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    Cooperative Learning

    You may have heard that the United States is about rugged individualism, but no more. For the last couple of decades, American teachers have embraced a bold new model called cooperative learning (or sometimes team learning), a research-proven method that benefits students, or at least many students. My politically philosophical articles tend to be of the “Chicken Little” sort, where I claim the sky is falling. Not here, since Cooperative Learning is not a new idea. It is a fait accompli embraced by virtually all primary and secondary school teachers and by an entire generation of our youth now coming of age and themselves becoming teachers. The sky has already fallen while we weren’t looking and it is time to analyze the consequences. I think they include putting half our population at a disadvantage and potentially destroying our very brightest.

    Discussion Questions:

    1. Do you think the author is being sarcastic here?

    2. Can you think of any potential problems with cooperative learning?

    3. What can possibly be wrong with helping each other and working things out together?

    4. Why are fewer students studying science and engineering?

    Where Cooperation Succeeds

    Education seems to have gone through three phases. For thousands of years, young people (almost always men) were required to memorize texts by rote, which made sense when books were scarce. Like cooperative learning, rote lessons do not encourage independent thought. But rote learning does encourage independent study and competition. For example “rhetoric”, the art of debate, was considered the most important part of a young man’s education in ancient Rome.

    By the twentieth century of my youth, rote learning had been mostly replaced by what I would call competitive individualism, were students still competed for grades but were encouraged to think creatively and experiment with new ideas.

    Then cooperative learning gained favor by the early 1990’s, arguing that children learn best in social situations. The seminal 1992 paper by Johnson & Johnson quoted Woodrow Wilson, who said, “The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.” Readers of my previous article may remember that Wilson was possibly the world’s first fascist leader, which tends to tarnish the Johnsons’ argument a bit. Anyway, they say the cooperative approach is more productive than competitive and individualistic learning, given it has these five elements:

    1. Clearly perceived positive interdependence
    2. Considerable promotive ( face-to-face ) interaction
    3. Clearly perceived individual accountability and personal responsibility
    4. Frequent use of the relevant interpersonal and small-group skills
    5. Frequent and regular group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness

    Numerous studies of cooperative learning have found that students learn more and better in social situations and that 61% of cooperative-learning classes did significantly better in achievement tests. Possibly the most important benefit is not often stated directly, but to quote from the previous link, “Cooperative learning has also been observed to enhance achievement of female and African American students (Herreid, 1998), members of groups that are underrepresented in various disciplines.” Cooperative learning helps many students who do well in less competitive and more verbal environments. Indeed, cooperative learning apparently tends to lessen that much debated scourge of modern America, the performance gap often seen in disadvantaged minorities. So to argue against this new conventional wisdom is to risk being labeled a racist, white supremacist and male chauvinist.

    Where Cooperation Fails

    Notice that element #3 above pays at least lip service to individualism, for motivation can break down if groups are only graded as a whole. Of course, that is one big problem that modern educators tend to acknowledge, since it is very difficult to grade a committee individually, especially if you cannot sit in on all deliberations (which you cannot because we are talking about small groups, not the whole classroom). My wife, who is currently a professor in a graduate program where group projects are encouraged (though they call it “Learner Centered Education”), has found a partial technological solution involving Google Docs, which allows group authorship of papers where individual contributors use different text colors. Though there are still loopholes given how easy it is to copy, paste and recolor text.

    Critics of cooperative learning have a number of other arguments, commonly including:

    Introverts suffer
    Students with poor self-confidence suffer
    Peer pressure can undermine students who want to do more
    “Free rides” by less able members
    More able students do less to avoid being “suckers”
    High-ability members take over leadership roles at the expense of others
    Group effort is characterized by self-induced helplessness
    Responsibility is diffused and social loafing occurs
    Group gangs up against a task
    Destructive conflict occurs

    Most of these arguments are what I would call “criticism from within”. Critics have accepted the basic goals non-competitive learning, but are worried that cooperation can break down. They are right to worry, since I have argued elsewhere that we humans are only partially socialized and find complex cooperation difficult.

    Educators sometimes admit that cooperative learning is less good for gifted students, but mostly because they are forced to teach other students rather than moving ahead with their own studies. John Huss argues that, while this is a problem, it is not because cooperative learning does not work. Instead he thinks that teachers have just failed to properly implement the Johnsons’ Individual Accountability commandment.

