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Cooperative Learning Structures Are Violence Prevention

Spencer’s Thinkpad

Cooperative Learning Structures Are Violence Prevention

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning Structures Are Violence Prevention. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #61. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed the most devastating school shooting in U.S. history to that date. Eric and Dylan killed 12 of their fellow students, wounded 24, and committed suicide. The devastation would have been far greater if the bombs they had planted had not failed to detonate.

Immediately before entering Columbine High School to commit the mass murder that day, by chance Eric encountered Brooks Brown in the parking lot. Brooks was a fellow Columbine student. Brooks, not knowing what was about to happen, confronted Eric about missing philosophy class that day. In Brook’s words,

Brooks: “What the hell’s wrong with you, man? You weren’t in third hour today. You missed the test! …”

Eric: “It doesn’t matter anymore. Brooks, I like you. Get out of here. Go home.”1

Mass school shootings are on a rapid rise in the United States.2 The question we must ask: What if students who otherwise would commit murder of fellow students felt the same way toward their schoolmates as Eric felt toward Brooks? How many mass murders would never happen if schoolmates liked each other, felt like friends? Let’s first ask if dysfunctional peer relations are an important cause of school violence and then let’s examine evidence that cooperative learning improves peer relations in ways to prevent violence.

Are Dysfunctional Peer Relations a Cause of School Shootings?

Two months after the Columbine tragedy in 1999, experts from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service collaborated to study the ”school shooter“ phenomenon. At first, in attempting to create a profile of student mass murderers, the Secret Service was stymied: The students were mostly doing well academically, although some were not. Some had histories of neglect, but others, like both Eric and Dylan, were involved in a number of social activities. Some of those who turned violent came from intact families. Some were socially isolated, but others were popular. Some were failing in school, but others were excellent students. Some attackers were social isolates, but very few were diagnosed with mental illness and few had histories of drug or alcohol abuse. In the initial analysis by the Secret Service there was “no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.”

It was not until after the Secret Service examined one additional variable that they found the single circumstance that linked most of the students who committed mass murders: A majority had been bullied or harassed by other students. This peer abuse took different forms, including verbal and physical abuse. Students were made fun of and, in some cases, physically attacked in cruel ways, including, for example, being burned by hot lighters held to the back of the neck as they walked in school hallways.

In the words of his friend Brooks,

“Like Dylan, Eric saw the injustices of the world quite clearly, even as he was getting beat up in the high school locker room or jumping to avoid the glass bottles thrown at him out of the passing cars of Columbine football players.”

Three-fourths of students who later turn violent have been the victim of peer bullying or harassment. In the words of a fellow student speaking of Luke Woodham who shot nine students at Pearl High School:

“I remember when he started kindergarten, he got picked on every day. When we got to junior high, he still got picked on. They called him fat, chunky, and they used to jump him all the time. When we got to ninth grade, everybody still picked on him…”

The Secret Service Report following the Columbine murders emphasized the prevalence of peer abuse of those who became mass shooters:

Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack. Explanation: Almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident (71percent, n=29). In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some of these cases, the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school. In one case, most of the attacker’s schoolmates described the attacker as "the kid everyone teased." In witness statements from that incident, schoolmates alleged that nearly every child in the school had at some point thrown the attacker against a locker, tripped him in the hall, held his head under water in the pool, or thrown things at him. Several schoolmates had noted that the attacker seemed more annoyed by, and less tolerant of, the teasing than usual in the days preceding the attack.

The finding that school shooting is often a reaction to having been bullied by peers has held up over time. Eighteen years after the Columbine attack, with regrettably many more cases on which to base a conclusion, the finding remained essentially unchanged: In 2018, aggregated data from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they have reviewed school shootings revealed “75% of school shooters felt bullied or harassed by other students.”

Reactive Responses to School Violence

Schools have responded to the threat of extreme violence in many ways, including:

  • Locked school entries
  • Locked classroom entries
  • Video surveillance
  • Metal detectors
  • Violence drills
  • Stricter harassment policies
  • Increased suspensions and expulsions
  • Resource officers
  • Armed guards
  • Armed teachers
  • Bulletproof backpacks
  • Bulletproof classroom shelters

None of these approaches can be classified as violence-prevention. They are all reactive. They help prepare schools, teachers, administrators, and students with what to do in case an attack occurs. It is questionable if any of these approaches reduce the probability of a violent attack. It might even be argued that transforming the school into an armed fortress makes the school experience more alienating and hostile, fueling resentment which could fuel motivation for an attack or challenge an attacker to prove he or she is able to be successful against the defenses.

