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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

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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 10. The Cooperative School

The issue of cooperation among students is part of a larger issue of the organizational structure of schools (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). The organizational structure of any school reflects the school system to which it belongs and basic assumptions about how students learn and how they should be instructed. Many schools are in the process of changing from mass-production organizational structures to team-based organizational structures. The team-based structure is known as the cooperative school, which involves the use of cooperative learning in the classroom, faculty collegial support groups in the school, a school-based decision-making structure, and faculty meetings predominated by cooperative procedures. The heart of the cooperative school is the collegial teaching team, whose focus is the continuous improvement of teacher expertise in using cooperative learning.

The Cooperative School Structure

Willi Unsoeld, a renowned mountain climber and philosopher, once stated, “Take care of each other, share your energies with the group, no one must feel alone, cut off, for that is when you do not make it.” This thought applies to everyone in schools. For nearly a century, teachers have worked alone, in their own rooms, with their own students, and with their own curriculum materials. Students have been randomly assigned to teachers because teachers have been believed to be equivalent and, therefore, can be given any student to teach.

In order for schools to focus on the quality of instruction, they need to successfully change from this mass-production competitive/individualistic organizational structure to a high-performance, cooperative, team-based organizational structure (see Johnson and Johnson 1989b). They need to develop the cooperative school. Retraining teachers to use cooperative learning while organizing teachers to mass produce educated students is self-defeating. W. Edwards Deming and others have suggested that more than 85 percent of all the things that go wrong in any organization are directly attributable to the organization's structure, not the nature of the individuals involved. Changing teaching methods is much easier when the changes are congruent with (not in opposition to) the organizational structure of the school, which, in turn, must be congruent with the overall school system.

In a cooperative school structure, students work primarily in cooperative learning groups, and teachers and building staff work in cooperative teams, as do district administrators (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). The organizational structure of the classroom, school, and district are thus congruent. Effective teamwork is the very center of improving the quality of instruction and education with each level of cooperative teams supporting and enhancing the other levels. Teamwork is the hub around which all other elements of school improvement revolve. Teams are, beyond all doubt, the most direct sources of continuous improvement of instruction and education.

Contributing to team efforts is becoming paramount at every level in modern organizations. Schools are no exception. Students and faculty have to want to belong to teams, they must contribute their share of the work, and they must take positions and know how to advocate their views in ways that spark creative problem solving. The student or educator who doesn't pull with peers will increasingly be the odd person out.

The Cooperative Classroom

The first level of a cooperative school structure is the classroom where cooperative learning is used for the majority of the instructional time (Johnson and Johnson 1989b) (see Figure 10.1). Work teams are the heart of the team-based organizational structure and cooperative learning groups form the primary work teams. Quality learning results from a team effort to challenge each other's reasoning and maximize each other's learning. Cooperative learning increases student achievement, creates more positive relationships among students, and generally improves students' psychological well-being. Cooperative learning is also the prerequisite and foundation for most other instructional innovations, including thematic curriculum, whole language, critical thinking, active reading, process writing, materials-based (problem-solving) mathematics, and learning communities. In addition, cooperative learning affects teachers' attitudes and competencies regarding working collaboratively because what is promoted during instructional time tends to dominate relationships among staff members.

Figure 10.1. The Cooperative School

The Cooperative School

The second level in creating a cooperative school structure is to form collegial teaching teams, task forces, and ad hoc decision-making groups within the school (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). The use of cooperative learning in the classroom occurs most effectively when staff work in collegial teaching teams, faculty meetings are structured cooperatively, and school-based decision making takes place within a cooperative context.

Collegial teaching teams. Just as cooperative learning is at the heart of the classroom, the collegial teaching team is at the heart of the school. Collegial teaching teams are small, cooperative groups (from two to five faculty members) whose purpose is to increase teachers' instructional expertise and success (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). The focus is on improving instruction in general and increasing members' expertise in using cooperative learning in particular. Collegial teams are first and foremost safe places where members like to be; where there is support, caring, concern, laughter, camaraderie, and celebration; and where the primary goal of continually improving each other's competence in using cooperative learning is never obscured.

