Saturday, August 22, 2009

Does working in groups strengthen academic skills?

In my conversation with GC at (see last post), he offered the following reasons for requiring students to work in groups, even if they ask for more challenging work than what their classmates get:


The reasons are simple. I need that student to participate in cooperative learning and group activities for the sake of the other students (whom they can help in ways that I can't) and for their own sake (because being a peer tutor has been show to produce a more secure set of skills in a student).

In response to this, I wrote:


There are no randomized studies showing that social skills improve when students are forced to work in groups; if there were, then presumably my generation (which didn't do much work group at all), and students in non-Anglophone countries, have weaker social skills than younger Americans do.

GC's reply:

I think there's considerable support for the idea that participating in cooperative learning activities results in a stronger set of academic skills for the students. I'll quote Johnson, Johnson, and Stanne (2000):

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.

I then queried my friends at kitchentablemath about this study, who shared the following thoughts about whether working in groups strengthens academic skills:

From Catherine Johnson:

Teaching LD (Information and Resources for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities) puts Cooperative Learning under "Use Caution" (i.e.: "practices for which the research evidence is incomplete, mixed, or negative).

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?

1 comment:

NY_I said...

I am frustrated with the standard arguments for cooperative learning. The standard fall-back (or defaul) argument for the education school advocates is that "research supports cooperative learning." The problem is that the research is skewed. The literature that these academics cite is quite apparently written by advocates of cooperative learning. We are not referred to neutral or blind studies conducted by parties that do not have a professional stake in this approach.
The fact that non-American systems or immigrant students (with a number of years in schools abroad) excel beyond American students should strongly suggest that our cooperative learning is not producing the best results. Cooperative learning is not "the best practice."