Magazine Feature

Cooperative Learning

How to help your students talk about race.
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Robert Williams, principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif., has rock-star appeal as he walks across campus. He knows most every child by name, and many of those children seek out hugs and hellos as Williams passes.

Such interaction is at the heart of Lincoln Elementary -- and at the heart of cooperative learning, the education framework Williams brought to the school when he arrived six years ago.

"Our students generally like each other because they work together so much in the classroom," Williams said. "There is very little polarization of groups today, although there was some when I came."

With neighborhood demographics shifting from predominately African American to predominately Latino, Williams recalls moments when those two groups -- and others -- struggled with interaction.

"Now," he said, "we don't see that at all."

At Lincoln Elementary and in hundreds of schools across the country, cooperative learning has helped administrators and teachers increase academic achievement and equip students with the ability to speak and work across lines of race, class and gender.

Cooperative learning encourages education in a democratic environment. Student interaction at every level of school fosters comfort and confidence in speaking with others. The more students speak and get to know each other, the more compassionate they are toward each other (see The Power To Transform Race Relations sidebar).

Cooperative learning centers on three principles:

  • Simultaneous interaction: The more students talk with each other, the more they'll be engaged and the better they'll learn.
  • Positive interdependence: The success of every team and every team member is not possible without the success and contribution of each member.
  • Individual accountability: By taking responsibility for a specific portion of the project -- and being graded for that -- each student becomes individually accountable.

"The use of cooperative learning stretches students' comfort levels and gives them practice with the skills necessary to dialogue with others," said Lecia Brooks, a former teacher who now serves as education director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala. "School is the perfect place to practice these skills."

That's the case at another school, in Tampa, Fla.

Discovery Academy of Lake Alfred, a charter middle school serving grades six through eight, has about 1,000 students. Of that, 57 percent are white, 21 percent are black and 19 percent are Latino.

The school is 10 years old, and Principal Carol Fulks has been there since the first day. "I knew immediately that cooperative learning was going to be a focus in our new school," she said.

Shanna Fox, a 7th-grade teacher at Discovery Academy, explained that cooperative learning is not a cure-all.

"Sure there is name-calling based on identity like race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation," she said. "Cooperative learning alone doesn't increase race relations in a classroom. You have to teach diversity and tolerance directly.

"If you let students sit where they want, they self-segregate right back to their friends and comfort levels," Fox added. "They wouldn't interact at all if it were not for me using cooperative learning. And because of it, they form friendships that stick ... outside of their groups."


Simultaneous interaction

In most classrooms, teachers do 80 percent of the talking. Simultaneous interaction encourages all voices, dramatically increasing language production for students. Jennifer Rafkin's 2nd-grade English Language Development classroom at Lincoln Elementary exemplifies this principle.

The 20 students gather in groups of four around flip charts. The word "rain" is written in one spot; the word "coat," in another. Students clap their hands together to create the compound word, shouting "raincoat."

Besides developing their English language, they are speaking directly to each other, over and over again, to raise their comfort level in talking with classmates. Rafkin offers even more specific communication instruction, urging students to "look right into their eyes and speak to them."

Down the hallway, 1st-grade teacher Osualdo Ocampo's students complete a literacy lesson in which they change one letter of a word to make a new word.

Ocampo begins with the word "tap" and asks the students what they need to do to change "tap" into "tape." Ocampo urges the students to "huddle up," and they do just that, congregating in groups of four. In the small groups, they excitedly discuss what they believe to be the answer. Once they agree, they make sure everyone in the group knows the answer because, at Ocampo's prompting, one of them will have to move to the next group and tell that group the answer.

From "tap" to "tape" to "ape" to "age" to "cage" to "wage," they learn not only literacy skills, but also how to listen and speak to as many different classmates as possible.

The Power To Transform Race Relations

Since I published my first study of cooperative learning in 1968, I have been researching, developing and training educators in these methods. With regard to race relations, that work has led me to a simple conclusion: Cooperative learning, when it includes heterogeneous teams and team-building, is the single most powerful tool this nation has for improving race relations. Let's examine the evidence behind that conclusion.

Numerous studies of the impact of cooperative learning on social relations and race relations have shown consistent outcomes: Following cooperative learning, students are generally kinder and more cooperative, and race relations improve dramatically.

Let me briefly describe a study that demonstrates this. As a research professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, I was examining the effects of cooperative learning in desegregated schools. I was given the opportunity to test the effects of randomly assigning all the student teachers in the school of education to one of two conditions: to teach using cooperative learning, or to teach using traditional methods in which students worked alone.

To study the impact of these two different instructional approaches on race relations, my research team developed and validated a race relations measure: the Interpersonal Relations Assessment Technique, or IRAT. The IRAT is very simple: In a column on the left side of a single sheet of paper is a list of all the names of the students in a class. Across the top of the paper are six items, varying in degree of intimacy. Low-level intimacy items include "sit next to" or "loan a pencil." High-level intimacy items include "best friends" and "share secrets."

The items were chosen because they have Gutman scale properties. That is, students who are willing to sit next to someone may or may not be willing to be their best friend, but if they are willing to be a best friend, they also will be willing to sit next to that person. The result is an intimacy scale. (Interestingly, the validation study revealed that "sharing secrets" is a more intimate item than "being best friends." That is, students are not willing to share secrets with everyone they list as a best friend!)