I am not arguing here against these reactive ways of preparing for the possibility of a violent attack. I am simply pointing out these approaches are not preventative. They treat the symptom, not the cause. The profiling of violent student attackers reveals the cause of violence most often is poor or hostile social relations among students, and armed guards or armed teachers will not change that.

We must ask again, what if students who otherwise might commit murder of fellow students felt the same way toward their schoolmates as Eric felt toward Brooks? How many mass murders would never happen if schoolmates liked each other, felt like friends? Can we create student peer relations that make bullying and consequent school violence far less likely?

Schools have adopted a variety of anti-bullying approaches. Often, though, they take the form of classroom discussions and/or role playing that have proven ineffective. In a study of over 2,000 cases of bullying in elementary, junior, and senior high, researchers concluded, “…many common methods of dealing with the problem, such as classroom discussions, role playing, or detention, are ineffective.”

Bully prevention programs often suffer from the same problem as violence prevention programs. In spite of their name, they are not really prevention programs, but rather programs to deal with what to do when bullying occurs and afterwards. They are reactive rather than proactive programs.

The difference in reactive and proactive approaches to problems is extremely well illustrated by the history of polio. Over 57,000 cases of polio were reported in the United States in 1952, and that year over 3,000 people died from the disease. Many of those who survived were crippled for life. By 1957, the polio vaccine had been developed and tested and the number of cases was reduced by a factor of 10 to 5,600. By 1961, the oral polio vaccine had been developed and tested and the number of polio cases in the United States dropped to 161! The iron lung treated symptoms, leaving thousands to suffer. In contrast, the vaccine, by treating cause rather than symptoms, eliminated the disease.

In responding to school violence, we need to treat the disease, not the symptom.

In talking and writing about the difference between treatment and cure, I am fond of the following parable:

Two women are standing on a bank of a swift river. A man, desperately struggling to stay afloat, is carried by the strong current downstream toward them. The women both jump in, pulling the man to safety. While the brave rescuers are tending to the victim, a second man, also desperate and screaming for help, is carried downstream by the current. Again, the women jump into the river to the rescue. As they are pulling out this second victim, they spot a third man flailing about as he too is carried downstream. One woman quickly jumps in to save the latest victim. As she does, she turns to see the other woman resolutely walking up stream and asks, “Why aren’t you helping?” “I am,” states the other. “I am going upstream to see who is pushing them in!”

With regard to preventing school violence, we need to walk upstream. We may never have a cure for all school violence, but we do have a very powerful vaccine that will eliminate the cause of the majority of these devastating events. The cause in many cases of school violence is diseased social relations; the cure: apply a method proven to radically improve social relations among students.

Walking Upstream
A Proactive Response to School Violence: Cooperative Learning Structures

In the last day of his life, Eric Harris told us how to walk upstream to prevent school violence. He said to Brooks, “I like you. Get out of here. Go home.” He told us that if we want to prevent massive school shootings, we need to get students to like each other.

We know a great deal about creating positive peer relations, even among students who otherwise would not like each other. In contrast to attempts to improve social relations among students that rely on talking to students, cooperative learning structures rely on structuring the interaction among students as we teach. The structures are instructional strategies. They do not change what we teach; they change how we teach. These teaching strategies can be used as we teach at any grade level with any content. At the heart of the structural approach are student teams. Students are seated in teams of four and interact as a team or break into face or shoulder partners to interact as pairs. Because each structure creates positive interdependence among students, students feel they are on the same side and need the contribution of each student on the team. Teambuilding and classbuilding further ensure students bond. Many of the structures include praising, encouraging, and celebrating, so students feel mutual support. In a short time after teaching with structures, social relations are radically improved. Let’s look at a few examples.

Improved Social Relations

Teachers and administrators note radically improved social relations among students when Kagan Structures are implemented. Negative behaviors, like name calling, are decreased; positive behaviors, like helping a fellow student who dropped his or her books, are increased. It is perhaps not too far of a stretch to think that if students are not calling each other names and more often helping each other, they will be less likely to later want to shoot their schoolmates. Here I summarize a few of the studies that demonstrate increased positive social relations and decreased disruptive and anti-social behaviors.

Progressive Improvement of Positive Behaviors. Positive behaviors become the norm as Kagan Structures are implemented school-wide. This was revealed at Cheatham Elementary School. For four years the school plotted unrequested positive behaviors among students, beginning prior to implementing Kagan Strucures. See graph: Kagan Structures Increase Positive Behaviors.

