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Cooperative Chaos

Special Article

Cooperative Chaos

Teacher Turns to Cooperative Learning to Emphasize Social Skill Development

Dr. Amanda Alvarez

To cite this article: Alvarez, A. Cooperative Chaos: Teacher Turns to Cooperative Learning to Emphasize Social Skill Development. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #59. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

“Ms. Alvarez, can we have new groups? I don’t want to be in this group anymore, I don’t like them.” “Ms. Alvarez, he doesn’t want to help us!” “Ms. Alvarez, I don’t like this. Can I just do my own without them?” War tactics—rebellion, obstruction, and dispute—seemed to be the approach my students took whenever I wanted them to work in groups. “Do your best to work together. Think about how you can help each other out,” I would say repeatedly as if I was a broken record. As a first year teacher, I was shocked to discover that the majority of my students did not know how to work cooperatively in groups.

Even more surprising was that all but two of my students had been together since Kindergarten—and a majority had been together since Pre-K. Despite this fact, my students continued to interact as strangers during group work. Day after day, I found myself spending more time teaching them about social skills, being a team player, and working together to reach a goal than I spent teaching actual content. As a first year teacher, my soapbox was beginning to overflow: I was tired, overwhelmed, and worn down to my core, but I was determined not to give up. I wanted to give my students something they had not been given in their previous two years of school: a chance to successfully work together in cooperative teams rather than groups. In an attempt to solve the developing mystery of why my students resisted working together, I turned to research aimed at helping teachers enhance and develop their practice. To my relief, I found that many teachers experience challenge and difficulty when attempting to get children to cooperatively work together in groups. As Johnson and Johnson (1990) stated, “Simply placing students in groups and telling them to work together does not, in and of itself, produce cooperation” (p. 29). I was also relieved to learn that cooperative learning structures had been developed as a way to support children in learning language and cooperation strategies (Kagan & Kagan, 2009). After learning about and practicing the structures, I wondered if they would work in my classroom. This wondering soon became the focus of my classroom-based research project I conducted as a part of my graduate program. My hope from this study was to understand the ways in which cooperative learning structures facilitated the acquisition of positive social skills. Specifically, I asked the following research questions: 1) In what ways does structured cooperative learning affect students in a first grade classroom? 2) How do cooperative learning structures encourage awareness of others’ feelings and appropriate choice making in social settings? 3) What influence do reflective surveys on students’ use of social skills during cooperative learning have on students’ social interactions?

Related Literature

Cooperative learning has been defined as groups of students working together to complete a common task (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2002). Various studies with students ranging from primary grades through college have measured the success of cooperative learning as an instructional method regarding social skill development and student achievement (e.g. Howard, 2001; Law, 2008; Shoval & Shulruf, 2011; Cline, 2007; Willis 2007; Murie, 2004; Dotson 2001). The general consensus is that cooperative learning can, and usually does, result in positive student outcomes in all areas (Johnson & Johnson, 1990; Kagan & Kagan, 2009; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Slavin, 1996).

The effectiveness of cooperative learning can be explained by looking at Vygotsky’s social interaction theory (1987) and Maslow’s motivational theory (1954). The social interaction theory views learning as a social activity in which people learn by listening and talking to others. As Peter Smagorinsky (2013) explains:

Learning how to think is a fundamentally social process (Vygotsky, 1934/1987). Thus, through their engagement with other people, children appropriate meanings that have achieved some degree of cultural stability, even if cultures might view one another’s values hierarchically (p. 242)

By this, Smagorinsky is saying that we as human beings are social creatures by nature. It is through interaction with others that students learn. As students engage with each other during cooperative learning, they encourage and support each other, assume responsibility for their own and each other’s learning, employ group related social skills, and evaluate the group’s progress. Therefore, it follows that cooperative learning groups in schools would be a successful and logical teaching method.

In his theory of motivation, Maslow (1954) explains a hierarchy that describes what humans need in order to accomplish goals and eventually reach self-actualization. The hierarchy moves from lower needs (e.g., hunger, safety) up to higher needs (e.g., esteem, belonging). Maslow argued that humans primarily strive to meet their lower needs before they attempt to meet their higher needs. Kagan and Kagan (2009) explain the relationship between Maslow’s motivation theory and the effectiveness of cooperative learning. They specifically state:

If students do not feel safe and included, their energy is directed to meeting those deficiency needs and are not free to meet the need to know and understand… Students are so busy worrying about their status among peers that they have a difficult time concentrating on studies. When we put cooperative learning in place, the need for safety is satisfied through the social norms (no put downs; disagreeing politely). The need for inclusion is satisfied through teambuilding and classbuilding… With the needs of safety and security satisfied, the students have more free energy to move up the hierarchy, striving for esteem and knowledge (p. 4.13).

