I then queried my friends at kitchentablemath about this study, who shared the following thoughts about whether working in groups strengthens academic skills:
Cooperative learning has been around a long time (Johnson, 1970; Johnson & Johnson, 1989, 1999). It will probably never go away due to its rich history of theory, research, and actual use in the classroom. Markedly different theoretical perspectives (social interdependence, cognitive-developmental, and behavioral learning) provide a clear rationale as to why cooperative efforts are essential for maximizing learning and ensuring healthy cognitive and social development as well as many other important instructional outcomes. Hundreds of research studies demonstrate that cooperative efforts result in higher individual achievement than do competitive or individualistic efforts. Educators use cooperative learning throughout North America, Europe, and many other parts of the world. This combination of theory, research, and practice makes cooperative learning one of the most distinguished of all instructional practices.
Catherine also quotes the following from Learning LD, which suggests that only certain carefully orchestrate group work sessions are effective:
Whereas CL strategies typically involve two or more students working together to accomplish an assigned task, it is not synonymous with “group work.” Johnson and Johnson (1994) identified five elements critical to maintaining structure and student involvement in CL: (1) positive interdependence, which means students realize that group performance depends on the contributions of each member; (2) face-to-face promotive interaction, wherein students encourage and facilitate each other’s efforts to achieve; (3) individual accountability; (4) the use of interpersonal skills; and (5) group processing, which refers to groups’ reflections on how well they are functioning. Researchers emphasize that teaching students such interpersonal behaviors and monitoring their use are critical to the success of CL (e.g., Goor & Schwenn, 1993; Johnson & Johnson, 1992).Catherine also quotes from John Hattie's Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement:
All of the many meta-analyses by the Johnsons and their colleagues show high effect sizes, whereas the others hover around the small to medium effects.
Johnson and Johnson (1987) argued also that cooperation was most effective among adults...
Cooperative learning is more effective in reading (Hall, 1988, d=0.44) than in mathematics (d=0.01), and Johnson et al. (1981) found that for rote decoding and correcting tasks, cooperation does not seem to be superior.
Anonymous adds the following key observation about the Johnson & Johnson study that GC cites in support of cooperative learning:
What's missing from the meta-analysis from U Minn is context. There's no sense of what types of learning tasks are being used to compare cooperative vs. individual learning. My experience as a parent and teacher is that cooperative learning is s technique that can be useful for specific types of learning, but that it is inappropriate for the majority of learning objectives.
Putting all this together, it seems that cooperative learning must be planned effectively, and used judiciously, if it is to have a positive effect on academic skills.
Also, might there be certain subtypes of children, e.g. left-brainers, who tend to learn better on their own, regardless of how effective the cooperative learning environment?