Examples of the positive behaviors that were plotted:

  • Finding money on campus and turning it in
  • Helping a friend who dropped his/her books
  • Picking up trash without being asked
  • Helping to clean the cafeteria without being asked
  • Holding a door for a teacher whose hands were full
  • Being an excellent coach to a partner or team

Following the implementation of Kagan Structures school-wide, positive referrals skyrocketed from 46 to 475 positive referrals a year—more than a ten-times increase!

The positive behavior of students was noticeable to outside visitors:

We would also hear a great deal of praise from outside visitors. Literally every outside visitor, including district office staff, would comment on how polite and well-mannered our students were. At first this surprised me because, dealing with the behavior issues on a day-to-day basis, I didn’t always see that but they did. The positive behavior became the expectation and the norm.

Inverse Relation: Disruptive vs. Positive Behaviors. When Kagan Structures are implemented, disruptive behaviors decrease and positive behaviors increase. This inverse relationship was plotted at Madision Camelview Elementary School. See graph: Referrals for Discipline & Positive Behaviors.

The same types of positive behaviors earned referrals as in the Cheatham Elementary School study above. As students learn positive social skills and improve social relations, disruptive behaviors decline.

Madison Camelview Elementary School is a Title I school with 84% free and reduced lunch, a 28% ELL population, and a 10% special education population. It is also a diverse campus with 3% Asian, 10% black, 56% Hispanic, 11% Native American, and 20% white. Under the direction of principal Michael Winters, Madison Camelview implemented Kagan Structures school-wide. Principal Winters stated, “The implementation of Kagan had a dramatically positive impact on student behavior. With full Kagan implementation, negative behaviors decreased while positive referrals skyrocketed.” Within three years, positive referrals tripled, and discipline referrals were reduced to a fourth of what they were!

Disruptions Down, Social Skills Up. Stacey Magnesio conducted a study of the impact of Kagan Structures on disruptive and positive behaviors in her 4th-grade class. She had been having serious problems with disruptive behavior and decided to institute three Kagan Structures: RoundRobin, RallyCoach, and Quiz-Quiz-Trade. She plotted the number of disruptive behaviors per student each week using the ABCD Tally Chart. The ABCD Tally Chart records aggression, breaking the rules, confrontations, and disengagement for each student. Frequency of disruptive behaviors declined week after week when Stacey introduced Kagan Structures. See graph: Kagan Structures Reduce Disruptive Behaviors: Name Calling, Arguing, and Off-Task.

To determine if this decline in disruptive behavior was associated with an increase in positive behaviors, Stacey used 5-minute time sample observations of selected students, recording incidents of listening attentively, praising others, respecting differences, staying on task, and taking turns. The frequency of positive behaviors in fact increased dramatically as incidents of disruptive behaviors declined. See graph: Frequency of Positive Social Skills for Targeted Students.

Mrs. Magnesio noted the decline in the need to deal with disruptive behavior freed up time to focus on academics:

This made a powerful impact on my classroom. Not only were the students getting better at working together as the weeks went by, I was able to spend more time teaching and less time lecturing my students about being team players and working together.

Drop in Elementary School Discipline Referrals. The dramatic impact of Kagan Structures in reducing disciple referrals is illustrated by what happened at Mills Hill Primary School in the United Kingdom. When Kagan Structures were introduced, the average number of discipline referrals per class each term was cut about in half. For several years prior to the institution of Kagan Structures, the school had recorded the number of discipline referrals to the headmaster (equivalent to the principal in U.S. schools). The number of referrals prior to the introduction of Kagan Structures hovered between 25 and 30 per class each term. Headmaster Darran Lee indicated this was “a significant problem.” When Kagan Structures were introduced, the number of referrals dropped to about half the pre-Kagan levels and maintained that much lower average for years. Darran Lee stated that within months Kagan Structures were having “a significant impact in reducing the number of behavior incidents across school.” See graph, Kagan Structures Reduce Discipline Problems.

Drop in High School Discipline Referrals. Lehigh Senior High documented similar dramatic decreases in disruptive behavior following the implementation of Kagan Structures. At Lehigh, average student discipline referrals per class decreased 58% in one year following the implementation of Kagan Structures! See graph: Student Discipline Referrals.

Progressive Decline of Discipline Problems. As Kagan Structures become part of the culture of the school, declines in disruptive behavior are progressive year after year.

At Sage Elementary School, following the institution of Kagan Structures, discipline referrals dropped each year. See graph: Sage Elementary Referrals Per 100 Students.