    Along with a few other education outsiders, I argue there are some more serious problems with cooperative learning. Sure it is better for many or maybe even most students, and especially good for a large number of students who do poorly with traditional teaching. But it is worse for the very best students, or those who would be best under more independent systems. It is potentially much worse for the occasional genius. Many geniuses have significant social deficits and do not work well in groups. Genius is not supposed to fit in. Forcing some to learn by committee may make them better at dealing with people, but often at the expense of their intellectual confidence and to the detriment of their genius. Of course, I’m only talking about a tiny fraction of the population, so who cares since the majority benefits? As I will argue, we all should care since it is the occasional genius that advances all humanity in an increasingly technological world.

    There is another criticism that may be my own unpopular idea, because I have not run across it in my brief survey of cooperative learning and its critics. It seems to me that by requiring lots of group work, schools may be putting many boys at a disadvantage. I apologize for bringing up the unpopular idea that there may be some basic behavioral differences between the sexes, but I think most males naturally tend to be more independent and less comfortable with conversation and small group society. Indeed, one word for “small group society” is clique, which we often use to describe the byzantine social interactions between girls, but seldom boys. Most girls are simply better at this stuff, while boys tend to be better at independent and competitive tasks.

    I did well in school forty years ago. But I shudder when I hear the kind of cooperative assignments my daughters get these days and I’m pretty sure I would not do very well in their school environment. I’m good at public speaking and presenting my ideas verbally, but only when I have a chance to carefully prepare ahead of time in private. I simply do not think well spontaneously during social interactions. I am not even very good at expressing preformulated ideas on the spur of the moment without a word-for-word script. I am an outlier, but that mostly means I’m what we commonly refer to as a nerd.

    You may argue that cooperative learning techniques help socialize the competitive nature of young men and so help everyone cooperate in an increasingly global society. But what if many males are simply not up to the task? What if a little competition is good for society? What if nerds are an important part of our technological future?

    Why Boys Fail

    This all came to mind recently when I read a very interesting article in the back of the Wall Street Journal which tried to explain why more professional women are opting to have children without husbands. It turns out there is a modern shortage of college educated men and indeed many collage admission offices are practicing a sort of male affirmative action just to keep the number of men at or above 40%. The author, Richard Whitmire, is somewhat of an expert in the area because of his recent book, Why Boys Fail, which discusses the increasingly inferior performance of boys in our schools.

    I have recently been noticing the same effect, since the majority of students and the majority of honors students at my daughters’ private schools have been female. (And by the way, paying for private school is not a way of avoiding cooperative learning, which seems pervasive everywhere, though possibly handled more adroitly by teachers at better schools.) It is the same story at the college where my wife teaches, with more women than men and with valedictorians who are almost invariably women. Yet when my wife and I were in school many years ago, the opposite seemed true and boys usually won top honors.

    I have not read Whitmire’s book, but according to Amazon reviews, he explains the phenomenon by arguing that the world has become more verbal while boys have not. There are other recent books on the subject, including The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre, who in addition apparently argues that boys are at a disadvantage because of most elementary teachers are women and because modern schools with accelerated academic studies have decreased recess time. She and other authors including Christina Hoff Sommers also talk of the feminization of education, arguing that the feminist movement may have overcompensated because modern mores tend to subordinate objective truth and argumentative thinking to the niceties of social etiquette.

    I’m not sure I find most of those explanations plausible. For one thing, most of the authors I encounter are men, so it is difficult to argue that males are verbally inferior, at least in written form. Of course, many males may be less than loquacious. I certainly am, having spoken only two words so far today, a “thank you” when I was handed a towel at the gym. But America is filled with male dominated committees of all sorts, so it is difficult to argue that adult males suffer much of a communications deficit even face to face. The intellectual world has been highly verbal for thousands of male dominated years. Whitmire and Tyre argue that boys attain verbal skills later than girls, which may be true. But it must have always been true and schools have been mostly coeducational for the greater part of a century. My reading of Chaim Potok suggests that at least some boys in my parents’ generation excelled with a six-day heavily literary curriculum and virtually no recess. Elementary teachers have long been mostly women, so why are schools suddenly “feminized”?

    I argue that something else is probably at work here and my prime suspect is cooperative learning. I cannot claim to have found data linking cooperative learning with decreased academic achievement among males, but such a link seems quite reasonable. My guess is that little data exists because the idea that there are genetic or sexual differences in intelligence is so politically incorrect that few researchers would risk studying the possibility.

    Boys seem to be doing so much worse academically starting at just about the same time that cooperative learning became popular, which I think is strong though circumstantial evidence of a link. Ms. Hoff Summer’s book appeared in 2001, which I judge was just about enough time after the Johnsons’ 1992 paper for the cooperative learning to have an effect on male performance and for academics to measure and write about the result.

