Social Education 55(5) pps. 313-315
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
Cooperative learning has taken the educational community by storm. Its advocates are claiming that, developed and implemented properly, it has the potential to be an alternative to tracking, a means of mainstreaming, a means of improving race relations, a solution to the problems of students at risk, a means of developing prosocial behavior, and a method for increasing achievement (Slavin l990a). The effects of cooperative learning are powerful, even if they fall short of these lofty goals.
Cooperative learning has been shown to increase achievement and long-term retention and to develop higher-level processing skills, including critical thinking. Other benefits of cooperative learning are improved attitudes toward school and subject; development of collaborative competencies; improved psychological health (emotional maturity, social relations, personal identity, trust in people); liking for classmates; a respect for students with different racial or ethnic backgrounds or with handicaps; increased self-esteem; and increased ability to work effectively with others (Slavin l990b; Johnson, Johnson, Holubec, and Roy 1984). Other findings are of particular interest to social studies educators. Cooperative learning has been shown to develop conflict resolution skills and commitment to democratic values (Child Development Project 1988). Slavin (l990b) stated that cooperative learning has "strong effects on higher-order understanding in social studies" (53). Cooperative learning also promotes critical thinking and greater cognitive and affective perspective taking than obtained through conventional learning methods (Johnson et al. 1984).
The research findings indicate that cooperative learning techniques can enhance social studies instruction. The contention of this paper is that cooperative learning strategies are particularly useful in elementary social studies. The National Council for the Social Studies position statement on elementary social studies (NCSS 1989) is a central focus of the paper.
Cooperative learning involves grouping students heterogeneously for learning information, solving problems, and dealing with values. Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec (1988, 8) identify the following essential elements of cooperative learning: (l) positive interdependence; (2) face-to-face interaction between students; (3) individual accountability for mastering material; and (4) appropriate use of interpersonal and small group skills. Slavin (1988) states that two conditions must be met if cooperative learning is to affect achievement: group goals and a criterion for success dependent on the individual learning of all group members.
Categories of Cooperative Learning
Faltus (n.d.) identifies different categories of cooperative learning. Peer tutoring involves students helping each other learning assigned material. Conceptually-oriented cooperative learning involves students sharing ideas, solving problems, discovering new information, and learning abstract concepts. A third cooperative learning method might be labeled value-oriented, as its focus is on examining and learning basic values. Although peer tutoring could be a useful technique in elementary social studies, it has no unique applications, so this discussion will focus on conceptually-oriented and value-oriented techniques.
Teaching Social Values
In one cooperative learning project, teaching social values is the major goal. The Child Development Project was begun in six California elementary schools in 1982. "The goals of the Child Development Project are those of anyone concerned with helping children distinguish right from wrong, helping them balance self-concern with concern for others, and strengthening their natural desire to function as responsible members of their community" (Child Development Project 1988, 1). Elements of the program include focusing on core values (fairness, concern and respect for others, helpfulness, responsibility), a problem-solving approach to discipline, helping, cooperative activities, and understanding others. The CDP approach to cooperative learning makes academic and social goals the subject of explicit review and discussion with children and does not use extrinsic motivators. Research has shown that children in the program are significantly more likely than comparison students to (1) be supportive, friendly, and helpful in their classrooms; (2) resolve conflicts by considering both themselves and others; and (3) attach importance to standing up for their beliefs (8).
Other techniques are value-oriented but not designed to teach specific values. For example, in Line Up, children form a line and indicate preferences and values by stepping forward or not stepping forward in response to a question or statement. In Corners, teachers get children to choose between four options and to indicate their choice by going to a particular corner of the classroom (Curran 1990).
Conceptually-oriented cooperative learning techniques use groups to share ideas, make decisions, solve problems, and process information. These are useful techniques for abstract learning and engage students in inquiry, critical thinking, and higher levels of thinking. In Partners, students are paired to complete a task, such as drawing a picture. Numbered Heads Together encourages a team to consider many ideas and then share the several best techniques. Several techniques (the Wrap, Split and Slide, Inside-Outside Circle) are designed to have students talk to people who have opinions different from their own (Curran 1990).