As we've said, in mass-production schools, teachers are isolated from each other and may feel alienated, overloaded, harried, and overwhelmed. This isolation and alienation is reduced when teachers form collegial teaching teams. Teachers generally teach better when they work in collegial teaching teams to jointly support each other's efforts to increase their instructional expertise. Collegial teaching teams give teachers ownership of the professional agenda, break down the barriers to collegial interaction, and reduce program fragmentation. Collegial teaching teams undertake three key activities (Johnson and Johnson 1989b).

  • Frequent professional discussions of cooperative learning. Collegial interaction is essential for building collaborative cultures in schools (Little 1990) and critical for teachers' ongoing professional development (Nias 1984). Expertise in using cooperative learning begins with conceptual understanding of the nature of cooperative learning, how to implement cooperative learning, and what results can be expected from using cooperative learning. Teachers must also think critically about the strategy and adapt it to their specific students and subject areas. In team discussions, teachers consolidate and strengthen their knowledge about cooperative learning and provide each other with relevant feedback about the degree to which mastery and understanding have been achieved. Within collegial teams, faculty members exchange understandings of what cooperative learning is and how it may be used within their classes. They develop a common vocabulary, share information, celebrate successes, and solve implementation problems.
  • Co-planning, co-designing, and co-preparing cooperative learning lessons and instructional units. Once teachers understand cooperative learning, they must implement it. Members of collegial teams should frequently design, prepare, and evaluate lesson plans together. Doing so distributes the work of developing the materials and machinery for implementing cooperative learning. Integrated curriculum and thematic teaching clearly depend on co-planning and co-designing.
  • Co-teaching cooperative lessons and jointly processing observations. If faculty are to progress through the initial awkward and mechanical stages to mastering the use of cooperative learning, they must receive continual feedback about the accuracy of their implementation and be encouraged to persevere in their implementation attempts long enough to integrate cooperative learning into their ongoing instructional practice. The more time colleagues spend involved in each other's teaching, the more valuable the help and assistance they can provide. Frequently co-teaching cooperative lessons and then providing each other with useful feedback provides members of collegial teams with shared experiences to discuss and reflect upon, thus promoting continuous improvement.

Collegial teams ideally meet daily. At a minimum, teams should meet weekly. During a typical meeting team members review how they have used cooperative learning since the previous meeting, share a success in doing so, complete a quality chart (see page 98) on their implementation of cooperative learning, set three to five goals to accomplish before the next meeting, decide how they will help each other achieve their goals, learn something new about cooperative learning, and celebrate (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). Following this agenda ensures that teachers (1) experience the learning environment they are creating for students (i.e., they meet with supportive peers who encourage them to learn and grow), (2) have a procedure for continuously improving their use of cooperative learning, (3) receive continuous training in how to use cooperative learning, (4) encourage pride of workmanship and recognize and celebrate self-improvement (i.e., any time a faculty member makes an effort to improve, the effort can be recognized and celebrated by teammates), and (5) discourage poor workmanship and negativism.

Task forces and ad hoc decision-making groups. School-based decision making occurs through the use of two types of cooperative teams: task forces and ad hoc decision-making groups (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). Task forces plan and implement solutions to schoolwide issues and problems such as curriculum adoptions and lunchroom behavior. Task forces diagnose a problem, gather data about the causes and extent of the problem, consider a variety of alternative solutions, make conclusions, and present a recommendation to the faculty as a whole. Ad hoc decision-making groups are part of a small-group/large-group procedure in which staff members as a whole listen to a recommendation, are assigned to small groups, meet to consider the recommendation, report to the entire faculty their decision, and then participate in a whole-faculty decision as to what the course of action should be. The use of these two types of faculty cooperative teams tends to increase teacher productivity, morale, and professional self-esteem.

