Cooperative Learning

May 3, 2016

What is Cooperative Learning?


Students’ learning goals may be structured to promote cooperative, competitive, or individualistic efforts.  In every classroom, instructional activities are aimed at accomplishing goals and are conducted under a goal structure.  A learning goal is a desired future state of demonstrating competence or mastery in the subject area being studied.  The goal structure specifies the ways in which students will interact with each other and the teacher during the instructional session.  Each goal structure has its place (Johnson & Johnson, 1989, 1999).  In the ideal classroom, all students would learn how to work cooperatively with others, compete for fun and enjoyment, and work autonomously on their own.  The teacher decides which goal structure to implement within each lesson.  The most important goal structure, and the one that should be used the majority of the time in learning situations, is cooperation.

Cooperation is working together to accomplish shared goals.  Within cooperative situations, individuals seek outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and beneficial to all other group members. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning.  It may be contrasted with competitive (students work against each other to achieve an academic goal such as a grade of “A” that only one or a few students can attain) andindividualistic (students work by themselves to accomplish learning goals unrelated to those of the other students) learning.  In cooperative and individualistic learning, you evaluate student efforts on a criteria-referenced basis while in competitive learning you grade students on a norm-referenced basis.  While there are limitations on when and where you may use competitive and individualistic learning appropriately, you may structure any learning task in any subject area with any curriculum cooperatively.

Theorizing on social interdependence began in the early 1900s, when one of the founders of the Gestalt School of Psychology, Kurt Koffka, proposed that groups were dynamic wholes in which the interdependence among members could vary.  One of his colleagues, Kurt Lewin refined Koffka’s notions in the 1920s and 1930s while stating that (a) the essence of a group is the interdependence among members (created by common goals) which results in the group being a “dynamic whole” so that a change in the state of any member or subgroup changes the state of any other member or subgroup, and (b) an intrinsic state of tension within group members motivates movement toward the accomplishment of the desired common goals.  For interdependence to exist, there must be more than one person or entity involved, and the persons or entities must have impact on each other in that a change in the state of one causes a change in the state of the others.  From the work of Lewin’s students and colleagues, such as Ovisankian, Lissner, Mahler, and Lewis, it may be concluded that it is the drive for goal accomplishment that motivates cooperative and competitive behavior.

In the late 1940s, one of Lewin’s graduate students, Morton Deutsch, extended Lewin’s reasoning about social interdependence and formulated a theory of cooperation and competition (Deutsch, 1949, 1962).  Deutsch conceptualized three types of social interdependence–positive, negative, and none.  Deutsch’s basic premise was that the type of interdependence structured in a situation determines how individuals interact with each other which, in turn, largely determines outcomes.  Positive interdependence tends to result in promotive interaction, negative interdependence tends to result in oppositional or contrient interaction, and no interdependence results in an absence of interaction.  Depending on whether individuals promote or obstruct each other’s goal accomplishments, there is substitutability, cathexis, and inducibility.  The relationships between the type of social interdependence and the interaction pattern it elicits is assumed to be bidirectional.  Each may cause the other.  Deutsch’s theory has served as a major conceptual structure for this area of inquiry since 1949.


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