Essential Elements: What Makes It Work?
(from "Approaches to Implementing Cooperative Learning",
by David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson)
Teachers need to master the essential elements of
cooperation for at least two reasons. First, teachers need to tailor
cooperative learning to their unique instructional needs, circumstances,
curricula, subject areas, and students. Second, teachers need to diagnose the
problems some students may have in working together and intervene to increase
the effectiveness of the student learning groups.
Simply placing students in groups and telling them to work
together does not in and of itself result in cooperative efforts. There are
many ways in which group efforts may go wrong. Seating students together can
result in competition at close quarters or individualistic efforts with
talking. The essential elements of cooperation need to be understood if
teachers are to be trained to implement cooperative learning successfully.
Teachers need enough training and practice on the essential elements of
cooperation to become educational engineers who can take their existing
lessons, curricula, and courses and structure them cooperatively.
When teachers have real expertise in using cooperative
learning, they will structure five essential elements into instructional
activities. Well-structured cooperative learning lessons are differentiated
from poorly structured ones on the basis of these elements. These essential
elements, furthermore, should be carefully structured within all levels of cooperative
efforts. Each learning group is a cooperative effort, but so is the class as a
whole, the school, the teaching team, and the school district. The five
essential elements are as follows.
- Positive interdependence: The heart of cooperative learning
is positive interdependence.
Students must believe that they sink or swim together. Within every cooperative
lesson, positive goal interdependence must be established through mutual
learning goals (learn the assigned material and make sure that all members of
your group learn the assigned material). In order to strengthen positive
interdependence, joint rewards (if all members of your group score 90 percent
correct or better on the test, each will receive 5 bonus points), divided
resources (giving each group member a part of the total information required to
complete an assignment), and complementary roles (reader, checker,
encourager, elaborator) may also be used.
- Face-to-face promotive interaction: Once a teacher establishes positive
interdependence, he or she must ensure that students interact to help each
other accomplish the task and promote each other's success. Students are
expected to discuss what they are learning, explain to each other how to solve
the assigned problems or complete the assignments, and provide each other with
help, assistance, support, and encouragement. Silent students are uninvolved
students who are not contributing to the learning of others as well as
themselves. Promoting each other's success results in both higher
achievement and in getting to know each other on a personal as well as a
- Individual accountability: The purpose of cooperative learning groups
is to make each member a
stronger individual in his or her right. Students learn together so that they
can subsequently perform higher as individuals. To ensure that each member is
strengthened, students are held individually accountable to do their share of
the work. The performance of each individual student is assessed and the
results given back to the group and the individual. It is important that the
group knows who needs more assistance, support, and encouragement in completing
the assignment. It is also important that group members know that they cannot
"hitchhike" on the work of others.
- Social skills:
Contributing to the success of a cooperative effort requires interpersonal and
small group skills. Placing socially unskilled individuals in a group and
telling them to cooperate does not guarantee that they will be able to do so
effectively. Persons must be taught the social skills for high-quality
collaboration and be motivated to use them. Leadership, decision-making,
trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills have to be
taught just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills.
- Group processing:
Teachers need to ensure that members of each coooperative learning group
discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective
working relationships. Groups need to describe what member actions are helpful
and unhelpful and make decisions about what behaviors to continue or change.
Such processing (a) enables learning groups to focus on group maintenance, (b)
facilitates the learning of social skills, (c) ensures that members receive
feedback on their participation, and (d) reminds students to practice
collaborative skills consistently. Some of the keys to successful processing
are allowing sufficient time for it to take place, making it specific rather
than vague, maintaining student involvement in processing, reminding
students to use their social skills while they process, and ensuring that clear
expectations as to the purpose of processing have been communicated.
Conceptual understanding and skillful use of cooperative
learning are two sides of the coin of expertise. Theory is the cutting edge of
practice. It is the development of conceptual understanding of how to teach
that allows true teaching genius to be expressed. It is because of the
complexity and promise of conceptually understanding of cooperative learning
that makes fidelity in implementing the elements of cooperative learning
essential. Once the essential elements are clearly understood and mastered,
teachers can fine-tune and adapt cooperative learning to their specific
circumstances, needs, and students.