The clearest modeling of cooperative procedures in the school may be in faculty meetings and other meetings structured by the school administration. When administrators use a competitive/individualistic format of lecture, whole-group discussion, and individual worksheets in faculty meetings, they make a powerful statement about the way they want their faculty to teach. Formal and informal cooperative groups, cooperative base groups, and repetitive structures can be used during faculty meetings just as they can be used within the classroom, thus making faculty meetings staff development and training as well as business meetings.

The Cooperative District

The third level of a cooperative school structure is administrative cooperative teams within the district (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). Administrators should be organized into collegial teams, task forces, and ad hoc triads (temporary groups of three) as part of the shared decision-making process. Using cooperative procedures during administrative meetings is the best way to model what the school district should be like. If administrators compete to see who is the best administrator in the district, they aren't likely to promote cooperation among staff members at the schools. The more the district and school personnel work in cooperative teams, the easier it is for teachers to envision and use cooperative learning, and vice versa.

Quality Education in the Cooperative School

In the mass-production school, teachers are primarily organized on a horizontal basis (grade level or departmental teams). Students are sent from work station to work station to be partially educated (e.g., from math class to science class to social studies class, or from 1st grade to 2nd grade to 3rd grade) with each teacher responsible for a small part of the student's education. Barriers separate teachers, forcing each to focus full attention on only a small piece of the overall program.

In the cooperative school, teams are not an option. They are a given. All important work is done by teams. The primary faculty team, the collegial teaching team, focuses on instruction and teaching. Teachers are formed into vertical (cross-disciplinary) teams with a number of teachers responsible for the same students for a number of years. Vertical teams break down the barriers that separate teachers, grade levels, and academic departments and ensure that all teachers see the overall process toward which their efforts are contributing. An elementary team may be made up of two primary and two secondary teachers who are given responsibility for educating about 120 students for 6 years. A secondary team may be made up of an English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language teacher, who are given responsibility for educating 120 students for 3 years (for example, from 7th through 9th grades).

Vertical teams use integrated curriculum and thematic teaching. Each team is genuinely accountable because it has the same students for several years. No one can blame a student's deficiencies in reading or math on last year's teacher or just mark time with problem students until they are passed on to the next teacher. Teachers have to confront difficulties and live with the consequences of their decisions. But, because they are part of a team, they need never face those challenges alone.

Organizing teachers into vertical teaching teams creates a setting that focuses on the quality of education in the school. The notion of quality education is loosely based on W. Edwards Deming's fourteen points (Walton 1986). A set of guidelines for achieving quality education in the cooperative school can be established from Deming's recommendations for achieving quality education.

A constancy of purpose must be established within the school through clarifying and highlighting the overall positive goal interdependence. Faculty and staff must believe that they sink or swim together. They must perceive that they are responsible not only for improving their own expertise, but also for improving the expertise of every other person in the school. Faculty and staff must agree upon a set of overall goals that highlights their interdependence and the need for a joint effort. These goals should reflect a new definition of the school that focuses attention not on standardized test scores, but on the continuous improvement of the quality of instruction.

The school must adopt the philosophy that faculty teams must successfully educate and socialize every student placed in their care. No failures to educate or graduate are acceptable. Instead of being tolerant of mistakes and failures, teachers must ensure that every student is educated and socialized. When teachers work with the same students for a number of years, they can provide the support and problem solving that result in every student learning, graduating, and going on to post-secondary education.

Instead of relying on mass standardized testing to achieve quality, educators must focus on improving the instructional process. Inspection is unnecessary if every faculty member is committed to quality instruction.

