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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 1. What Is Cooperative Learning?

On July 15, 1982, Don Bennett, a Seattle businessman, became the first amputee ever to climb Mount Rainier (reported in Kouzes and Posner 1987). He climbed 14,410 feet on one leg and two crutches. It took him five days. When asked to state the most important lesson he learned from doing the climb, Bennett said without hesitation, “You can't do it alone.”

The lesson learned by Bennett is one that we should all take to heart. If classrooms and schools are to become places where people achieve worthy goals, they must become places where students, teachers, adminstrators, and other staff cooperate in pursuit of those goals. Such cooperation must be consciously implemented until it becomes a natural way of acting and interacting. And it must take place at all levels of schooling from the classroom to the school to the district.

Cooperation in the Classroom

In every classroom, no matter what the subject area, teachers can structure lessons so that students:

  1. Engage in a win-lose struggle to see who is best (competition);
  2. Work independently on their own learning goals at their own pace and in their own space to achieve a preset criterion of excellence (individualism); or
  3. Work cooperatively in small groups, ensuring that all members master the assigned material (cooperation).


When students are required to compete with each other for grades, they work against each other to achieve a goal that only one or a few students can attain. Students are graded on a norm-referenced basis, which requires them to work faster and more accurately than their peers. In doing so, they strive to be better than classmates; work to deprive others (My winning means you lose.); celebrate classmates' failures (Your failure makes it easier for me to win.); view resources such as grades as limited (Only a few of us will get “A's.”); recognize their negatively linked fate (The more you gain, the less there is for me.); and believe that the most competent and hard-working individuals become “haves” and the less competent and deserving individuals become “have nots” (Only the strong succeed.).

In competitive situations there is a negative interdependence among goal achievements; students perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other students in the class fail to obtain theirs (Deutsch 1962; Johnson and Johnson 1991). Unfortunately, this is how most of today's students perceive school. Students either work hard to do better than their classmates, or take it easy because they don't believe they have a chance to win.


When students are required to work individualistically they work by themselves to accomplish learning goals unrelated to those of the other students. Individual goals are assigned and students' efforts are evaluated on a criteria-referenced basis. Each student has his own set of materials and works at his own speed, ignoring the other students in the class. Students are expected and encouraged to focus on their strict self-interest (How well can I do?); value only their own efforts and success (If I study hard, I may get a high grade.); and view the success or failure of others as irrelevant (Whether my classmates study or not does not affect me.). In such situations, students' goal attainments are independent; students perceive that the achievement of their learning goals is unrelated to what other students do (Deutsch 1962; Johnson and Johnson 1991).


Cooperation means working together to accomplish shared goals. Within cooperative activities individuals seek outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and beneficial to all other group members. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups that allows students to work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. The idea is simple. Class members are split into small groups after receiving instruction from the teacher. They then work through the assignment until all group members have successfully understood and completed it. Cooperative efforts result in students striving for mutual benefit so that all group members benefit from each other's efforts (Your success benefits me and my success benefits you.); recognizing that all group members share a common fate (We all sink or swim together here.); knowing that one's performance is mutually caused by oneself and one's colleagues (We can't do it without you.); and feeling proud and jointly celebrating when a group member is recognized for achievement (You got an A! That's terrific!). In cooperative learning situations, there is a positive interdependence among students' goal attainments; students perceive that they can reach their learning goals if and only if the other students in the learning group also reach their goals (Deutsch 1962; Johnson and Johnson 1991).

In the ideal classroom, all students would learn how to work collaboratively with others, compete for fun and enjoyment, and work autonomously on their own. Teachers must decide which goal structure to implement within each lesson. This book is designed to provide an understanding of cooperative learning that will enable teachers to create lessons based on cooperation in the classroom and improve current efforts to structure lessons cooperatively while also exploring the importance of cooperation at all levels of the school.

Essential Components: What Makes Cooperation Work

Together we stand, divided we fall.
—Watchword of the American Revolution

In order to achieve real expertise in using cooperative learning, you must first understand what cooperative learning is (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1. Circles of Learning

Understanding cooperation includes understanding the five essential components that make cooperation work (see Chapter 3). Educators must then know how to plan and implement formal cooperative learning lessons (see Chapter 4), informal cooperative learning lessons (see Chapter 5), cooperative base groups (see Chapter 6), and cooperative learning scripts or structures for repetitive lessons and classroom routines (see Chapter 4, page 43). Once you plan, structure, and implement hundreds of cooperative learning lessons, you will achieve a routine-level of implementation and you will be able to integrate the various forms of cooperative learning (see Chapter 7). In order to get to this level, it will be necessary for students to learn cooperative skills (see Chapter 8), which includes handling conflict (see Chapter 9). Implementation of cooperative learning, furthermore, takes place within an organizational context, which ideally is the cooperative school (see Chapter 10).