Thus, incorporating cooperative learning supports student achievement. Without cooperative learning, students feel unsafe—desperate to find a way to belong within the classroom. Cooperative learning provides students with an opportunity to engage with one another while also feeling safe, accepted, and a part of a group as students work together, using social skills, to reach a common goal.

Despite the number of theories and supporting studies to back up these beliefs, the majority of interactions within the classrooms remain teacher-student rather than student-student. Sadly, this can create a competitive environment as students battle for their teacher’s approval. Conversely, Kagan and Kagan (2009) state, “We live in an interdependent world in which, somewhat paradoxically, the ability to compete depends on the ability to cooperate” (p. 1.18). Cooperative learning can help balance this battleground found within the competitive learning environment by encouraging students to work together to achieve learning goals rather than against one another.

It is important to note that several prominent researchers have developed diverse models of cooperative learning. For instance, two brothers, David and Roger Johnson, created the Learning Together and Student Controversy models (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2002); Robert Slavin (1996) developed the Jigsaw II and Student Teams-Achievement Division models; and Spencer Kagan (1994) developed the Structural Approach to cooperative learning. When compared, each of these models has their own distinct characteristics, however they each contain four defining elements of effective group interactions: 1) positive interdependence, 2) individual accountability, 3) equal participation, and 4) simultaneous interaction. Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec (2002) also include a fifth element—group processing.

In 2001, Howard studied the effect cooperative learning strategies had on students’ performance and attitudes of high school journalism students. Sixteen students participated in this study and two cooperative learning strategies were used: 1) “Quiz-Quiz-Trade” and 2) “Timed Pair Share”. Howard gave his students a pre- and post-test at the beginning and end of the unit and he compared this class’ scores with the Performance Assessment scores to the previous two classes he had who were also taking this unit. Howard also gave his students an attitudinal survey at the beginning and ending of the study to determine attitudes toward journalism and cooperative learning strategies. The results of this study indicated that using the two Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies had a positive impact on performance assessment scores and students’ attitudes.

Years later, Law (2008) conducted two separate studies covering the effect of cooperative learning on second-graders’ motivation and how they comprehended text. In the initial study, 160 students in cooperative groups were compared with their counterparts in traditional learning groups. As a result of this study, Law found a significant difference between these two groups: children in a cooperative learning program (SDLI) outperformed children learning to read in traditional classrooms. In his second study, 51 second-graders participated in the SDLI program. As a result of this second study, Law found that students’ positive cooperative behavior and attitudes were related to their motivation and reading comprehension. Law found that students tended to be more motivated and performed better in reading comprehension as they perceived one another as helpful, contributing, and committed members of the group.

Various school-based studies in grade levels ranging from Pre-K through college have investigated the effects of using the Kagan Structural Approach to cooperative learning (Shoval & Shulruf 2011; Cline, 2007; Willis 2007; Murie, 2004; Dotson, 2001). Although each study contained unique characteristics, they were each consistent in showing the positive effects on student achievement, attitudes, and engagement when using cooperative learning.

Several studies have focused on the role of the teacher when implementing cooperative learning (Ding, Li, Piccolo, & Kulm, 2007; Lotan, 2003; Siegel, 2005). The consensus from each of these studies was that the teacher’s decision about how groups were implemented and organized, as well as the teacher’s interventions during the group processing, were all crucial factors relating to the success of cooperative learning in the classroom.

The amount of research suggests that many have studied the effects of cooperative learning and have found promising results. Amongst the many benefits cooperative learning brings, I am focusing this study on two in particular: how cooperative learning improves academic performance, as well as how it enhances students’ social skills development in a first grade classroom.

My Classroom

This inquiry project was conducted over a six-week period during the spring semester in my first-grade classroom at Tim Grover Elementary in Hunts CISD (all names are pseudonyms). Tim Grover is a Pre-K through fifth-grade campus located in Buda, Texas. The school’s population consists of 78.2 percent Hispanic, 16.0 percent White, 2.3 percent African-American and 3.5 percent other. At Tim Grover, 67.7 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.

My classroom consists of 18 students (11 boys and 7 girls); 15 are Hispanic and 3 are White. I collected data on all of the students in my classroom.

My Study

Over the course of this six-week study, I incorporated Kagan Cooperative Learning structures into the regular curriculum (Kagan & Kagan, 2009). Kagan and Kagan define the structures as “content-free, repeatable instruction sequences that organize the interaction of students to implement the basic principles of cooperative learning” (p. 5.3). According to these authors, cooperative learning can be achieved in “bite-size pieces—a structure at a time” (p.xii). Therefore, I intentionally embeded two to three cooperative learning structures a day into my lesson plans over this six-week period. Three of the most frequently used structures are Talking Chips, Timed Pair Share, and Fan-N-Pick because of their focus on the social skills: listening, sharing, patience, turn taking, and praising (Kagan & Kagan, 2009). A brief description of each of these structures follows.