Fear must be driven out of the school so faculty can take risks to increase their competence. Anything that causes humiliation, self-defense, or fear in a school is destructive. The major source of fear within schools is competition and the extrinsic motivation it promotes. Ranking teachers from highest to lowest and giving merit pay on a normative basis all create anxiety, evaluation apprehension, and fear. Driving out fear requires more than simply saying, “Do not compete.” The social support and positive relationships in cooperative teams reduce fear and provide the security teachers need to change, grow, and cooperate.

Faculty must develop strong personal relationships with students. Faculty must stay “close to the customer” for at least two reasons—to obtain the information needed to provide quality education and to motivate students to do their best. Schools have a number of clients, including parents, the community, our society, employers, and post- secondary educational institutions. The most direct clients of schools, however, are students. To influence students to commit energy to learning, faculty members must build caring relationships with students that prove their commitment to students' well-being and success. Long-term, committed efforts to succeed come from the heart, not the head, and relationships are the fastest way to the heart (Johnson and Johnson 1989b).

Faculty must persistently strive to reduce waste in the instructional system and school. Reducing waste is an essential aspect of increasing quality within an organization. Integrating the curriculum and thematic teaching, for example, help reduce the redundancy among subject areas.

Continuous Improvement

To have joy one must share it. Happiness was born a twin.
—Indian Proverb

For a school to be successful, everyone in it must be dedicated to continuous improvement. In Japan, this mutual dedication is called kaizen, a societywide covenant of mutual help in the process of getting better and better, day by day. Schools must commit the resources necessary for kaizen to occur. These resources include eliminating all competition among teachers and students, structuring cooperation at all levels of the school, focusing faculty's attention on daily improvement of cooperative learning and other aspects of instruction, and providing the time for faculty collegial teaching teams to meet.

The professional discussions, co-planning, and co-teaching that occur in collegial teaching groups are aimed at continuous improvement through progressive refinement of expertise in cooperative learning. Faculty progressively refine their competence in using cooperative learning by (1) understanding conceptually what cooperative learning is and how it can be implemented, (2) trying it out in their classrooms, (3) assessing how well their cooperative learning lessons worked, and (4) reflecting on what they did, modifying their plans, and trying again in an improved way (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). Let's look more closely at each of these steps.

1. Understand what cooperative learning is and how it can be implemented in the classroom. Teachers must understand the five essential components of effective cooperation and the their role in using formal and informal cooperative learning and cooperative base groups. Approaches to using cooperative learning may be ordered on a continuum from conceptual/adaptive approaches (using general conceptual models to plan and tailor cooperative learning specifically for a teacher's circumstances, students, and needs) to direct/prescriptive approaches (prepackaged lessons, curriculums, strategies, and activities used in a lock-step, prescribed manner). Conceptual approaches train teachers to be engineers in their use of cooperative learning, while direct approaches train teachers to be technicians. Engineers conceptually understand cooperative learning and, therefore, can adapt it to their specific teaching circumstances, students, and curriculums and repair it when it doesn't work. Technicians are trained to teach pre-packaged lessons, curriculums, and strategies in a lock-step, prescribed manner without really understanding what cooperation is or what makes it work.

The conceptual (engineer) approach is used in all technological arts and crafts. An engineer designing a bridge, for example, applies validated theory to the unique problems imposed by the need for a bridge of a certain length, to carry specific loads, from a bank of one unique geological character to a bank of another unique geological character, in an area with specific winds, temperatures, and susceptibility to earthquakes. The conceptual approach to cooperative learning requires teachers to engage in the same process by learning a conceptualization of essential components of cooperative learning and their role in using formal and informal cooperative learning and cooperative base groups, and applying that conceptual model to their unique teaching situation, circumstances, students, and instructional needs. Each class may require a different adaption in order to maximize the effectiveness of cooperative learning.