    For much of the past decade, people have been complaining about decreased enrollment in science and engineering programs at American colleges. The bursting of the 1990’s tech bubble is usually given as the cause. I think the real reason might be that cooperative learning is decimating our supply of male college students. Of course my argument hinges on the same unpopular idea that got Lawrence Summers fired when he was President of Harvard University, but I’ll say it anyway. On average, men seem to be better than women at tasks that require spatial thinking, which include math-intensive fields in science and engineering. Given that difference, it makes sense that if modern elementary education puts boys at a disadvantage, college enrollment in science and engineering programs will suffer. That the percentage of male college students has been declining is very suggestive.

    Science and engineering graduates are essential to the continued health of high technology industries, and so are of vital importance in an America that no longer seems able to manufacture steel or even automobiles very competitively. This is especially true given that many countries in Asia and even Europe are doing much better than the United States at churning out science and engineering professionals. American universities now produce about half as many science and engineering graduates as do schools in either China or Europe.

    I have another interesting timing coincidence. A graph of the number of American computer science majors shows a sharp decline beginning in 2002. (Note that the freshman data is offset by four years to match degree data, so the graph shows the decline for 2006.) Students entering collages are typically 18 years old and started first grade when they were 6. So the decline coincides with kids who started school in 1990, just before the Johnsons’ influential treatise on cooperative learning. (By the way, it appears that computer science enrollments rose a little last year, though not enough to erase the steep declines of earlier years. My guess is that the financial crisis caused students to get more serious about studying marketable skills.)

    It is probably not a coincidence that Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Einstein of relativity fame were both men. Many studies show that men and women average the same on IQ tests. But more men score both lower and higher than women at the extremes. To use another unpopular argument, this may be because important genes governing intelligence are on our X chromosome, where they tend to average in women, who have two different X’s, but not in men with a single copy of such genes. That the extreme top end of the IQ distribution tends to be dominated by men is another reason why putting boys at a relative disadvantage in our schools may be a bad idea.

    The Tyranny of the Normal Distribution

    This section’s title is a chapter name from Robert Cringely’s Accidental Empires. Cringely is a long time reporter and commentator of the U.S. computer industry. I don’t know him personally, but my guess is that even though he now lives in South Carolina, he may still be a west-coast liberal at heart. So I fear he may think I am misapplying one of his ideas in Accidental Empires, an excellent book about America’s computer entrepreneurs of the 1980’s. Though it was his idea, blame me if you disagree here.

    The chapter in question explains how a very few nerds can have a huge influence on technology and our economy. “The tyranny of the normal distribution is that we run the world as though populated only by Bob Cringelys, completely ignoring the Don Knuths [a brilliant professor of computer science] among us. … We cry about Japanese or Korean students having higher math scores in high school than do American students. … In fact, average high school math scores have little bearing on the state of basic research or of product research in Japan, Korea or the United States. What really matters is what we do at the edges of the distribution rather than the middle. Whether Johnny learns FORTRAN is relevant only to Johnny, not to America. … Average populations will always achieve average results, but what we are talking about are exceptional populations seeking extraordinary results. In order to make spectacular progress, to achieve profound results in any field, what is required is a combination of unusual ability and profound dedication - very unaverage qualities for a population that typically spends 35 hours per week watching television and 1 hour exercising. … Brilliant programmers and champion bodybuilders already have these levels of ability and motivation in their chosen fields. And given that we live in a society that cannot come up with coherent education or exercise policies, it is good that the hackers and iron-pumpers are self motivated. … All we have to do is stay out of their way.” (Accidental Empires, pages 30-31.)

    My claim is that maybe we did finally come up with a coherent education policy in the 1990’s and that by subjecting potential future hackers to cooperative learning, we are no longer staying out of their way. Instead we are using the tyranny of the normal distribution to the detriment of our brightest youths and to the long term impoverishment of society.

    Goodbye Einstein

    Albert Einstein was the intellectual jewel of the twentieth century. I have heard him called one of the most intelligent people of all time, along with Newton and Archemedes. I am proud that he considered himself both a Jew and an American, at least by the end of his life. But he might not have been either had he been subjected to cooperative learning. Born of a non-observant Jewish family, he attended a Catholic elementary school. Fortunately for the world, the teaching was by rote, which he hated and rebelled against. Without a streak of rebellious independence he might never have become the greatest of all theoretical physicists and an ardent Zionist.

    Sure, rote learning was bad for Einstein, but he did well enough and it was good for his independence. He might (or might not) have done better with the competitive individualism of my youth. But I’m pretty sure he would not have amounted to much had he been subjected to cooperative techniques, because he would likely have failed academically before he ever got to college.

