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Sale Book (1994)

New Circles of Learning

by David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson and Edythe Johnson Holubec

Table of Contents

Chapter 11. Final Thoughts: The Changing Paradigm of Teaching

Cooperative learning is part of a broader paradigm shift occurring in teaching. Figure 11.1 presents the essential elements of this paradigm shift (Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec 1992; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 1991).

Figure 11.1. Comparison of Old and New Paradigms of Teaching

Old Paradigm

New Paradigm


Transferred from Faculty to Students

Jointly Constructed by Students and Faculty


Passive Vessels to be Filled by Faculty's Knowledge

Active Constructor, Discoverer, Transformer of Knowledge

Faculty Purpose

Classify and Sort Students

Develop Students' Competencies and Talents


Impersonal Relationship Among Students and Between Faculty and Students

Personal Transaction Among Students and Between Faculty and Students



Cooperative Learning in Classroom and Cooperative Teams Among Faculty and Administrators

Assumption About Teaching

Any Expert Can Teach

Teaching Is Complex and Requires Considerable Training

Ways of Knowing






Mode of Learning




Conformity/Cultural Uniformity

Diversity and Personal Esteem/Cultural Diversity and Commonality

Source: D.W. Johnson, and K. Smith. (1991). Active Learning. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

The old paradigm of teaching is based on John Locke's assumption that the untrained student mind is like a blank sheet of paper waiting for the instructor to write on it. Because of this and other assumptions, educators have often thought of teaching in terms of several principal activities:

  • Transferring knowledge from teacher to student. The teacher's job is to give it; the student's job is to get it. Teachers transmit information that students are expected to memorize and then recall.
  • Filling passive, empty vessels with knowledge. Students are passive recipients of knowledge. Teachers own the knowledge that students memorize and recall.
  • Classifying students by deciding who gets which grade and sorting students into categories by deciding who does and doesn't meet the requirements to be graduated, go on to college, and get a good job. This is done based on the assumption that ability is fixed and unaffected by effort and education. Constant inspection is used to weed out “defective” students.
  • Conducting education within a context of impersonal relationships among students and between teachers and students. Based on the Taylor model of industrial organizations, students and teachers are perceived to be interchangeable and replaceable parts in the “education machine.”
  • Maintaining a competitive organizational structure in which students work to outperform their classmates and teachers work to outperform their colleagues.
  • Assuming that anyone with expertise in a field can teach. This is sometimes known as the content premise—if you have a Ph.D. in the field, you can teach regardless of whether or not you have any pedagogical training.

Thus, the old paradigm is to transfer teachers' knowledge to passive students so teachers can classify and sort students in a norm-referenced way through competition. Many teachers consider the old paradigm the only possibility. Lecturing while requiring students to be passive, silent, isolated, and in competition with each other seems the only way to teach. The old paradigm is carried forward by sheer momentum, while almost everyone persists in the hollow pretense that all is well. But all is not well.

Teaching is changing. The old paradigm is being dropped for a new paradigm based on theory and research with clear applications to instruction. Educators must now think of teaching in terms of several different principal activities.

  • Students construct, discover, transform, and extend their own knowledge. Learning is something a learner does, not something that is done to a learner. Students do not passively accept knowledge from the teacher or curriculum. They use new information to activate their existing cognitive structures or construct new ones. The teacher's role in this activity is to create the conditions within which students can construct meaning from new material studied by processing it through existing cognitive structures and then retaining it in long-term memory where it remains open to further processing and possible reconstruction.
  • Teachers' efforts are aimed at developing students' competencies and talents. Student effort should be inspired and secondary schools must “add value” by cultivating talent. A “cultivate and develop” philosophy must replace the “select and weed out” philosophy. Students' competencies and talents must be developed under the assumption that with effort and education, any student can improve.
  • Teachers and students work together, making education a personal transaction. All education is a social process that can occur only through interpersonal interaction (real or implied). There is a general rule of instruction: The more pressure placed on students to achieve and the more difficult the material to be learned, the more important it is to provide social support within the learning situation. Challenge and social support must be balanced if students are to cope successfully with the stress inherent in learning situations. Learning results when individuals cooperate to construct shared understandings and knowledge. Teachers must be able to build positive relationships with students and create the conditions within which students build caring and committed relationships with each other. The school then becomes a learning community of committed scholars in the truest sense.

These activities can take place only within a cooperative context. When students interact within a competitive context, communication is minimized, misleading and false information is often communicated, assistance is viewed as cheating, and classmates and faculty tend to dislike and distrust each other. Competitive and individualistic learning situations, therefore, discourage active construction of knowledge and the development of talent by isolating students and creating negative relationships among classmates and teachers.

Classmates and teachers need to be seen as collaborators rather than as obstacles to students' own academic and personal success. Teachers, therefore, must structure learning situations so that students work together to maximize each other's achievement. Administrators, likewise, must create a cooperative, team-based organizational structure within which faculty work together to ensure each other's success (Johnson and Johnson 1989b).

Teaching is a complex application of theory and research that requires considerable teacher training and continuous refinement of skills and procedures. Becoming a good teacher takes at least one lifetime of continuous effort. Cooperative learning provides the means of operationalizing the new paradigm of teaching and provides the context that encourages the development of student talent. It's an important part of changing the passive and impersonal character of many classrooms. It ensures that students are cognitively, physically, emotionally, and psychologically involved in constructing their own knowledge and succeeding in school and life.

Creating a Learning Community

In The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett states: “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” Schools should tend roses. They can do so by creating a learning community characterized by cooperative efforts to achieve meaningful goals. In a recent review of research, Lisbeth Schorr concludes that caring is the most important attribute of effective schools. Education historians David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot conclude that the theme running through all successful schools is that students, teachers, administrators, and parents share a sense of community and a “socially integrating sense of purpose.”

A community is a limited number of people who share common goals and a common culture. The smaller the size of the community, the more personal the relationships, and the greater the personal accountability. Within communities, everyone knows everyone else. Relationships are long-term rather than temporary encounters. In learning communities instruction becomes personalized. Students are thought of as citizens, while teachers are thought of as community leaders. Thus, the learning community becomes an extended family where mutual achievement and caring for one another are important. With citizenship in such a community comes an ethical code that includes rules about students being prepared for classes each day, paying attention in class, being their personal best, and respecting other people and their property. Cooperative teams help create such learning communities.

* * *

Having read this book, you are now at a new beginning. Years of experience using cooperative learning are needed to gain the needed expertise. You will gain this expertise by implementing cooperative learning and helping others do so by being a contributing member of a collegial team, thus establishing a true learning community of scholars for both your students and yourself.

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