Understanding the essential components allows teachers to think metacognitively about cooperative learning; create any number of lessons, strategies, and activities; take any lesson in any subject area and structure it cooperatively; practice and practice the use of cooperative learning until they are at a routine/integrated level of use and implement cooperative learning at least 60 percent of the time in their classrooms; describe precisely what they are doing and why they are doing it in order to communicate to others the nature of cooperative learning and teach colleagues how to implement cooperative learning in their classrooms and settings; and apply the principles of cooperation to other settings, such as collegial relationships and faculty meetings.

2. Try out cooperative learning in the classroom. Faculty members must be willing to take risks by experimenting with new instructional and management strategies and procedures. They risk short-term failure to gain long-term success in increasing their expertise. It must be assumed that efforts will fail to live up to expectations for a considerable length of time, during which the new strategy is overlearned to a routine-use, automatic level.

3. Assess how well cooperative learning lessons are working and obtain feedback from others. Although a lesson may not have gone well, from the progressive refinement point of view, failure never occurs. Efforts are simply approximations of what one wants and, with refining and fine-tuning of procedures and more practice, the approximations get successively closer and closer to the ideal.

4. Reflect on what happened, make modifications, and try again. The discrepancy between the real and the ideal guides plans for altering one's behavior to get a better match in the future. Using quality charts enhances this reflection process.

Perseverance in using cooperative learning is required until a teacher can teach a cooperative lesson routinely and without conscious planning or thought. With every lesson taught, a teacher's expertise in using cooperative learning is fine-tuned through this progressive refinement process.

Gaining and Sharing Expertise

Expertise is reflected in a person's proficiency, adroitness, competence, and skill. Cooperative efforts take more expertise than competitive or individualistic efforts because they involve dealing with other people as well as dealing with the demands of the task (i.e., simultaneously engaging in taskwork and teamwork). Expertise is usually gained in an incremental, step-by-step manner using the progressive refinement process in a team over a period of years.

Becoming adept in using cooperative learning in the classroom and cooperative teams in the school and district does not happen overnight. As we stated, with only a moderately difficult teaching strategy teachers may require from 20 to 30 hours of instruction in its theory, 15 to 20 demonstrations using it with different students and subjects, and an additional 10 to 15 coaching sessions to attain higher-level skills. For a more difficult teaching strategy such as cooperative learning, several years of training and support may be needed to ensure mastery. We prefer three years to train a teacher fully in the fundamentals of cooperative learning, the advanced use of cooperative learning, the use of academic controversies to encourage students within cooperative groups to challenge each other intellectually, and the use of a peer mediation system to ensure that students can negotiate constructive solutions to their own and classmates' conflicts. A similar sequence for administrators includes added training on leading the cooperative school.

Interested “cooperative learning superstars” can be trained to provide the three-year training program within their districts. During the training sessions teachers explore cooperative learning and the essential components that make it work. They then must transfer this knowledge to their own classrooms and maintain their use of cooperative learning. The success of training depends on transfer (teachers trying out cooperative learning in their classrooms) and maintenance (long-term use of cooperative learning). Transfer and maintenance, therefore, depend largely on teachers themselves being organized into collegial teaching teams that focus on helping each member become progressively more competent in using cooperative learning. There is no better way to learn how to use cooperative learning than to teach a colleague how to use it. As Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tires stated, “It is only when we develop others that we permanently succeed.”

Quality of Implementation (Quality Charts)

Teachers must assess the quality of their efforts in implementing cooperative learning so they can continuously improve. Such assessment requires establishing a set of criteria and rating the extent to which each member of the collegial teaching team is meeting the criteria. The results can be charted each week to help the group determine the frequency and fidelity with which each member is implementing cooperative learning and set goals for implementation efforts for the coming week.

During the collegial teaching team meeting, members show their implementation logs and recount how they (1) taught at least one cooperative learning lesson per day, (2) planned a classroom routine to be done cooperatively, (3) taught at least one social skill, (4) assisted a colleague in using cooperative learning, (5) co-taught a lesson with a colleague, and (6) visited the classrooms of all other group members and noted something positive that was taking place. These criteria may be changed to make them more challenging according to group members' experience and competence level. More advanced criteria include using four types of positive interdependence in each lesson, conducting sequences of cooperative strategies within one lesson, and reading an article or chapter on cooperative learning.

