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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

Gifted Students Talk About Cooperative Learning

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies
Researchers, advocates, administrators, and teachers have a great deal to say about what gifted students gain from cooperative learning. But what do students themselves think about it? To get their impressions, I interviewed 15 gifted 6th and 8th graders from a wealthy suburban school district. I chose this district because it has been involved with cooperative learning since 1983, when Roger Johnson and David Johnson provided the initial training. Over the years, the district has provided excellent follow-up training and support for cooperative learning.

What Do Gifted Students Say?

I asked the students about some of the benefits Johnson and Johnson (1989) advance for cooperative learning. For example, they believe that because gifted students may have to explain material to others, they will have higher-level processing of the material themselves. Other advantages the Johnsons cite include increased social skill behaviors (how to work with others, communicate effectively, form trusting relationships, resolve conflicts, and provide shared leadership in the group) and improved self-esteem, attitudes toward school, and acceptance of differences.
The responses of the gifted students are interesting. Here's what the students I interviewed have to say.
About explaining material. First, they have a hard time understanding why other students can't grasp material that they have no difficulty with. They also resent having to explain the material to students who won't listen to them. What's the point in me explaining it; he's there listening to everything we're saying when we're in our group ... so why doesn't he just hear what we're saying, you know, instead of singling him out and then explaining and you know he's not even listening to you. Gifted students also resent the time taken away from their own learning to work with uncooperative students. They enjoy explaining material if a student wants to learn but get frustrated if it is hard for the other student to understand: If they seem interested then you'll explain it ... at least you feel like they got something out of it. You feel frustrated because they can't get it as easy as you, even though they're trying as hard as they can.
None of the 15 students say that they understand the material better themselves after explaining it to others. As one points out: When you explain it, you want to do it real fast because you're bored or something and you might leave out something real important and the kid doesn't get all of it [as a result]. And then you say, `Do you get it now?' and because you're going so fast, the kid goes, `Yeah, yeah, yeah,' and you just go on with it. These gifted students see no benefits for themselves, and they recognize how their being bored with the material could hurt another student.
As the explainer of the material to be learned, the gifted student must be able to articulate explanations yet not take over the group. This is a very complex task for a young person, one that is not modeled particularly well by teachers in the first place (see Robinson 1990). It also promotes a utilitarian view of gifted students, who have needs of their own.
About social skill behaviors. The social skill behaviors identified by the Johnsons include those that allow for successful group functioning. The gifted students were supposed to divide the work equally among all the group members, but they were concerned about quality. A student comments: You split up the work and say, “You do this,” and “You do that,” but sometimes the other person doesn't do it or doesn't do it at all well ... [In that case] you feel that you should do it again because it's real bad and you'll probably get a worse grade. It's this concern with quality that many times causes gifted students to dominate the group or to do all the work themselves. Many students are troubled about this. One student comments: I did a project last year and I spent half of my time explaining to the others in the group what to do and they just sat there reading magazines in the library all the time. I did all the work and still got a D on it because they did absolutely nothing. As a result of this experience, this student had a negative attitude toward fellow group members.
About cooperative learning in homogeneous groups. Silverman suggests that gifted students will learn humility and democratic values much better by being placed with their intellectual peers (see Willis 1990). The students in this study were much less negative about cooperative learning when working with students on their level: If we're all on the same level we just help each other ... overall it's pretty balanced. If one kid knows more on one subject, he teaches the other ones, and if another one knows another subject, he just tells them what he knows. I don't think we have a dominant person. [in that case].
Gifted students feel that there might be a competition for leadership of the group if all group members are on the same level, but “when you're in a situation like that ... it's more a friendly competition ... more like compromise.”
The students also discuss the issue of trust when working with peers: You feel more relaxed because you know you won't have to do all the work ... we're good at different things.... If you work in a group with someone that you know that isn't scared or ashamed to say, “I think we should do it this way.” You might fight over it for a little while but eventually.... If you know that they're on the same level as you then you think they're going to come up with an idea that's just as good so it's easier to have confidence in them ....”
Other benefits. The students I talked with did not address specifically the effects of cooperative learning on self-esteem, attitudes toward school, and the acceptance of differences. However, their remarks seem to show that working with students on their intellectual level might positively affect their self-esteem and attitudes toward school in that they have a better understanding of their abilities when they measure them against those with similar abilities. As far as acceptance of differences, students seem more likely to appreciate group members who will listen to them, respect their opinions, and do the required work in the project. When they work with classmates who don't care about the work, or when they repeat already mastered work, they may become frustrated and bored.

What Can Educators Do?

