Cooperative learning is a form of classroom instruction that structures collaborative
interactions among learners to achieve the teacher’s learning goals.
Several educational psychologists and sociologists have developed extensive
research based collections of strategies that collectively are known as Cooperative
Learning. Slavin (1990), Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec (1993), Kagan (1994),
Sharan (1980), and Cohen and Lotan (1996) are identified with the development
of collaborative strategies for small academically focused working groups of
children in whole class learning environments.
Elizabeth Cohen and her colleagues at Stanford University
developed a form of cooperative learning known as Complex Instruction (CI).
For over thirty years, they have worked to translate Expectations States Theory
from its research base in the sociology of small group process to promote academically
successful groupwork in public school classrooms. Their work shows us
how to organize our classrooms for successful collaboration among heterogeneous
groups of learners. They have bridged research and practice to create
a form of Cooperative Learning that is robust in its learning outcomes across
disciplines and grade/age levels of students.
CI groupwork looks similar to other forms of cooperative
learning. As such, it utilizes classroom norms and groups roles like other
forms of cooperative learning. Where CI differs from other forms of cooperative
learning is in the assumptions it makes about why children participate (or don’t
participate) in collaborative learning groups. This is important because
participation (talking and working together) is key to learning in groups (Cohen,
Lotan, and Holthius, 1995). Children who don’t participate, don’t
learn. Children who participate, do. CI posits that children don’t
fail to participate because they are too shy or don’t want to participate.
They don’t participate because other children in the group see them as
having nothing to offer to the group. Their attempts to contribute are ignored
or rebuffed. In short, they have low academic status within the group.
CI invokes the use of status treatments to equalize academic
status within working groups in order to obtain the participation of all children
in the work of the group. There are two major status treatments in CI.
The first is using multiple ability curriculum, curriculum that is designed
is such a way as to require the use of a variety of cognitive abilities (eg.
making a list, drawing an novel machine, seeing closely, acting out a part,
thinking ahead, etc.) that enable a group to complete a given group task.
Multiple ability curricula have by definition a number of learning pathways
available for children who are not particularly strong at the more traditional
cognitive abilities of reading and writing. The second status intervention
is called assigning competence. When a usually non participating child
starts to make an effort to participate because the multiple ability task taps
a strength of theirs, the teacher moves in and assigns competence to that child.
This means the teacher notes what the child did and points out to the group
how useful that action can be for completing its task.
These two interventions, along with the other supportive
elements of CI, are powerful enough to create the necessary talking and working
together among all children in a group that leads to the impressive achievement
gains characteristic of CI (Cohen and Lotan, 1997). Work with teachers is basically
focused on understanding the theory behind and application of these two status
interventions. In order to carry out these interventions, teachers also
need to be proficient in:
• establishing collaborative norms in their classrooms
• teaching children how to take on group processing roles
in their small groups.
• delegating the authority for learning to the learners in
a classroom, and
• modifying or creating rich group tasks.
In addition, teachers work with a research team across
nine formal classroom observations and three formal sessions of feedback to
study, modify, and adapt their own delegation of authority to the learners
so that each student in a classroom is able to talk and work together with
their peers to achieve higher rates of learning. Research shows that
everyone learns more when CI is done effectively. “Everyone”
includes learners who are usually successful in situations of cooperative
learning and learners who usually are seen by their peers as having little
to contribute to the group working together.
At its heart, CI is an academic intervention achieved through
the manipulation of the classroom social structure by an informed and effective