We ended up testing about 2,000 students at all grade levels, asking them to respond to the six intimacy items for each of their classmates. This sociometric approach generated a mountain of information — over a third of a million bits of data.

What did IRAT reveal? The results were as clear as any I have ever viewed in social science research.

When taught with traditional methods in which students do not work with others, in the first few years of school, students are color-blind. That is, they choose their friends, even best friends, without regard to race.

By late 2nd grade, however, self-segregation begins. Students begin choosing classmates of the same race as friends more often than classmates of other races.

By the end of elementary school, self-segregation is dramatic; it becomes almost a prerequisite for the highest levels of friendship for students to be of the same race. Such self-segregation is obvious not just on the IRAT; it can be seen as well by observing group patterns on the playground or in the cafeteria.

This pattern of progressive self-segregation along race lines is true everywhere traditional teaching methods are used. Understandably, when students do not work with and come to know others of different races, they are more comfortable with members of their own race. Desegregation does not necessarily lead to integration.

Our study showed that when student teachers implemented cooperative learning, an entirely different picture emerged. In the cooperative learning condition, pupils were assigned to four-person heterogeneous student teams, integrated racially. That is, if there were black, Hispanic and white students in a classroom, to the extent possible, teams would be formed so there was a black, Hispanic and white student on each team.

Further, when students first sat down as a team, they engaged in team-building: Students created team names, logos and cheers. They learned to work together toward common goals.

With these simple methods in place, and after only six weeks, the IRAT revealed an entirely transformed pattern of race relations; students chose their friends across race lines almost as often as within their same race. Self-segregation along race lines was almost completely eliminated by cooperative learning. Students who do team-building and who work together toward a shared goal come to honor and appreciate their diversity. They don't just tolerate each other; they come to like each other.

The studies of cooperative learning demonstrate that we have it in our power to eliminate one of the greatest problems facing our nation. We can realize one of the most powerful dreams ever articulated: We can become a nation of citizens that judge others not by their color, but rather by the content of their character.

Positive Interdependence

Principal Williams summed up positive interdependence in seven words: "I need you, and you need me." Personal success and group success, then, are intertwined.

In the middle of the school year, long after they first got to know one another, Lincoln Elementary teacher Jill Carpenter's 3rd-grade students still focus on team-building.

As she tells them one day, "There's something you still don't know about the person sitting beside you."

Using Bingo-style cards and working in teams, they ask each other questions -- "What is your favorite food?" or "What is your favorite television show?" -- seeking to mark off 16 squares. As always, they follow the rule of answering in complete sentences and looking directly at one another.

On the team that calls itself "The Fairly Odd Parents" -- named after a Nickelodeon television show -- one student tells the others that his favorite TV show is wrestling.

After the others listen, one student replies, "I don't like wrestling because it's too violent."

Teachers encourage students to disagree and to state their disagreement directly and kindly, constantly coaching them to both give and take criticism without emotion or judgment.

Another class plays "Who am I?" where each student has a name on his or her back and must question other students to discover the identity. Spiderman is paired with Tinkerbell, Clifford the Dog with Usher, and the Easter Bunny with President Bush. Again, the goal is to be as comfortable as possible, while speaking to everyone in the room.

In Brenda Borges' 6th-grade Humanities class at Discovery Academy, students also are team-building. They rotate teams every four weeks, and today's grouping is new.

Questions written on blue stars in the middle of their tables ask, "If you could be a super hero, who would you be and why?" or "If you could be any car, what would you be and why?"

Things seem to be going well until a girl is asked, "If you could be a food, what would you be and why?"

A boy on her team answers under his breath, but loud enough that she can hear, "You could be a cow."

A grimace spreads across the face of the young girl.

Cooperative learning does not eradicate hurtful comments. Borges, though, sees this moment as a reminder of why it's vital for students to get to know one another better, building trust and respect.


Individual accountability

Individual accountability also is a fundamental principle of cooperative learning. Each student has responsibility for his or her achievement, participation and listening.

In Lee Kolsky's 5th-grade class at Lincoln Elementary, students are working together on a math problem that asks them to subtract whole numbers and fractions.

In groups of four, the students tackle math problems written on large sheets of paper placed around the room. With everyone in a group watching, one student steps up and does the first step of the math problem. A second student from the group does the second step, and so on, until the group solves the problem to its satisfaction.

On this day, one team finishes with 4-1/3 as the answer. Two of four group members relax at a job well done. But the other two look nervously at each other. Finally one girl quietly asserts, "I think it's suppose to be 4-_."

She's right, and Mr. Kolsky is especially proud of her; as a shy student, she is only now beginning to assert herself. This is progress.

Susan Gann has been teaching for 13 years, and 10 of them have been at Discovery Academy. Gann teaches a special reading class filled with 6th-graders who are reading at a 3rd-grade level.

She finds cooperative learning especially important for children who are struggling academically. During lessons, these students are fully engaged, leaning in to hear what other students say. "They feel safe and successful," Gann said.

That interconnectedness -- individual accountability within a team atmosphere -- is at the heart of cooperative learning.

"For cooperative learning to really work, you have to do two team-building strategies and one class-builder every single week of the year," Gann said. "Relationship-building is key."