Cooperative Learning and the Equitable Classroom in a Multicultural Society
Elizabeth G. Cohen
Plenary Presentation for
We are gathered together here in Manchester at a time of critical
social change in each of our societies. There has been a marked shift in
the population makeup of each country sending participants to this
conference. Immigration from all parts of the world brings to the schools
a young population from very different cultural backgrounds. Peoples of
color are mingling with formerly homogeneous white populations.
As a sociologist I would point out that many of the newcomers are
struggling economically. They experience significant discrimination in the
host society. They compete for low-level jobs with native laborers who
themselves have a high unemployment rate. The poorest of the immigrants
often live in segregated, inner city neighborhoods. I need not tell you
that these are the classic ingredients of a period of social conflict and
As educators we are deeply concerned with the response of teachers and
students to this social change. Children will show prejudice, reflecting
their parents’ anger at a perceived economic threat. When the children
reject newcomers, teachers are understandably distressed. However, they
are ill-prepared to deal with cultural differences that result in open
rejection and hostility. In addition to the introduction of marked
cultural differences, newcomers may represent a wide range of academic
achievement. Teachers typically do not know how to work with such
heterogeneous classes. In particular, they do not know what to do with
students who do not speak the language of instruction at all well, or
possibly at all.
Cooperative Learning to the Rescue
Cooperative learning is a critical tool in adapting the schools to the
to a multicultural, multiracial, and multilingual population. Much
classroom research has shown that working in heterogeneous cooperative
small groups will increase interracial friendliness and trust (Slavin,
2001). Therefore cooperative learning and other school activities
involving heterogeneous groups are an important antidote to the tendency
for culturally and racially different children to segregate themselves
within schools. Cooperative learning is also an antidote to the tendency
for schools to divide the children according to academic achievement.
Although teachers find that it is easier to work with more academically
homogeneous classes, this maneuver has the side effect of segregating
according to social class. The homogeneously low streams or tracks are
invariably composed of students from poorer homes and are more likely to
contain children of color. The newcomers, if they come from homes with
relatively little formal education, and if they are not fluent in the
language of instruction, are especially likely to be placed in the "low
ability" "low achieving" groups or streams. In the U.S. the students whose
native language is not English are often segregated in English as a Second
Language classes long after they should have been mainstreamed.
It should be obvious that students will only overcome their fears and
stereotypes concerning the newcomers if they have a chance to interact
with them. Attending the same schools is the first step, but not enough to
produce true social integration. Researchers have repeatedly documented
that actual contact even within a desegregated school can be quite limited
In addition to desirable psychosocial outcomes, another major advantage
of cooperative learning for the academically heterogeneous, multicultural,
multilingual setting is that students can use each other as resources.
Students can be taught how to help each other without doing other
students’ work for them. Fully bilingual students can help the new arrival
with translation: they can explain the task assignment; they can translate
what is being said in the group; and they can translate back into the
language of instruction what the newcomer is saying. This process of
explaining to one another and acting as linguistic bridges helps so solve
the severe problem of teachers meeting the needs of students in
heterogeneous classrooms. Without students acting as resources for one
another, it becomes impossible for the teacher to single-handedly adapt
the curriculum for the wide range of achievement and proficiency in the
language of instruction among the students.
A third advantage of cooperative learning is the well-documented
improvement in academic achievement. For example, David and Roger Johnson
and their associates (1990) have conducted multiple studies comparing
cooperative to competitive and individualistic settings and typically find
superior learning gains in cooperative settings. Rachel Lotan and I have
repeatedly found that when students are engaged in a creative open-ended
task, the more they talk and work together the more they learn (Cohen &
Lotan, 1997). This is more than a matter of students helping one another.
When students exchange ideas, comments, and insights they arrive at a much
better conceptual understanding and absorb academic content more
effectively than when they work alone.