    According to Ronald Clark’s biography, Einstein said, “I’m not much with people and I’m not a family man.” Clark continues, “The ‘not much with people,’ as he later put it, was true despite his personality, not because of it. Even as a youth, moody and aloof at times from his companions, he had a quality that attracted as certainly as it could rebuff.” In college Einstein seemed to prefer somewhat solitary sports such as mountaineering and sailing. He was apparently friendlier with women than men, but not particularly academic women. He was introspective and mostly kept to himself. He once acknowledged to a friend that he was somewhat cold and something of a tough nut. He first achieved fame from papers written while isolated from the physics community as a Swiss patent clerk, a physical sort of isolation since he was obviously reading the journals. Does this sound like the kind of person who would have tolerated cooperative group learning?

    My guess is that modern education would have ruined Albert Einstein as an intellectual force. Moreover, I argue that it would ruin most potential Einsteins, to the great detriment of civilization.

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    Reader Comments (8)

    I would welcome engaging in a debate about how cooperative learning actually promotes crtical thinking if applied correctly . I have read the seminal works of Johnson and Johnson and completing my PhD dissertation researching how CL can actually achieve simliar outcomes. HOWEVER THE LEARNING MUST STILL INVOLVE ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT NOT EMPTY DISCUSSION . I believe that CL must be combined with a metacognitve context . I have read most of the research from the 1960,1970's and 1980's I challenge you to read my research involving PA students published in 2008. let the debate begin CL only can be succesful when applied in a hybrid model combined with traditional methods

    February 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterscott massey

    There's a great example of this theory which explains why it may not work here http://www.libertarianleanings.com/2010/02/a-lesson-in-socialism.html

    February 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersusan

    I have always yearned for a forum to discuss how our childrens generation have somehow lost the intellctual edge , i remember when learning was a journey and reading was a constant . would you consider forming a book club to discuss certain topics and how to foster a seemingly lacking ability to engage in discourse about life perspectives even existentilism . Is there a group of people who would meet over coffee and try to achieve what the "mensa" group attempts but fails due to personal ego . I am game to meet monthly and form a safe place to engage in any discussion about learning, politics , philosophy etc. does such a group exist to generate this discourse for it's own sake ??

    February 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterscott massey

    Interesting article !

    February 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

    I'm a danish student - studying to become a teacher.

    I'm about to go to an exam, and I have chosen to talk about Cooperative Learning (CL), based on a short paper I've written.
    CL is the 'new' big thing in Denmark now, and after I've written the danish version of Spencer Kagans structures, it is hard to disagree with anything :/
    BUT then I came across your article, and it sounds interesting (and it would probably be good for me to bring an alternative perspective up, when I am being judged at the exam :)

    I have a few questions:
    - why exactly do you think that CL will destroy our future Einstiens? - because of all the talking in small groups?
    - do think the geniuses would get a better life if they were seen as outsiders - mayby Einstein would´ve been more of a peoplesman, if he had been a part of CL?
    - Couldn´t he have figured the Relativity theory out anyway?

    (The exam is on wednesday, so if you are answering my question - please do before then please :)

    I hope I´ve made my self understandable in english...

    Hope to hear from you - Karina

    June 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKarina Birk

    This is a brilliant article. My son is having trouble with "cooperative learning" in high school. He is extremely bright but introverted. He hates working in groups, but I guess society is going to force him to work in groups since the modern culture has disdain for individualism apparently. It's all about the collective..... socilalism basically.

    Again, my thanks to the author!


    August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen

    I am a teacher in Scotland and we are under huge pressure to adopt CP. You are viewed as a 'dinosaur' and a traitor if you ask questions about the value of this for all pupils. I observe in my younger colleague's classes poorer behaviour, less progress and a necessary dumbing down of content, since the process precludes in-depth study and individual critical thinking, facilitated by a skilled teacher (this is also encouraged by the nonsense of 'Curriculum for Excellence', the new education system here which is also poorly thought out, underfunded and exploitative of teacher's professionalism/goodwill) . Staff buying into this (often to secure permanent contracts or promotion) sometimes become stressed and worn out very early in the Term. Management seem to have little ability to offer any intellectual justification for the methodology, seeming to jump on the latest bandwagon in the hope that they get carried upward with this on their CV.

    I also recognise your worries about males and 'nerds' being at a disadvantage. I also see less able, introverted pupils suffering and the more able becoming bored since they are not being stretched.

    Whatever happened to the importance of good classroom management, subject knowledge and inspiring teacher led lessons???

    November 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill

    Sorry folks. That's a misprint up there at the beginning of my post. For 'CP' read 'CL' (Co-op Learning)

    November 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill

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