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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Response / Why (Even) Gifted Children Need Cooperative Learning

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies
Imagine a school that has just become racially integrated. One teacher in that school interviews only the white children about their feelings on integration and then, based on their discomfort, decides that racial segregation was probably a better idea. We would likely be outraged by such a conclusion.
We would respond that the decision to integrate was based on a strong philosophical, even moral, commitment to principles of social justice and equality. We would say that we want all children to learn to respect one another's differences and relate in supportive and caring ways. We would take the children's discomfort as a sign that we had not yet achieved our goals, and it would inspire us to find more sophisticated and powerful ways to achieve them.
Marian Matthews' article “Gifted Students Talk About Cooperative Learning” (October 1992) raises similar concerns for those of us working to create equitable schools and a just, democratic society. In the article, Matthews reports that many gifted students are resentful of and uncomfortable with cooperative learning structures.
It is important that Matthews listened to the voices of students. But where are the voices of non-gifted students? And what do the remarks of the children she quoted tell us about our own failures to communicate some important values to children?
As we have argued elsewhere, cooperative learning is not just a teaching technique or strategy (Sapon-Shevin 1991, 1992; Sapon-Shevin and Schniedewind 1989–90, in press). It entails learning to respect others' differences and to interact successfully with people from different racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups and whose skills are widely divergent. Cooperative learning is about becoming an advocate for heterogeneity in all aspects of our lives, not just skilled and comfortable with differences. Teaching students to learn and work cooperatively in schools prepares them for a multicultural society in which they will live and work with people from whom they have previously been segregated and alienated.
Matthews reports that gifted students resented having to work with others who “didn't listen.” She also observes that the metacognitive skills required to teach others are complex, and that students learn humility and democratic values better by being placed with their intellectual peers. To us, these are powerful reasons to pursue cooperative learning with gifted students. All students need to learn to work with others they perceive as “uncooperative.” In well-organized, well-structured cooperative learning, gifted students would not consistently work with reticent students or those they perceive as “freeloaders and hitchhikers.” All students should be taught the social skills and creative problem-solving strategies necessary to make their own involvement comfortable and satisfying.
We have clearly failed to communicate why we are doing cooperative learning if students report that they help one another more easily when they're “on the same level,” that they enjoy the “trust” of homogeneous groups, and that they more easily appreciate others' strengths and abilities when they are in homogeneous groups. In the inclusive classrooms described in the October issue (see Forest and Pearpoint, Villa and Thousand), teachers and administrators take great pride when students support classmates with significant disabilities by offering friendship and peer teaching. Clearly these students have learned to see beyond the labels to the unique people within. Isn't a truly gifted person one who has multiple repertoires and can adapt, talk, and relate to a wide range of others? Why would we want or be satisfied with any less from students who are identified as gifted?
Much of Matthews' criticism actually addresses limited, simplistic, unimaginative, and poorly structured cooperative learning. Her chart outlining “Six Ways to Make Cooperative Learning More Effective” is simply a list of basic cooperative learning principles, practices, and requirements important for all children, not just the gifted.
No teacher should have to choose between maximizing academic achievement for some students and creating a supportive, cooperative heterogeneous classroom for all. Thoughtful, creative cooperative learning allows differentiation of tasks and processes. Well-structured cooperative learning lessons are often multilevel and multidisciplinary, calling for the “gifts” of a variety of students. In the context of an inclusive classroom, well-structured cooperative learning allows teachers to disrupt a limited hierarchy of intelligence. There are many ways to be smart, and students who are gifted in one area are not necessarily equally skilled in all areas. Cooperative learning can be the organizing value of instruction as well as the primary form of pedagogy.
All of us must think about the kind of people we want our schools to nurture. We must promote educational practices that are consistent with a broad vision of that outcome. Designing classroom practices that allow all students to learn academic skills, social skills, and respect and appreciation of others is a difficult task. Doing so within an inclusive setting may appear more difficult at first, but it is only within such a context that many of the requisite skills and attitudes can be developed and displayed. “Acceptance of diversity,” “helping others,” and “building community across differences” are difficult to model or sustain within homogeneous settings. We must not let the complexity of the task make us settle for partial solutions and false compromise if we are to prepare all students to live and take leadership in a cooperative, peaceful world.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1991). “Cooperative Learning, Cooperative Visions: Challenging Ourselves and Our Students.” Holistic Education Review 4, 4: 25–28.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1992). “Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms: Learning to Become a Community.” Cooperative Learning 12, 1: 8–11.

Sapon-Shevin, M., and N. Schniedewind. (1989–90). “Selling Cooperative Learning without Selling It Short.” Educational Leadership 47, 4: 63–65.

Sapon-Shevin, M., and N. Schniedewind. (In press). “If Cooperative Learning Is the Answer, What Are the Questions?” Journal of Education.

Mara Sapon-Shevin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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