Team members receive points according to the extent to which they reach each criterion (0 = did not do, 1 = half did, 2 = did). Thus, with this example, a group member could earn between 0 and 12 points per week. The points earned by team members are added together and divided by the number of members. The result is the team score, which is plotted on the group's quality chart. The team discusses the results and the long-term trend and plans how to either improve their implementation efforts during the coming week or maintain their high level of implementation.


Benchmarking is establishing operating targets based on best known practices. When benchmarking, teachers identify “the best of the best” in instructional procedures. To study best practices in cooperative learning, educators must survey the research to see what has proven to be effective and locate the schools where the effective methods have been successfully implemented. After identifying “the best of the best,” teachers set a goal to achieve that level of performance in their classes. The teachers must plan the methods they will use to achieve the goals without mimicking the past, and performance measures must be developed to evaluate every procedure's contribution toward reaching the established goals. The benchmark is moved higher as goals are reached.

Providing Leadership

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.

To implement the cooperative school, leadership must help faculty do a better job. Leaders can't spend their time in an office talking on the phone, writing memos, and putting out fires. They must spend their time “where the action is” (in Japan this is called genba). In schools, the action is in classrooms. Therefore, school leaders must support classroom teachers in their efforts to provide students with the best possible instruction. In general, such leadership is provided through five sets of actions (Johnson and Johnson 1989b):

(1) Challenging the Status Quo. The status quo is the competitive-individualistic, mass-production structure that now dominates schools and classrooms. In the classroom, it is represented by lecturing, whole-class discussion, individual worksheets, and tests on Friday. In the school, it is teachers and students separated into grade levels and academic departments with one teacher and one set of students per classroom. Leaders must challenge the efficacy of the status quo.

(2) Inspiring a Mutual Vision of What the School Could and Should Be. Good leaders enthusiastically and frequently communicate the vision of establishing the cooperative school. The leader is the keeper of the dream who inspires commitment to the joint goal of creating a team-based, cooperative school.

(3)Empowering Through Cooperative Teams. This is the most important of all leadership activities. When faculty or students feel helpless and discouraged, providing them with a team creates hope and opportunity. Social support from, and accountability to, valued peers motivates committed efforts to achieve and succeed. Students are empowered by cooperative learning groups and faculty members are empowered through collegial teaching teams and involvement in site-based decision making.

(4) Leading by Example. Leaders model the use of cooperative strategies and procedures and take risks to increase their professional competence. Their actions must be congruent with their words. They must publicly demonstrate what they advocate.

(5) Encouraging the Heart to Persist. As we've said, long-term, committed efforts to continuously improve one's competencies come from the heart, not the head. It takes courage and hope to continue to strive for increased knowledge and expertise. Social support and concrete assistance from leaders and teammates provide students and educators with the strength needed to persist and excel.

* * *

Schools are not buildings, curriculums, and machines. Schools are relationships and interactions among people. How interpersonal interaction is structured determines schools' effectiveness. When teachers are seen as interchangeable parts in a machine created to mass-produce educated students, they tend to become isolated and alienated from each other and from their work. The benefits of cooperative teams, therefore, are great for faculty and students. A cooperative, team-based, high-performance school begins with the use of cooperative learning the majority of the time. It also involves collegial teaching teams, task forces, and ad hoc decision-making groups within the school. And because all schools reflect the systems within which they operate, administrative cooperative teams must be established at the district level.

A congruent organizational structure—one that promotes cooperation at all levels—ensures quality education by creating a constancy of purpose, a commitment to educating every student, a focus on improving the quality of instruction, the elimination of competition at all levels, strong personal relationships, a concern about reducing waste, and careful attention to successfully implementing cooperative learning to improve student achievement.


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