Clearly, there is more to cooperative learning than a seating arrangement. Placing students in groups and telling them to work together does not in and of itself result in cooperative efforts. Sitting in groups can instead result in competition at close quarters or individualistic efforts with talking. To structure lessons so students do in fact work cooperatively with each other requires an understanding of the components that make cooperation work. Mastering the essential components of cooperation allows teachers to:

  1. Take existing lessons, curriculums, and courses and structure them cooperatively;
  2. Tailor cooperative learning lessons to unique instructional needs, circumstances, curriculums, subject areas, and students; and
  3. Diagnose the problems some students might have working together and intervene to increase the effectiveness of student learning groups.

For cooperation to work well, teachers must explicitly structure five essential components within each lesson (see Chapter 3). The first and most important component is positive interdependence. Positive interdependence is successfully structured when group members perceive that they are linked with each other so that one cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds. Students must realize that each member's efforts benefit not only the individual, but all other group members as well. Students' vested interest in each other's achievement results in their sharing resources, helping and assisting each other's efforts to learn, providing mutual support, and celebrating their joint success. Positive interdependence is the heart of cooperative learning.

The second essential component of cooperative learning is promotive interaction, preferably face-to-face. Once teachers establish positive interdependence, they need to maximize the opportunity for students to promote each other's success by helping, assisting, supporting, encouraging, and praising each other's efforts to learn. There are cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics that only occur when students get involved in promoting each other's learning. Promotive interaction includes orally explaining how to solve problems, discussing the nature of the concepts being learned, teaching one's knowledge to classmates, and connecting present and past learning.

The third essential component of cooperative learning is individual accountability. The purpose of cooperative learning groups is to make each member a stronger individual. Students learn together so they can subsequently perform better as individuals. Individual accountability exists when the performance of each individual student is assessed and the results are given back to the group and the individual. Individual accountability ensures that group members know who needs more assistance, support, and encouragement in completing the assignment and are aware that they cannot “hitch-hike” on the work of others.

The fourth essential component of cooperative learning is interpersonal and small-group skills. In cooperative learning groups, students are required to learn academic subject matter (taskwork) as well as the interpersonal and small-group skills required to function as part of a team (teamwork). This makes cooperative learning inherently more complex than competitive or individualistic learning. Placing socially unskilled individuals in a group and telling them to cooperate does not guarantee that they will be able to do so effectively. Skills such as leadership, decision making, trust-building, communication, and conflict management must be taught just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills. There are many successful procedures and strategies for teaching students social skills (See Johnson and Johnson 1991, 1993; and Johnson and F. Johnson 1991).

The fifth essential component of cooperative learning is group processing. Group processing exists when group members 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.

Real expertise in using cooperative learning is gained by learning how to structure the five essential components into instructional activities (Johnson and Johnson 1989a). These essential components, furthermore, should be carefully structured within all levels of cooperative efforts—learning groups, the class as a whole, the teaching team, the school, and the school district.

Types of Cooperative Learning

Children sit for 12 years in classrooms where the implicit goal is to listen to the teacher and memorize the information in order to regurgitate it on a test. Little or no attention is paid to the learning process, even though much research exists documenting that real understanding is a case of active restructuring on the part of the learner. Restructuring occurs through engagement in problem posing as well as problem solving, inference making and investigation, resolving of contradictions, and reflecting. These processes all mandate far more active learners, as well as a different model of education than the one subscribed to at present by most institutions. Rather than being powerless and dependent on the institution, learners need to be empowered to think and learn for themselves. Thus, learning needs to be conceived of as something a learner does, not something that is done to a learner.
—Catherine Fosnot 1989

Cooperative learning can be used in various ways, including formal cooperative learning, informal cooperative learning, cooperative base groups, and cooperative structures.