Talking Chips
Students take turns responding orally in their teams. They use “Talking Chips” to ensure everyone participates.

Timed Pair Share
In pairs, students share with a partner for a predetermined time while the partner listens. Then the partners switch roles.

The teacher prepares a set of question cards for the class, or each student creates a question card. Teammates play a card game to respond to questions. Roles rotate with each new question.

To introduce each structure, I modeled the procedures with a student in the front of the class. Then, I had the students practice the structure using non-content material (e.g., if you could have any super power, what would it be?) When the students were able to do the structures successfully in pairs or teams using non-content material, I began incorporating them into various subject areas.

In addition to embedding the structures into my lessons, I noted five specific social skills that my students were having trouble with. The social skills we focused on were: listening attentively, praising others, sharing, patience, and turn taking. I assigned one social skill to be reinforced each week.

While my students participated in cooperative learning structures, I observed the students to determine how the structures affected their social skills development. I collected data using pre- and post-sociograms (Power & Shagoury, 2012), a consensogram, anecdotal notes, video recording, and student surveys. These are described more fully in the following sections.

Sociogram. Before implementing the structures, I wanted to know more about the social networks in my classroom. Using a sociogram I interviewed my students one at a time and asked them to list, in order, the top three students they would like to work with. I graphed this data and plotted it to identify social patterns in the classroom (e.g. isolates, celebrities, etc.). At the end of my study, I then administered a post-sociogram to determine any changes in interaction patterns over time.

Consensogram: To determine where my students needed growth in their social skills, I conducted a survey called a consensogram (See Appendix A). The consensogram was utilized to determine which of the social skills my students felt they needed “A lot of help,” “Some help,” or “No help at all” with. The following social skills were analyzed on the sociogram: listening, sharing, patience, turn taking, and praising.

Reflective Surveys: To determine their perceptions, I had my students complete a reflective survey (Kagan & Kagan, 2009) after each new cooperative learning structure was implemented. Four days out of the week we completed the survey individually and one day of each week we completed the survey in small groups or partners, depending on the structure. The reflection survey included the following questions: 1) Did we take turns? 2) Did we share? 3) Did we listen to each other? 4) Did we say nice things? 5) Did we wait patiently? (Each question gives the students the option to answer yes or no). After the students completed their survey, they turned in the forms for me to analyze the results.

Teacher Research Journal: I noted overall progress and my feelings of how things were going in order to record the subjective aspects of the research including an analysis of anecdotal notes.

Video Recording: I recorded students interacting during cooperative learning structures to record patterns in student interactions, use of social skills, and to capture what cooperative language looked like.

Figure 1

Celebrity = chosen by 6-7 classmates
Mid-range = chosen by 3-5 classmates
Low-range = chosen by 1-2 classmates
Isolates = chosen by no classmates

What I Found

As my students became familiar with the cooperative learning structures and began to understand the meaning of social skills, the atmosphere in my classroom transformed. An analysis of the data suggests that using Kagan Cooperative Learning structures improved my students’ attitudes towards working in cooperative learning groups; students began to be willing and more open to working with other classmates. As shown in Figure 1, a comparison of the pre- and post-sociogram results indicates that the number of celebrities decreased from three to one. As a result, the number of mid-range students increased from six to eight, meaning more of my students received 3-5 votes from other students who stated they wanted to work with them. Lowering the amount of celebrities showed me that the “popular students” in my classroom were no longer the only people my students wanted to work with. This finding indicated a re-routing of social networks within my classroom. I also found that the number of isolates remained at two. However, the complication to this survey is that it only required my students to tell me three students they would like to work with—limiting the amount of choices they could give me. However, quotes from my students that were recorded during the post-survey reveal my students’ growth in social interaction over time. For example, below are excerpts of discussions between my students and I during the sociogram interview:

Julie: It’s hard to think of a last one.
AA: Why?
Julie: Because there’s a lot of last ones.
AA: Tell me more.
Julie: There are a lot of people I’d like to work with.

Mary: It doesn’t matter who it is that I work with.

Violet: Anyone is fine to work with.

Mack: It’s kind of hard to choose. I’m just trying to use random names in the class. It could be anyone!

Jay: It’s hard to decide because I can’t think of someone I really know and help. I guess maybe Eli. I’d work with anyone. You know how I can help people spell stuff? That’s how I can help everyone.

Ricky: It could be anyone! There’s not anyone I don’t want to work with.

From these quotes it was evident that my students’ positive social interactions began to burgeon—a definite change from the rebellion and dispute I witnessed at the beginning of my research. Instead, my students were now choosing to work with different classmates despite their gender or “celebrity” status.