Improved Race Relations

Gang related violence has been an issue in many schools. Gangs often form along race lines. The tendency of students to self-segregate along race lines has been attributed to many factors including the history of race relations in the country and segregation in housing. The question we asked in a major study was whether self-segregation along race lines resulted from traditional competitive instructional strategies and whether race relations could be improved by cooperative learning, which included integrated student teams.

To test the impact of cooperative learning structures on race relations, thirty-five student teachers were randomly assigned to teach using cooperative learning structures or traditional methods for six weeks. The student teachers taught approximately 900 students. The students were 66% White, 20% Mexican American, and 13% Black, proportionally divided in the traditional and cooperative learning classes. To assess the impact of cooperative learning on race relations among the students, the Interpersonal Relations Assessment Technique (IRAT) was administered to all students in the traditional and cooperative learning classes. The IRAT allows each student to indicate his or her level of intimacy with each other student in their class. The five intimacy items had predetermined Gutman properties so agreement with a high-level intimacy item indicated agreement with the less intimate items below it. The items did not appear in intimacy order in the IRAT. See Graphic: Interpersonal Relations Assessment Technique (IRAT).

In order of intimacy, the items were

  • Sit next to him or her in class
  • Loan him or her a pencil or book in class
  • Invite him or her to your home
  • Be his or her best friend
  • Tell secrets to him or her

Results demonstrated that in only six weeks, race-relations were radically improved when cooperative learning structures were implemented.

Using traditional instructional strategies, with age, students progressively self-segregated. That is, whereas students at grades 2-4 were as friendly toward students of a different race as toward students of their own race, by grades 5-6, they choose friends of their same race more than of a different race. In contrast, when cooperative learning structures were implemented, this self-segregation among students almost completely disappeared. See graph: Self-Segregation by Race in Traditional and Cooperative Learning Classes.

To be clear, there was no special race relations or anti-racism program taught in the cooperative learning condition. The near eradication of racial discrimination in friendship choices was the result of students working cooperatively in teams. As a result of working together cooperatively in mixed-race teams, cooperative learning virtually eliminated race-based friendship choices.

This radical transformation of race relations in just six weeks by novice teachers is understandable if we contrast social relations in traditional vs. cooperative learning classrooms. In traditional classrooms students do not work together. Many do not even know the names of their classmates. They talk only with the teacher. They simply do not get to know each other. If you then ask students who they would like to sit next to or invite home, they have only the race of their fellow classmates upon which to decide. In contrast, in the cooperative learning classroom which includes integrated student teams, teambuilding, and cooperative projects and learning tasks, students come to know each other as individuals, not merely as members of a racial group. Through teambuilding activities students get to know each other and appreciate individual differences. Cooperative projects and cooperative learning include mutual support activities, tutoring, coaching, praising, and celebrating. Students experience themselves as on the same side, working together to reach common goals. Through this process students get to know the humor, intellect, feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of their classmates. When then asked who they want to sit next to or invite home, they can decide based on knowing their classmates as individuals, not just as members of a racial group. In essence, cooperative learning makes possible the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed of a time when students would relate to each other by the quality of their character not the color of their skin.

Students interact in a social context in which cooperation, kindness, and caring are practiced daily in every lesson. Given these transformations, students are less inclined to be hostile or violent toward each other.

Walking Upstream with Cooperative Learning Structures

There are many causes for the escalation of mass shootings in schools, including ready availability of assault rifles and Internet hate groups offering students a sense of purpose and belonging. No one initiative can eliminate all school shootings and school violence. We do, however, have strong evidence that one major cause of school violence is poor peer relations that include bullying and harassment of those who then retaliate with violence. As an educational community, we have proven tools to dramatically improve student relationships. Teaching with Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures improves social relations among students, reducing bullying and harassment, major causes for violent retaliation. Importantly, the impact of cooperative learning as a violence prevention program is a byproduct of how students interact on a daily basis; it is not a separate program which may or may not be implemented. While implementation of cooperative learning structures improves race relations, social skills, and social relations, it has the added benefits of increasing achievement, decreasing the achievement gap, and increasing liking for school, class, teacher, and academic content. A school may adopt cooperative learning as a way to reduce the achievement gap, but in the process it is implementing a powerful violence prevention program.

Teaching with Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures is a practical approach to prevent discipline problems, racism, and violence. It strikes at the root cause of these insidious problems. Kagan Structures place students on the same team with shared goals. The structures include teambuilding, classbuilding, and social skill development. Students get to know and like each other. Students interact in a social context in which cooperation, kindness, and caring are practiced daily in every lesson. Given these transformations, students are less inclined to be hostile or violent toward each other. Going forward, they are more likely to create a more civil society.


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