Rather than evoking the positive attitudes and appropriate social skill behaviors enumerated by the Johnsons, cooperative learning in heterogeneous groups appears to promote some arrogance, a lack of trust in classmates (to do the work to the standards of excellence gifted students feel are necessary), a tendency to take over the group rather than to provide shared leadership, and a lack of knowledge about how to work with other students (how to explain material to others so they will understand).
However, when these students work in groups made up of students on their level, they do tend to develop the positive attitudes and gain the benefits suggested by the Johnsons. They are able to gain knowledge from students who may know more or have varying talents in different areas. They also are able to work more effectively with others by communicating in relevant ways, forming trusting relationships, and learning how to resolve conflicts and to share leadership.
Cooperative learning appears to have benefits for students, but it must be implemented effectively to reap those benefits. (See “Six Ways to Make Cooperative Learning More Effective,” above.) If we care about the achievement of gifted students, we must allow them some time to work together. When gifted students work together for part or all of the school day, their achievement surpasses that of gifted students who are not grouped together for instruction (Kulik and Kulik 1987). Of course, not all tasks require academic challenge. As Winebrenner (1990) says, “The teacher should decide which activities are more appropriate for heterogeneous groups and which require gifted students to work in their own cooperative groups with appropriately challenging tasks.”

Six Ways to Make Cooperative Learning More Effective

  • Design cooperative projects so that all students can interact and contribute equally. Avoid traditional worksheet, “right answer” tasks, because often they will be completed by one person, who can do the job better and more efficiently than the group.

  • Use new curricular materials that involve collaborative practices—projects in which students share creative ideas, build on one another's knowledge, and draw on diverse skills (Cohen 1990, Gamoran 1990). Projects might include: writing workshops, oral histories, guided nature walks, ecology projects, discussions of political issues, plays, science experiments, manipulatives-based math explorations, Odyssey of the Mind competitions, Future Problem Solving teams, and foreign language talk shows.

  • Encourage successful group functioning by including five conditions: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual accountability, social skills, and group processing. (Johnson et al. 1986)

  • Set authentic group goals that are important to group members. Sharan and Sharan point to student interest and autonomy as motivating factors and essential to the success of cooperative learning (1989/90).

  • Teach students how successful groups work and how to apply this information to their own groups (Johnson et al. 1986). How to ask for assistance, help others, and take responsibility for group members are important skills (Cohen 1990). Roleplay and model these skills with students.

  • Group students in flexible ways. If we group students heterogeneously at all times, the only one providing assistance will probably be the high-achieving student. Flexible grouping gives the low achievers the opportunity to realize the positive effects of being the “explainer” and provides gifted students opportunities to get to know and work with a wide range of students.

—Marian Matthews

Gifted students must be allowed to work with students of varying abilities, from different backgrounds (especially those traditionally underserved in gifted programs), as well as those who may be talented in areas other than academics. In this way, they will see firsthand that everyone has an important contribution to make. If all students are exposed to new activities, flexible grouping arrangements, ways to use various student abilities and skills, and training in how to work in groups (and determining afterward how well they worked), they will receive more opportunities to use a diverse range of skills and abilities. Then everyone, including gifted students, will gain from cooperative grouping arrangements.

Cohen, E. G. (1990). “Continuing to Cooperate: Prerequisites for Persistence.” Phi Delta Kappan 72, 2: 134–138.

Gamoran, A. (1990). “How Tracking Affects Achievement.” Occasional paper. (Available from the Clearing-house, National Center on Effective Secondary Schools, 1025 W. Johnson St., Madison, WI 53706.)

Johnson, D. W., and R. T. Johnson. (1989). “What to Say to Parents of Gifted Children.” The Cooperative Link 5, 2: 1–3.

Johnson, D. W., R. T. Johnson, and E. J. Holubec. (1986). Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

Kulik, J., and C. Kulik. (1987). “Effects of Ability Grouping on Student Achievement.” Equity and Excellence 23, 1–2: 22–30.

Robinson, A. (1990). “Cooperation or Exploitation? The Argument Against Cooperative Learning for Talented Students.” Journal for the Education of the Gifted 14: 9–27.

Sharan, Y., and S. Sharan. (December 1989/January 1990). “Group Investigation Expands Cooperative Learning.” Educational Leadership 47, 4: 17–21.

Willis, S. (October 1990). “Cooperative Learning Fallout?” ASCD Update 6, 8.

Winebrenner, S. (November 1990). “Cooperative Learning and Gifted Students.” Paper presented at the National Association for Gifted Children convention, Little Rock, Ark.

End Notes

1 I have used cooperative learning with gifted students in public schools and with my college students since I began teaching at the university level. These interviews were the precursor to my nationwide survey of 800 gifted students involved in cooperative learning. While the results are not yet analyzed, the survey seems to support the findings of the interviews: that high-ability students prefer cooperative learning in homogeneous groups.

Marian Matthews has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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