Formal Cooperative Learning

Formal cooperative learning is students working together, from one class period to several weeks, to achieve shared learning goals by ensuring that they and their groupmates successfully complete the learning task assigned. As we've stated, any learning task in any subject area with any curriculum can be structured cooperatively. Any course requirement or assignment may be reformulated for formal cooperative learning. In formal cooperative learning groups, teachers (a) specify the objectives for the lesson, (b) make a number of pre-instructional decisions, (c) explain the task and the positive interdependence, (d) monitor students' learning and intervene within the groups to provide task assistance or to increase students' interpersonal and group skills, and (e) evaluate students' learning and help students process how well their groups functioned (see Chapter 4).

Informal Cooperative Learning

Does the use of cooperative learning mean that teachers can no longer lecture, give demonstrations, show films, or use videotapes? No.

Lectures, demonstrations, films, and videotapes may be used effectively with informal cooperative learning groups in which students work together to achieve a joint learning goal in temporary, ad-hoc groups that last from a few minutes to one class period. During a lecture, demonstration, or film, quick informal cooperative groupings can be used to focus student attention on the material to be learned, to set a mood conducive to learning, to help set expectations as to what will be covered in a class session, to ensure that students cognitively process the material being taught, and to provide closure to the instructional session. Informal cooperative learning helps teachers ensure that students do the intellectual work of organizing, explaining, summarizing, and integrating material into existing conceptual structures during direct teaching. Informal cooperative learning groups are often organized so that students engage in a three- to five-minute focused discussion before and after a lecture and two- to three-minute turn-to-your-partner discussions throughout a lecture (see Chapter 5).

Cooperative Base Groups

Are all cooperative learning groups temporary, lasting only for a short period of time? No.

Cooperative base groups are long-term, heterogeneous cooperative learning groups with stable membership that last for at least a year and perhaps until all members are graduated. These groups provide students with permanent, committed relationships that allow group members to give each other the needed support, help, encouragement, and assistance to consistently work hard in school, make academic progress (attend class, complete all assignments, learn), and develop in cognitively and socially healthy ways (Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec 1992; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 1991).

Base groups meet formally each day in elementary school and twice a week in secondary school (or whenever the class meets). Informally, members interact every day within and between classes, discussing assignments and helping each other with homework. The use of base groups tends to improve attendance, personalize the work required and the school experience, and improve the quality and quantity of learning. The larger the class or school and the more complex and difficult the subject matter, the more important it is to have base groups. Base groups are also helpful in structuring homerooms and when a teacher meets with a number of advisees (see Chapter 6).

Cooperative Structures

In order to use cooperative learning the majority of the time teachers must identify and cooperatively structure generic lessons and repetitive course routines. Cooperative learning scripts are standard, content-free cooperative procedures, which proscribe student actions step-by-step, for either (a) conducting generic, repetitive lessons (such as writing reports or giving presentations) or (b) managing classroom routines (such as checking homework and reviewing tests). Scripted, repetitive cooperative lessons and classroom routines provide a base on which the cooperative classroom can be built. Once planned and conducted several times, they become automatic activities in the classroom. They can also be used in combination to form an overall lesson (see Chapter 4).

As teachers use formal, informal, and cooperative base groups and generic cooperative structures such as learning scripts they gain expertise and begin to automatically use cooperative learning as needed. When teachers achieve the routine-use level of teacher competence they are able to structure cooperative learning situations automatically without conscious thought or planning using various types of cooperative learning. Cooperative learning can then be used long-term with fidelity (see Chapter 7).

Teaching Cooperative Skills

When implementing cooperative learning in the classroom and the school, one major issue becomes, “How well do group members manage conflicts?” Cooperation and conflict go hand-in-hand. The more group members care about achieving the group's goals, and the more they care about each other, the more frequently conflicts will occur. When conflicts are managed constructively, they add creativity, fun, and higher-level reasoning. When they are managed destructively, they can result in anger, frustration, and hostility. In order to manage conflicts constructively, students and faculty need to learn the procedures for doing so and become skillful in their use.

In a conflict positive school (or learning group), members promote and seek out conflicts in order to reap the many positive outcomes they can bring. Two types of conflicts are essential for cooperative groups to function effectively (see Chapter 9). The first type is academic controversy in which students challenge each other's intellectual reasoning and conclusions and argue the different sides of an issue (Johnson and Johnson 1992). The second is peer mediation in which all students are taught how to negotiate solutions to their conflicts with schoolmates and faculty and how to mediate conflicts among their peers (Johnson and Johnson 1991). When conflicts are managed constructively within a group, class, and school, the stage is set for cooperative learning and the cooperative school to reach their potential.