Preparing Students for Cooperation in a Diverse Society
In order to achieve these results of improved intergroup relations,
students teaching and helping one another, and improved academic
achievement, teachers will need help with preparing the students for
productive cooperative learning. Students require special training for the
cooperative setting because traditional classrooms are individualistic and
competitive. Students must develop whole new ways of caring what happens
to others in a group. For example, they must learn that they have the
right to ask others for help and the duty to assist those who ask for
help. Some experts in cooperative learning recommend special team-building
and skill-building exercises (For an introduction to these techniques see
Graves,1994 and Cohen, 1994). Others recommend that groups receive
specific feedback on the quality of the group process (Johnson, Johnson,
Stanne, & Garibaldi, 1990). Evidence suggests that either of these
techniques can be effective. There are many experts on this process here
at the conference, so I hope you have taken advantage of their workshops
and will ask for help.
To prepare students for citizenship in a diverse adult society where
they will show a preference for cooperative relations, I would strongly
recommend an additional step. In addition to knowing how to work
harmoniously in a heterogeneous group, they should understand the
importance of cooperation in society. In modern industrial society,
children often fail to understand the great strengths that come from
cooperation. They do not grasp that people must cooperate for economic and
even physical survival. To them, it is not at all obvious that groups are
the best way to solve most difficult problems. No one has ever taught them
that groups can be the source of conflict resolution. They do not even
realize that as adults, they are very likely to work in teams rather than
individually in the workplace.
It is the experience of cooperative groups plus the intellectual
understanding of the role of cooperation in society that will give
students a commitment to the cooperative mode and a preference for working
cooperatively rather than competitively or individualistically (Breer &
Locke, 1965). Without this understanding, they will not show a preference
for cooperative relations in general (Bloom & Schuncke, 1979).
Restructuring the Classroom
In thinking about preparing students for citizenship, cooperative
learning is more than a technique that we plug into the standard way of
running a classroom. What we do in classrooms will tell both natives and
newcomers how we expect them to deal with each other as mature citizens.
Classrooms, whether cooperative, individualistic, or competitive, tell
students what is considered ideal behavior in the adult society. Teachers
usually feel that how running the classroom has to do with discipline and
management of a number of possibly unruly and unmotivated students.
However, research and theory tell us that the kinds of structures that
students experience lead to their preferences for those structures in the
future. Thus if children experience a classroom structure that is highly
competitive, they will prefer competitive situations in the future,
thinking that those are the morally correct conditions. If, in contrast,
children experience a cooperative classroom, they will, if given the
choice, tend to prefer cooperative modes.
The teachers’ evaluations of students, their rewards, and their methods
of discipline can all reflect a more cooperative mode. For example,
grading on a curve so that, by definition, some will win and some will
lose does not fit well in a cooperative classroom. Nor does handing out
points for infringements of the rules fit the cooperative model. Nor does
public exhibition of some students’ work with many gold stars while others
never see any of their work on display. In contrast, involving the
students in setting rules and in deciding how to solve problems as a group
or class is compatible with a cooperative classroom. Also compatible with
a cooperative structure is a system of evaluation that looks at multiple
dimensions of a child’s performance and abilities, so that each child
realizes favorable evaluation on some aspects of their performance.
Making the Classroom Equitable
Multicultural classrooms should not only be cooperative but should also
be equitable classrooms. In an equitable classroom, teachers and
students view each student as capable of learning both basic skills and
high-level concepts. All students have equal access to challenging
learning materials; teachers do not deprive certain students of tasks
demanding higher-order thinking because they see these students as not
"ready;" and classmates readily share instructional materials and give
others a chance to use manipulatives. Teachers create opportunities for
students who cannot read or understand the language of instruction to
complete activities and to use materials.
A key aspect of equitable classrooms is that the interaction among
students is "equal-status." In other words, all students are active and
influential participants and their opinions matter to their
fellow-students. Finally, despite wide variation in previous academic
achievement, the instruction in an equitable classroom does not produce a
wide variation in learning outcomes among the students. While the more
successful students continue to do well, the less successful students are
much more closely clustered around the mean achievement of the classroom
rather than trailing far out on the failing end of the distribution. Thus
there is a higher mean and a lower variance of achievement scores in a
more equitable classroom than in a less equitable classroom.
In an equitable classroom, it is necessary to design cooperative tasks
so that different students can contribute different skills and abilities.
