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Research & Rationale

Excellence & Equity


Figure 4. Cooperative Learning Produces Dramatic Gains for Minority Students

Figure 5. Cooperative Learning Produces Dramatic Gains for Minority Students

Figure 6. Cooperative Learning lncreases Excellence and Equity in Mathematics

Study 3. Student Team Learning. Using a different cooperative learning method, with a different student population, at a different grade level, in a different part of the country, and with a different curriculum content, the same result obtained: increased equity. Researchers examined gains in English grammar using standardized tests among Black and White inner city junior high school students.9 The study compared results when students attempted to master basic grammar using either cooperative learning or traditional instructional strategies. The gain scores are plotted in Figure 4. There are two things to note: First, compared to traditional instruction, cooperative learning produced far larger gains for all students (increased excellence). Second, Black students “turned on” with cooperative learning, reducing the school achievement gap (increased equity). Black students in traditional classrooms showed very little gains, but when cooperative learning was used, they gained dramatically — more than twice as much as any other group. It is the power of cooperative learning to engage and motivate lower achieving students that increases the equity of educational outcomes.

Study 4: The Riverside Cooperative Learning Study. In order to test the overall impact of cooperative learning (excellence) and to test whether minority students in particular performed especially better when cooperative learning instructional strategies were used (equity), thirty-five student teachers were randomly assigned to teach using one of three approaches to instruction: traditional, cooperative, and a mixed condition that included cooperative teams but intense between-team competition.10 Approximately 900 students were tested. Results supported the conclusion that cooperative learning produced superior outcomes for all students, but especially for Black students, who were the most cooperative in their social orientation. A variety of other outcomes of the Riverside Study support the general conclusion that minority students fare far better in cooperative learning classrooms. Attitudes toward schoolwork and social climate were more favorable in the cooperative learning classrooms for all students, but especially for Black and Hispanic students.

Study 5: A Cooperative Learning School. In the final study presented here, we examine the impact on excellence and equity when an entire school adopts cooperative learning methods as their primary approach to instruction throughout the curriculum.11 A new school was to be opened in one of the largest school districts in Florida. Before opening the school, the decision was made to make Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures the major focus for instruction. Because the school was to draw from students in surrounding schools in the district and was to use the same district curriculum materials, district achievement scores provide a good comparison against which to measure the gains made when Kagan Cooperative Learning structures are adopted. The question: Would adoption of the cooperative learning structures in the new school boost excellence and equity compared to surrounding schools that did not use the cooperative learning methods?

Let’s look first at the equity issue throughout the state of Florida. A glance at the first two bars in both Figure 5 and Figure 6 reveals a tragedy that is occurring across the United States: Black students are reaching reading and math proficiency at about half the rate of White students. There is a 45% achievement gap! Now, look at the next pair of bars in each graph. These show the reading and math achievement of students in Polk County, the district within Florida that opened the Kagan School. The Black and White students within the district have lower rates of proficiency than their state peers, predictable because of the lower income level in Polk County compared to state norms. Although the overall achievement levels in the district are somewhat lower than state norms, the overall pattern for the district is the same as for the state: The achievement gap is approximately the same (43%) between the Black and White students. This is the pattern we would expect if the new school to be opened, Berkeley Elementary School, were to use the same traditional instructional strategies as did surrounding schools in the district.

The school, however, made a commitment to open as a Kagan Cooperative Learning school. Kagan Professional Development partnered with the school to conduct teacher workshops, coach teachers in the use of cooperative learning structures, and to support administration in various ways to promote the use of cooperative learning structures by all teachers. Kagan Structures were used in faculty meetings and woven into the culture of the school. By the end of the school year, all teachers were using the cooperative structures on a very regular basis. The result: The last pair of bars in Figures 5 and 6 tell the story. Increased excellence is shown by the higher level of overall achievement of White and Black students compared to state and district norms. Increased equity is shown by the dramatic gains of Black students. Black students in the cooperative learning school actually outperformed the White students in the district!

Because the same pattern of results held across the five studies summarized here, we can infer the ability of cooperative learning to increase equity is robust. Using experienced teachers and student teachers, the studies examined a range of cooperative learning methods, different curriculum content, different age students, and students in different geographical locations. The same pattern of results emerged across all the studies: All students learn more from cooperative learning and minority students learn dramatically more, closing the achievement gap. What can we conclude from the meta-analyses and the individual studies?

Cooperative Learning = Greater Excellence + Greater Equity.

Explaining the Results

There are many reasons cooperative learning accelerates both excellence and equity. I have offered a very detailed explanation in a chapter called, Why Does Cooperative Learning Work?12 The explanations include:

  • Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Equal Participation,
    and Simultaneous Interaction
  • Immediacy and Frequency of Feedback and Reinforcement
  • Immediacy and Frequency of Correction Opportunities
  • Peer Modeling, Encouragement, and Tutoring
  • Improved Brain Chemistry and Function
  • Multi-Modal Stimulus Input
  • Greater Novelty
  • Focused Attention
  • Creation of Episodic Memories
  • Enhanced Safety and Predictability of Instructional Sequences
  • Satisfaction of Need for Security
  • Heightened Teacher and Pupil Expectations
  • Instruction Tailored to Individual Differences in Intelligences and Learning Styles
  • The Power of Situations

We won’t overview those explanations here. Rather, we will describe two dynamics that were not detailed previously, both of which help explain enhanced excellence and equity: Classroom Climate and Ethnic Relations. The Riverside Cooperative Learning Study13 demonstrated cooperative learning produced more inclusive classrooms. This was revealed by several measures, including measures of cooperativeness of students, class climate, self-esteem, and ethnic relations. Students taught with cooperative learning became more cooperative: When presented with alternatives, they more often chose to enhance rather than diminish the outcomes of their classmates. Rating of social climate, as measured by standardized class climate measures, improved markedly for minority students in cooperative learning classrooms. Self-esteem has three factors: Intellectual self-esteem (e.g., “I am smart”); peer self-esteem (e.g., “I have many friends”) and family self-esteem (e.g., “My family cares for me”). Results of the Riverside Cooperative Learning Study, like other studies of cooperative learning and self-esteem, revealed that students taught with cooperative learning increased in both intellectual and peer self-esteem, with no change in family self-esteem. This, of course, is not surprising as the students were performing better in school, and peers were kinder to them.

The most dramatic finding, however, was a radical transformation of race relations. To test race relations, students were asked a number of questions that revealed their level of intimacy with each of their classmates. Questions included low-level intimacy questions (willingness to sit next to a student; willingness to loan him or her a pencil) and high-level intimacy questions (willingness to be best friends; willingness to invite him or her home). The results were dramatic. In traditional classrooms, self-segregation among students became more intense with each year in school. Increasingly, students were not willing to be friends or even be friendly with others outside their own race. In contrast, in classrooms in which cooperative learning was used, the tendency of students to choose friends only among their own racial groups practically disappeared:

In grades 2-4, in the traditional classes, there was a slight tendency for the minority and majority students to manifest more friendliness toward others of their own group. By grades 5 and 6, this slight ethnic cleavage became an enormous chasm: Being of the same ethnicity became almost a prerequisite for friendship. In marked contrast, there was no significant ethnic cleavage at either grade level in the classrooms that included cooperative student teams. (p. 306-307)13