The Cooperative School

All of the elements and benefits of cooperative learning in the classroom must be applied and reflected in the school as a whole (see Chapter 10). The current context of schooling is a “mass-production” organizational structure that divides work into small component parts performed by individuals separately from and in competition with peers. The alternative context is a team-based, high-performance organizational structure in which individuals work cooperatively in teams that have responsibility for an entire product, process, or set of customers. The new organizational structure is known as “the cooperative school.”

In a cooperative school, students work primarily in cooperative learning groups and teachers and building staff as well as district administrators work in cooperative teams (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). The organizational structure of the classroom, school, and district are thus congruent. Each level of cooperative teams supports and enhances the other levels.

Implementing Cooperation in the School

The cooperative school begins in the classroom. Students spend the majority of the day in cooperative learning groups. Cooperative learning is used to increase student achievement, create more positive relationships among students, and generally improve students' psychological well-being. What is good for students, furthermore, is even better for faculty.

The second level of the cooperative school is for faculty to work in collegial support groups aimed at increasing their instructional expertise and success. Faculty work teams are just as effective as student work teams. The use of cooperation to structure faculty and staff work involves (a) collegial support groups, (b) school-based decision making, and (c) faculty meetings. Just as the heart of the classroom is cooperative learning, the heart of the school is the collegial support group. School-based decision making is implemented through the use of two types of cooperative teams. First, a task force considers a school problem and proposes a solution to the faculty as a whole. Second, the faculty is divided into ad hoc decision-making groups, which consider whether to accept or modify the proposal. The decisions made by the ad hoc groups are summarized, and the entire faculty then decides on the action to be taken to solve the problem. The use of faculty collegial support groups, task forces, and ad hoc decision-making groups tends to increase teacher productivity, cohesion, and professional self-esteem. Faculty meetings, furthermore, become models of cooperative procedures.

The third level of the cooperative school is at the district level where administrators are organized into collegial support groups to increase their administrative expertise and success. Administrative task forces and ad hoc decision-making groups should dominate decision making at the district level as much as at the school level. District-level educators must remember that cooperation is more than an instructional procedure. It is a basic shift in organizational structure that extends from the classroom through the superintendent's office.

Gaining Expertise In Using Cooperative Learning

Knowledge about how to do something is not a skill. Being able to do something well is a skill. Skills take considerable time and effort to develop. Gaining expertise in using cooperative learning in the classroom and cooperative teams in the school and district takes at least one lifetime. Expertise is reflected in a person's proficiency, adroitness, competence, and skill in structuring cooperative efforts. Expertise, furthermore, focuses attention on the transfer of what is learned within training sessions to the workplace and the long-term maintenance of new procedures throughout a person's career and lifetime.

James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize as the codiscoverer of the double helix, stated, “Nothing new that is really interesting comes without collaboration.” Gaining expertise in using cooperative learning is in itself a cooperative process that requires a team effort. Collegial support groups encourage and assist teachers in a long-term, multi-year effort to continually improve their competence in using cooperative learning (Johnson and Johnson 1989b). With only a moderately difficult teaching strategy, for example, 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 like cooperative learning, several years of training and support may be needed to ensure mastery.

As Aristotle said, “For things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Teachers have to do cooperative learning for some time before they begin to gain real expertise. This requires support, encouragement, and assistance from colleagues. Transfer and maintenance, therefore, depend largely on teachers themselves being organized into cooperative teams (collegial support groups) that focus on helping each member progressively improve their competence in using cooperative learning. For teachers to be organized this way and to organize their classes this way, administrators and district-level staff must also be organized cooperatively and model cooperation.

* * *

Throughout one very difficult trek across an ice field during Don Bennett's hop to the top of Mount Rainier, his daughter stayed by his side for four hours and with each new hop told him, “You can do it, Dad. You're the best dad in the world. You can do it, Dad.” There was no way Bennett would quit hopping with his daughter yelling words of love and encouragement in his ear. The encouragement of his daughter kept him going, strengthening his commitment to make it to the top. Likewise, with members of cooperative groups cheering them on, students and educators amaze themselves with what they can achieve.


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