If tasks are what I call "multiple ability," then those students who are
advanced in academic achievement will contribute some but not all the
relevant skills. Newcomers will also be able to make important
contributions. This calls for broadening the nature of the curriculum so
that it includes a much wider range of human intelligence. For example,
making up a skit, or creating a model, or introducing a problem of
creative, imaginative thinking requires skills and multiple intellectual
abilities found in many different students. Those children who are
verbally precocious may be quite unable to handle a spatial-visual task.
Thus no one student will be superior at all aspects of these multiple
ability tasks and every one is likely to show skill at some features of
Multiple ability tasks always include traditional academic skills but
also include many different ways to understand concepts. This is one way
to solve the challenge of inclusion rather than allowing some students to
be excluded from academic success. Because there are multiple ways to
grasp central concepts, a much larger proportion of students will arrive
at a proper understanding of the major concepts of each discipline.
Social vs. Intellectual Gains
There is a tradition of viewing cooperative learning primarily as a
source of social gains such as friendliness, trust, skills in working with
others, and improved intergroup relations. These are indeed very important
outcomes. However, the very same cooperative learning experiences that
prepare students for harmonious intergroup relations can advance
intellectual development and the understanding of concepts. It is a
mistake to think of cooperative learning as purely process. It is quite
possible to benefit from all the pro-social advantages of the technique at
the same time as one teaches difficult concepts and develops higher-order
thinking. The latter goal calls for careful construction of rich tasks
that permit students to work together, sharing their insights, ideas, and
skills, while grappling with challenging abstractions of the various
Treating Status Problems within Groups
Because multicultural classrooms are often also academically
heterogeneous, there should be special concern with what is happening
between more middle class, mainstream students and culturally and racially
different students whose parents are struggling economically. The teacher
needs to be aware of what is happening within the cooperative learning
groups. Are the students who are more advanced academically dominating the
small groups? Are they telling everyone else what to do and how to do it?
Are they listening to what others have to say? Are the newcomers simply
accepting help and not making a contribution? Are they very quiet? When
they do speak up, does anyone listen to them? If any of the above issues
of dominance and lack of participation is occurring, there is most likely
"a status problem" within the group.
When mainstream, middle class students dominate and fail to listen to
marginalized newcomers, the status order of the larger society is repeated
within the groups. Although the students may be friendly with each other,
the stereotypes of the intellectual incompetence of the strangers in the
society are reinforced. Those who say very little and those whose opinions
are not sought or are ignored will be seen as lacking the ability to make
significant contributions. This will occur even though a careful
observation and listening to the low-status students may reveal that they
have relevant and important ideas. Instead of creating a setting for
interaction where students learn what newcomers have to offer, the teacher
may unwittingly have created a situation in which mainstream students
learn that newcomers have very little to offer.
In addition to creating multiple ability tasks such as those described
above, it is necessary to intervene and treat these status problems
(Cohen, 1994). The key to producing truly equal-status interaction lies in
raising the expectations for competence that are held for low-status
students. In classrooms, the most important status dimensions are academic
standing and popularity. When newcomers are struggling with the language
or lack the repertoire for school success they are very likely to take up
low-status positions on the academic status order that develops in
classrooms. They may also suffer from social isolation.
There are several ways that teachers can and do intervene to raise
expectations for competence. One way is to explain that the group tasks
require many different abilities. Of course, this is only possible if the
assignments are truly multiple ability tasks. The teacher then clearly
states, "No one will be good at all these abilities. Everyone will be good
at some of these abilities." This strategy is called the Multiple Ability
Treatment. It is effective in changing the expectations for competence for
low-status students because they and others in their group (1) change
their perceptions of the task and see that it will require much more than
traditional school-related skills; (2) believe what the teacher has said
about everyone having some of these important skills and abilities that
will be necessary for a successful outcome; and (3) believe that even
high-status students could not possibly excel at all the skills called for
in this task. The result of a successful Multiple Ability Treatment will
be greater participation and learning on the part of the low-status
A second method of raising expectations for competence is called
Assigning Competence to Low-Status students. In this case, teachers
observe the groups at work and catch the low-status student when he or she
is making an intellectual contribution to the group. They then
specifically point out what kind of an intellectual contribution that this
student is making. For example, the teacher says, "Look how Jose has
figured out to put the tangrams together. He is very logical. He is a
important resource for this group." Of course the teacher will only make
this comment if it is truly the case that Jose has figured out how the
tangrams go together. Notice that the teacher has pointed out that this
ability is relevant to the success of the group. This strategy will raise
expectations for Jose’s competence because the teacher’s evaluation is
highly believable to students, because the evaluation has occurred
publicly, and because the evaluated skills are relevant to the success of
the group. In this hypothetical group, Jose will speak up and share what
he has discovered about the tangrams. Not only will the group be more
successful in completing the group task, but the other students will
develop a true appreciation for Jose’s competence. (For more details on
using these treatments for status problems, see Cohen, 1994).