The implementation of Student Reflective Post-Surveys taken after each structure resulted in students critically thinking about their social skills (e.g., listening, sharing, patience, turn taking, and praising), if they used them, and how to improve on these skills in the future. At the beginning of the project, my students were hesitant to admit that they had not met the expectation of using their social skills (i.e., many would select “yes” for the implementation of all five social skills, regardless of what truly happened). By the end of the study, students were reflecting deeper on their social skills, discussing results with their teams, truly asking themselves and even teammates if they felt they had met their goal of using all five social skills during the structure (see Appendix B and C). These reflections bring light to my students developing self-awareness of how they utilized the social skills we were working on.

The Consensogram revealed cooperative learning supported mastery of social skills. When surveying my students using the consensogram, my students felt the social skills area they most needed “some help” with was listening and the majority felt they needed “a lot of help” in turn taking and praising. Over time, my students began to practice, understand, and define these social skills when using the Kagan Cooperative Learning structures. As a result, they began to master these five social skills. Because of this, my students became aware of others’ feelings and how to make appropriate choices, utilizing their social skills, when conflicts arose.


Around the world, you could walk into any classroom and find children who are filled with unique ideas, skills, and talents. My classroom was no exception. However, my classroom lacked a structured way for my students to share these wonderful attributes with each other. Instead of continuing to teach my students in a competitive way that lead to dispute, I chose to embed cooperative learning structures into our everyday curriculum. Doing so allowed my students to practice using social skills throughout the school day. As a result, their social skills improved significantly. My research shows that cooperative learning is an effective method of instruction to teach young children how to work cooperatively in small groups. The use of reflective surveys ensured that students were evaluating their use of social skills and how to improve in them over time. As a result, they became more aware of the behaviors needed to complete a team task successfully. My students now better understand what social skills are and how to use them in a cooperative learning setting and in social interactions outside of the classroom.

Next year, I plan to use cooperative learning structures with an emphasis on social skills during the first few weeks of school and continue these strategies throughout the year. “Prompt and consistent” will be my motto. This will spark an encouraging environment as students begin working together to achieve a common goal. Additionally, I am interested in furthering my research on cooperative learning. My research focused on social skill development. I now wonder how the structures impact memory patterns within the brain to help improve academic achievement.

In conclusion, this inquiry project revealed the significance in building a positive classroom community. My hope is that the results of this study and the strategies implemented will encourage both novice and experienced teachers to be motivated to use cooperative learning in their own classrooms. The results are not only worth the effort but will follow our students for the rest of their lives as they implement these social skills both in and outside the classroom.


Cline, L. (2007). Impacts of Kagan Cooperative Learning structures on fifth-graders’ mathematical achievement. Kagan Online Magazine. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Retrieved on October 6, 2007.

Ding, M., Li, X., Piccolo, D. & Kulm, G. (2007). Teacher interventions in cooperative-learning mathematics classes. Journal of Educational Research, 100(3), 162-175.

Dotson, J.M. (2001). Cooperative learning structures can increase student achievement. Kagan Online Magazine. San Clemente, C A Kagan Publishing. Retrieved on October 6,2007.

Howard, B. (2006). Cooperative learning structures improve performance and attitudes of high school journalism students. Kagan Online Magazine. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Retrieved on October 6, 2007.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1990). Social skills for successful groupwork. Educational Leadership, 47(4), 29-33.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Holubec, E. (2002). Circles of learning (5th ed.). Edina, M N Interaction Book Company.

Kagan, S. (1994). Cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA Resources for Teachers.

Kagan, S., Kyle, P. & Scott, S. (2004). Win-win Discipline. San Clemente, CA, Kagan Publishing.

Law, Y. (2008). Effects of cooperative learning on second graders’ learning from text. Educational Psychology, 28, 567, 582.

Lotan, R. (2003). Group-worthy tasks. Educational Leadership, 60, 72-75.

Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J. & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Murie, C. (2004). Effects of communication on student learning. Kagan Online Magazine. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Retrieved on October 6, 2007.

Shoval, E. & Shulruf, B. (2011). Who Benefits from Cooperative Learning with Movement Activity?. School Psychology International, 32(1), 58-72.

Siegel, C. (2005). Implementing a Research-Based Model of Cooperative Learning. The Journal of Educational Research, 98(6), 339-349.

Slavin, R.E. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 22(1), 43-69.

Smagorinsky, P. (2013). The development of social and practical concepts in learning to teach: A synthesis and extension of Vygotsky's conception. Learning, Culture And Social Interaction, 2(4), 238-248. doi:10.1016/j.lcsi.2013.07.003

Willis, J. (2007). Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students' Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success. Childhood Education, 83(5), 310.

Appendix A: Consensogram
Appendix B: “How Did We Do?” Reflection Survey:
Appendix C: “How Did We Do?” Reflection Survey: