Cooperative Learning & The 21st Century

The readings last week really got me thinking if the instructional methods I choose were the most effective way to meet the needs of 21st century learners. Illich’s idea of education reform, written in 1971, suggests we “dismantle the system altogether and build learning webs, peer-matching systems, skill exchanges, and other resources for liberated learning and free inquiry.” However, over 40 years later and we are still not there yet. Thankfully the idea of 21st century education is being talked about allowing learners to develop skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, media literacy, and problem solving.

The course readings also explored the idea of connectivism. The idea that learning is a process and by thinking critically about what are learning, we will alter, change, or add on to what we know. In addition, interdependence on others to foster learning. Connectivism relates to the idea of rhizomatic learning where learning is continuous network and is acquired in collaboration. My question is can connectvisim fit in with other learning theories? I believe it can, and one way to integrate those theories is through cooperative learning groups.

Although technology and media is not the focus of cooperative learning groups. I believe that starting young and implementing something such as cooperative learning groups allows students to engage with the material, collaborate with others, and enhances the probability they will remember it.

In my past teaching experiences I had the assumption that students come to school knowing how to work and how to work together (just as I would assume they know how to use technology). I would think to myself they are in grade three, they should know how to do this by now, but they didn’t.

It is important to remember that cooperative learning is group work, but not all group work is cooperative learning. Group work allows students to divide to work, go their separate ways, work on their own, and meet for the final product. Cooperative learning engages students in a task that is difficult enough that members need to talk with each other to figure things out.

Cooperative learning is more than just placing students in a group and having them work together, it is the process of building learning communities. Students are responsible not only for their learning, but for the learning of others. Throughout the process of cooperative learning, students work in small groups to achieve a common goal. Cooperative learning helps to create engaged citizens and allows students to work collaboratively, essentially creating a productive society rather than a group of individuals.


Cooperative learning uses a variety of strategies to educate students to work together. where the teacher is a facilitator. As the students are working together, it is the teacher’s job to study the students, see how they cooperate, and design learning experiences to teach them to work more effectively together.

One of the main jobs of the teacher is to create and maintain a learning environment that is conducive to cooperative learning. It is essential that the teacher deliberately teaches the five basic elements of cooperative group skills, as well as, conferences about individual and group accountability while students are working in groups.

Johnson describes the five basic elements of cooperative group skills as:

  • Positive Interdependence
  • Individual Accountability
  • Group Processing
  • Social Skills
  • Face-to-Face Interaction

The elements of cooperative group skills can be achieved through a variety of mini-lessons, modelling, and direct teaching. If the teacher establishes clear expectations and holds students accountable, there will be success using this instructional strategy.

When cooperative learning is combined with models from other families (information processing, personal, and behavioural), the results are profound. Some of the many benefits to using cooperative learning as an instructional method as per Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun (2015) are:

  1. It increases motivation.
  2. It produces positive energy with in the classroom and school.
  3. Students are able to develop a feeling of connectedness with their peers.
  4. Student learn from each other better through cooperation than a structure that generates isolation.
  5. Interacting with one another produces more cognitive and social complexity.
  6. Cooperation increases positive feelings.
  7. Cooperation increases self-esteem.
  8. The more students have the opportunity to work together, the better they get at it.
  9. Students can achieve greater mastery of material.
  10. Off-task and disruptive behaviour diminish substantially.

(Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun, 2015, p. 233-234)

Cooperative learning benefits both students with poor academic histories and academically able students as individual effort is still required. Cooperative learning fosters a safe environment of respect, teamwork, self-reflection, and engagement.

Start with small simple tasks within the students’ zone of proximal distal, to ensure success will allow students to acquire and develop additional skill to be used within their cooperative learning groups. During the process of implementing cooperative learning groups and while students are working within their groups, students should have ample opportunities to reflect on their roles within the group and how their group worked.


Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (1989).  Cooperation and competition:  Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Joyce, B., Weil, M., & Calhoun, E. (2015). Models of Teaching, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.


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