992). In fact, due to gifted students’ often advanced knowledge-, comprehension-, and application-level understanding of material, cooperative learning can at times be no different from peer tutoring, practically speaking (ibid). Webb (1982) found advanced students are often not effective with regard to explaining material to lower-level learners, and they require explicit instruction and modeling in this skill, which does not generally occur (VanTassel-Baska et al, 1992). In other words, even when tasked with explaining material to others, gifted students often prove to be rather poor teachers.

Cooperative learning can also involve several negative social effects for struggling students and students with disabilities: they are often perceived negatively in the first place, they are easy blame targets if the project is not successful, and they may require instruction and modeling in appropriate peer interaction before they can be successful in a group situation at all (ibid). This research shows us two things; not only is cooperative learning often not appropriately advanced or challenging for gifted students, but it is not reliably positive for many of the students who share their groups.

At the same time, however, Ms. Goodman is correct in her assertion that learning to work with the full diversity of human behaviors is a good thing. As stated by Sapon-Shevin and Schniedewind (1993), cooperative learning is designed to encourage “learning to respect others' differences and to interact successfully with people from different racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups and whose skills are widely divergent”. There can be no doubt this is an important aim. In this sense, the social-interactive effects associated with appropriately-implemented cooperative learning may be helpful for all students.

It seems a compromise is in order. Steve’s mother is certainly justified in her dissatisfaction with the extent of heterogeneous cooperative learning in Ms. Goodman’s class, but Ms. Goodman also appears to have good intentions in emphasizing social interactions and understanding between her students. The major problem appears to be implementation. The key to cooperative learning as a successful tool for gifted learners lies in limiting the scope to “challenging, creative, open-ended, and higher order thinking tasks” (Huss, 2006). Rather than using it for every independent practice activity, Ms. Goodman should limit the use of cooperative learning to specific lessons and situations in order to avoid emphasizing the needs of struggling students to the detriment of gifted children (Fiedler et al, 2002).


I'll post a lesson example (actually, it will probably be more like three or four class periods of 45 minutes each at the middle school level, due to the complexity of the project) tomorrow. If you'd like a preview, though, check out Ecybermission's website for a basic overview of the community problem-solving competition my students completed at the beginning of this month.


  1. I wish the title of this teaching strategy were not co-operative "learning," because if, initially, learning is the object, then there is a disproportionate chance that the brighter students will be exploited, either having to teach or explain necessary background to those less-able student, or to make up for the lack of group skills in producing the final project or product -- whatever the goal of the co-operative learning group happens to be. Students at all levels of ability who are anxious to do their best and receive praise and a good grade will almost always feel responsibile for the group's work and do more than his or her share, just to be sure the final result is going to earn him or her a "good grade." Group work should probably focus on using the "learned content" to produce something that requires manipulating the information, concepts and theories, even facts, rather than learning them in the first place. It's also helpful if the project or product is not a sizable part of the final averaging of a student's grade for the class. A lot should not hang on the results of groupwork where group members vary in competence.
    One way to handle the fairness of it all is to have an evaluation sheet, and have members of the group evaluate each other on a five-point scale for various standards, or the various aspects of the assignment that the teacher hoped would be evident. If the teacher averages the individual ratings of the group members, including self-evaluations, and that can be worked in with the teacher's own rating of the final product, the risks of unfairness are lessened, even eliminated.
    Where projects requiring artistic or writing talent are concerned, a teacher colleague savvy in those areas could be a co-evaluator with the class teacher (ask the art teacher to help you look at posters, murals, or "artistic interpretations" of, say, a geographic feature: landscapes as part of a geology or geography focus).
    It's not easy, but using numerals to represent the level of skill reached in an area actually makes parents and students feel that things were "fairly fair." Limit group-work to one project a marking period or a theme-topic. Then other ways of earning that final grade give individual students balancing options.

  2. You're right; that's why I made a big deal about making sure heterogeneous grouping is used only for specific kinds of assignments. Knowledge/comprehension/application tasks don't work very well with mixed-ability groups because you'll always have some people finishing quickly and picking their noses waiting for the others (or trying to 'teach' them), as well as kids who feel dumb because they're just not getting it as fast.

    Assigning projects to these groups involving complex thinking skills like analysis, evaluation, and synthesis is a much better use of the cooperative grouping technique (and requires them to know and understand the basic material before forming the project group in the first place). Not only do the students have freedom to self-assign tasks within the project, but they're also much more likely to respect and support each others' ideas because there aren't specific right answers. This is all assuming, of course, that the teacher isn't a control freak and will actually allow the students to take responsibility for their own learning.

    2 + 2 = 4 and only 4 and always 4, and some kids will pick this up much more quickly than others, so working on similar concrete, worksheet-type tasks in a group is pretty useless and can be very frustrating. Either you get it or you don't, and having someone in the group tapping her toe at you because you're taking too long doesn't help (nor does being held back by a slower classmate when you finished 10 minutes ago!). Asking kids to create and subsequently present their own number systems would work much better.

    You're right about the 'cooperative learning groups' label being a bit of a misnomer. I'll think about this one some more...



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