Development of Group Tasks
In an equitable classroom, academic success for students who are
struggling with the language and who do not have the early background that
promotes such success lies in the careful design and implementation of
group tasks. Group tasks should be challenging and require interaction,
reading, writing, and problem-solving. When teaching central, abstract
concepts of a discipline, it is best if students have more than one group
task to help them understand. If one task is spatial and visual, another
textual, and still another musical, there will be more than one way for
each student to develop a deep understanding.
Groups should be held accountable for their performance. Individuals
can be held accountable by requiring that they write an individual report
upon completion of the group task. Students can receive feedback on their
group performance and on their individual reports. Of course, the teacher
should make quite clear to the students what constitutes an exemplary
group performance before she or he makes public comments evaluating a
group’s presentation or product (Cohen, Lotan, Abram, Scarloss, & Schultz,
in press; Abram et al., 2002).
By building into tasks the basic skills along with other intellectual
abilities and by holding groups and individuals accountable for the
development of these skills and abilities, it is entirely possible for
many more students in a classroom to become academically successful. Not
only do all the students have access to challenging curricula, but they
have multiple opportunities to learn in different ways, peer resources to
assist them, and consistent, specific feedback from the teacher on what
they are doing well and where they need to improve. Both basic skills and
higher-order thinking can be part and parcel of cooperative learning.
Right now it is fashionable to talk about the goal of "reaching all
children" and "leaving no child behind." However, it takes much more than
slogans to achieve such a goal in today’s classrooms. It is necessary to
restructure the classroom and to change the nature of the learning process
so that all children have access, not only to routine basic skills, but to
higher order thinking. We do not have as much choice to go on teaching in
the traditional manner as is commonly believed. If the problem of lag in
achievement by so many students is not solved, the blocked social mobility
of the newcomers and other oppressed groups will lead to serious social
unrest of the type that is frightening everyone at this time.
Next Steps in Changing the Classroom
If this sounds like a very big job of social change in the classroom,
it is. What should an educator who is at the beginning of the process of
adapting instruction and classrooms so that they become more cooperative
and equitable do in the face of this challenge? The first thing to do is
to join together cooperatively with like-minded colleagues who feel
impelled to do something more powerful about educating the next generation
for responsible citizenship. A collaborative group can undertake the study
of the extensive research and writing on cooperative learning and
cooperative classrooms. There are many human resources for you as well at
I would urge you to move slowly and carefully in attempting to make
changes in the mode of instruction. Go step by step with adequate
opportunities for observing each other’s classrooms and for reflection.
Start with trying out some of the recommended skill builders and/or team
builders in preparation for cooperative learning. Work together to create
or adapt some group tasks that center on important concepts in the
curriculum. Try them out, critique them, and keep notes on how to revise
them. The stance of the staff developer and teacher should be both
self-evaluative and self-critical. Take advantage of the extensive
research that has been carried out on cooperative learning and its
implementation. Take advantage of the curricula that have been developed
specifically for cooperative learning. It is a challenging method of
teaching and should not be undertaken unless one is willing to experiment
and problem-solve together.
You are fortunate in that there are many educators and researchers who
have traveled this road seeking greater social justice in classrooms
before you. I believe that it is only through traveling this road together
that we will help to produce citizens able to function in new and
different kind of pluralistic society.
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S. E. (2002). The use of evaluation criteria to improve academic discussion in
cooperative groups. Asian Pacific Journal of Education, 22, 16-27.
Bloom, J., & Schuncke, G. (1979). The effect of a cooperative
curriculum experience on choice of task organization. Journal of Experimental Education.
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