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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Positive Interdependence

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Positive Interdependence. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring 1999. www.KaganOnline.com

Two things converged to get me thinking about positive interdependence: a Participant Information Form we just made in our office, and rereading David Attenborough's classic book, Life On Earth. Before sharing my adventure with the Participant Information Form and what I discovered in rereading Life On Earth, let me review the concept of positive interdependence.

Positive Interdependence

One of the basic principles of cooperative learning is positive interdependence. But it is a concept often not fully understood. In our work with the concept, we distinguish two related components, each linked to one of the two words of the term, "positive" and "interdependence."


The "positive" of the term positive interdependence derives from research showing what happens when there is a positive correlation among outcomes. If when your outcomes go up, so too do mine, then there is a positive correlation among outcomes: Our outcomes go up or down together. Whenever we are in a situation in which there is a positive correlation among our outcomes, the probability of our cooperating is greatly enhanced. It is common sense: If I know your doing well will somehow help me, I will try to help you and I will encourage you to do well. Thus in situations in which there is a positive correlation among academic outcomes, students spontaneously tutor each other and encourage each other. We hear statements like, "Let me show you how to solve that kind of problem," and "I hope you do well on the quiz." To test for a positive correlation among outcomes, we ask, "Is a gain for one a gain for another?" or "Is my gain your gain?"


The "interdependence" of the term positive interdependence describes not only the lack of independence among outcomes, but describes also situations of interdependence. In a situation in which either of us can accomplish a task on our own, in an important sense we are independent; we do not have to cooperate to reach our goal. On the other hand, in a situation in which we cannot accomplish the task unless we work together, in an important sense we are interdependent: we need to work together to reach our goal. To test for interdependence we ask, "Is help necessary?"

Positive interdependence drives cooperation. If I know your doing well will help me, I work with you, helping and encouraging you. I feel myself to be on the same side with you. If I know I am in a situation in which I cannot maximize my outcomes working alone, if I know help is necessary, I seek and welcome cooperation and help.

Grasping the Concept

Positive interdependence is an extraordinarily powerful concept. There are many ways to have students grasp the concept. One of my personal favorites is a kinesthetic approach: pair balance. I have students in pairs face each other and extend their arms straight toward each other until their palms meet. Then I have them gradually take tiny steps backward. They are to do this until they reach a position in which both would fall if the other let go. While in this position, I have them discuss the concept of positive interdependence. Does one leaning forward help the other to obtain the balance point? Could they do the pair balance alone? The students grasp the concept of positive interdependence through their kinesthetic intelligence.

Another way to have students understand the concept is to have them think about the cells of their own body. Could the heart muscles pump without oxygen? Could the blood cells deliver oxygen without the lungs and diaphragm? But would the diaphragm move to inflate the lungs if it did not receive signals from the brain? Could any of the cells function for any length of time if it were not for the digestive system? Any one organ system doing well helps the others and none could function without the help of the others.

Yet another way for students to see the concept of positive interdependence is to think of a baseball team. When the team wins, is it because of the fielding, the pitching, the batting, or the coaching?

Now, finally, for Life On Earth, and the Participant Information Form.

Life On Earth

Animal behavior provides wonderful and often mysterious examples of positive interdependence. Most of us are familiar with examples from insects and mammals: Bees communicating to each other the location of a new find; ants teaming up to fertilize and tend an underground mushroom garden; wolves working together to bring down an animal much larger than any one of them. What gave me pause was Attenborough's description of interdependence among single cell organisms. Single cells group to form organized colonies; working together they accomplish what separately they cannot.

One remarkable example of positive interdependence at the microscopic level is the Volvox, a hollow sphere, almost the size of a pinhead. The Volvox consists of a large number of cells, each with a flagellum. The striking thing about the cells of the Volvox is that they are virtually the same as other single cells that swim by themselves and have separate existences. The constituent cells of Volvox, however, are coordinated, for all the flagella around the sphere beat in an organized way and drive the tiny ball in a particular direction (Attenborough, 1979, p. 26).

Attenborough's description of common sponges provides an even more spectacular and mysterious example of positive interdependence. Some thousand million years ago sponges took their place in the evolutionary line-up. Sponges take various forms, some as large as two meters. Sponges feed by filtering particles from a stream of water passing through their bodies. The water is drawn in through the coordinated beating of flagella: food is filtered out, and the water is expelled through vents. The amazing thing is that the whole sponge is a colony; members of the colony are relatively free, and individual cells sometimes crawl about the surface of the sponge. More amazing is that if the sponge is forced through a sieve so the individual cells are separated, with time they reorganize themselves into a sponge again, with each type of cell finding its appropriate place in the organism! Even more remarkable: If the cells of two sponges are all separated and then mixed together, they come together to form one large sponge, with each type of cell finding its appropriate place in the colony!

Cooperation among single cell organisms! With roots that deep, can we doubt that it is natural for us to organize ourselves into groups in which each person contributes his or her unique talents?

Participant Information Form

Recently Laurie went to a seminar in which participants filled in a single information form. In telling me about the seminar, she suggested we create a similar form for participants at our workshops. Immediately I was in favor of the idea because for some time we have been multiplying the number of different participant forms at our events √Ď one to sign up for the online newsletter, another to request catalogs, a third to tell us how they heard about the workshop, and yet another to request future workshops. The idea of one form was very appealing, easier on participants and easier on the presenter.

The idea seemed simple enough. I drafted a form incorporating the items from the separate forms, and then sent it out for feedback to those who would be using the form. Brian, our information technologist (computer guru) let me know that if I made a few changes, he could program the computer so it would automatically send information needed by different people to them via E-mail so we would not need to print carbonless copy forms. Nancy, our director of professional development, needed a change in the questions so we could better tell which of her marketing techniques were working. Laurie realized that if this new, integrated form was to be used with all participants at Kagan events, it would have to be revised to account for the fact that some participants attend events required by their districts while others attend events they have selected. Liz, who sets up consulting events and a past model teacher, caught some grammar errors. I reworded questions with an eye on readability issues. Jeanne, who does accounting and workshop registration, has a great eye for spelling and caught several errors which slipped by everyone else. Karen, our graphic designer, needed to change the form to have it compliment the "look and feel" of Kagan publications. Mike, our office manager, wanted some changes so the flow of information would be smoother when the forms returned to the office. After all those changes had been incorporated, Laurie pretested the form at a workshop she was giving, and we discovered that participants filled in parts of the form in ways none of us had anticipated, necessitating yet another revision!

What I thought would be a simple task turned out to be enormously multi-faceted. As I got feedback from different sources, I was amazed. The input was almost non-overlapping. Everyone viewed the form from their own perspective. Each one improved the form in a different way. What better example of positive interdependence could we have? No one person can look at anything from all points of view. For us to do the best possible job at anything, we work in a team, respecting the contributions of each team member. The gains of one are the gains of another; no one person can do alone that which the individuals working as a team can accomplish.

Thus the pet phrases of cooperative learning have their roots in the concept of positive interdependence:

Four heads are better than one.

None of us is as smart as all of us.

Cooperative Learning is Learning... to the Fourth Power.