Teaching Democratic Processes
Cooperative learning is an ideal technique for teaching democratic processes through direct experiences. Implementing cooperative learning requires students to make decisions, participate socially, and act on values such as turn-taking, sharing, and respecting others' points of view. The NCSS position statement on elementary social studies (NCSS 1989, 15) states, "The school itself serves as a laboratory for students to learn social participation directly and not symbolically. Democratic and participatory school and classroom environments are essential to this type of real-world learning." Sapon-Shevin and Schniedewind (1990) claim that ideally, cooperative learning can lead to both student and teacher empowerment, can help schools become models of democracy, allowing all participants in the classroom and the school to have a voice in what happens and to learn how to make and implement fair and reasonable choices. Elementary school students live in a pluralistic society, and they are developing attitudes about pluralism. "Acquisition of concepts about racial and ethnic groups is complex, but early, planned, and structured activities can result in positive attitudes in children" (NCSS 1989, 16). Cooperative learning provides children opportunities to work in heterogeneous groups and promotes cooperative, rather than competitive, attitudes among children of different backgrounds. Cooperative learning methods also can be used to explore concepts such as cultural differences and racism, for "mere contact with diversity, without understanding, can intensify conflict" (15). As Sapon-Shevin and Schniedewind (1990, 65) state, "We could use cooperative learning to model what inclusive communities might look like, classroom communities in which everyone helps everyone else, no one is left behind, and satisfaction derives from overcoming obstacles together."
One purpose of elementary social studies is to teach decision making. "Children must acquire the skills of decision making, but also study the process that occurs as groups make decisions" (NCSS 1989, 16). Cooperative learning affords the opportunity to make personal decisions-What topic shall I study? What group role shall I play?-as well as to be involved in and study group decision-making processes. Assessing how well the group functioned, with teacher and student feedback, is an integral part of cooperative learning (Johnson et al. 1984, 39), which facilitates learning decision making, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills.
"The early years are ideal for children to begin to understand democratic norms and values (justice, equality, etc.)-especially in terms of the smaller social entities of the family, classroom, and community" (NCSS 1989, 16). Cooperative learning activities can be used to teach specific values, to explore beliefs and values, and to experience value conflicts. To engage effectively in the process, students must observe certain norms (taking turns, listening to others), so the cooperative learning experience is a vehicle for learning them. Cooperative learning strategies also are well-suited to group discussions or decisions about value choices.
Competition to Cooperation
We live in a competitive global community that seems to be evolving to a cooperative one. The competitive nature of schools will not prepare students to be citizens in a global community based on cooperation, negotiation, and compromise. At the end of the Governors Conference on Education in 1989, the President announced that federal programs would induce "a new spirit of competition" in the schools. This is a misguided notion for school improvement. For one thing, this "competitive spirit" is not new; it has pervaded most schools. It also panders to the interests of "the best and the brightest," a condition that does not develop self-esteem in all students, as cooperative learning has been shown to do. Lastly, cooperation involves a set of skills and attitudes, and if young people do not learn them in school, it is doubtful they will develop them as adults. "One of the most important conclusions one can draw from the available research on early learning in social studies is the critical importance of the elementary years in laying the foundation for later and increasingly mature understanding" (NCSS 1989, 19).
Social studies educators have advocated cooperative learning under other names. The current emphasis on cooperative learning may succeed where other ideas have failed. Cooperative learning techniques are not limited to social studies, so elementary school teachers have ample opportunities for practice in other subjects. Also, the structures for implementing cooperative learning are very specific. The structures are "content-free ways of structuring group interaction; structures may be used repeatedly with a variety of curriculum materials, at various places in the lesson plan, and with a wide range of grade levels" (Kagan 1989, 4). For example, Curran (1990) identifies nineteen cooperative learning structures (e.g., Community Circle, Cooperative Projects, Jigsaw, Numbered Heads Together, Teams Share) and develops several activities using each structure. Cooperative learning materials also show how to teach children the skills necessary for cooperative learning and specify cooperative learning methods for teachers such as forming teams, team building, simplifying cooperative learning standards for young children, room arrangement, and giving instructions (Curran 1990; Kagan 1989). Too often teachers have been told to implement certain techniques without much specific information about how to do so, especially in elementary social studies, and the cooperative learning movement should not fall into that trap.
Cooperative learning is a current educational bandwagon. It is important that teachers connect the techniques to broader educational purposes; otherwise, the cooperative learning movement will be reduced to mere fad, empty jargon, and isolated techniques. Making connections between social studies goals and content and cooperative learning strategies can strengthen commitment to using the strategies, giving teachers reasons to persist, even when using the strategies is difficult. Elementary social studies too often is taught seldom and poorly (NCSS 1989, 20). Teachers may find teaching social studies using cooperative learning techniques a more exciting and productive venture than the common recitation methods, thus strengthening the position of social studies in elementary schools. Making an explicit connection between the goals expressed in the NCSS position statement and cooperative learning strategies may enhance the possibilities of developing children with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to be active participants in a democratic society and in a shrinking world. n
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