Implementing a Research-Based Model of Cooperative Learning
The author used qualitative research methods to explore an 8th- grade mathematics teacher’s personal definition of cooperative learning and the enactment of cooperative learning in his classroom according to that definition. Data collection involved interviews and classroom observations. The author used coding schemes and descriptive statistics for data reduction and analysis. Constructivist psychology provided the theoretical groundwork for conclusions based on consistency across interview and observational data. Results revealed that while the teacher implemented a research- based model of cooperative-learning instruction, he adapted the model for use in his classroom. Results also identified the teacher’s prior experience and teaching context as factors that influenced his implementation of cooperative-learning instruction.
Key words: cooperative learning, implementation, qualitative research
Cooperative learning involves groups of students working to complete a common task. It is a rich educational strategy because it affords elaborate student interactions. That richness makes cooperative learning a complex construct to study. Given its complexity, researchers have attempted to specify its methods and to control its implementation.
The preponderance of research on the outcomes and processes associated with cooperative learning suggests that it can effectively promote academic achievement and social skills development (Elmore & Zenus, 1992; Johnson & Johnson, 1978, 1982, 1983; Johnson, Johnson, Buckman, & Richards, 1985; Johnson, Johnson, & Stane, 1989; Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skoi, 1981; Madden & Slavin, 1983; Nastasi & Clements, 1991, 1993; O’Melia & Rosenburg, 1994; Qin, 1992; Qin, Johnson, 6k Johnson, 1995; Slavin, 1983a, 1983b, 1985, 1987; Stevens 6k Slavin, 1995a, 1995b). In those studies, however, cooperative learning differed from what might happen in actual classrooms and schools. The researchers decided (a) which instructional methods to use for fostering cooperative learning, (b) the frequency and duration of cooperative learning lessons, (c) which activities and materials to use, and (d) the composition of student groups. Whereas those researchers considered experimental rigor in their decision making, teachers are more likely to consider (a) curriculum content, (b) available time and materials, and (c) student factors when they make such decisions.
Because of its potential to increase student academic achievement and social skills development, researchers have advocated the implementation of cooperative learning for school reform (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Johnson & Johnson, 1983; Stevens & Slavin, 1995b). To researchers, the implementation of cooperative learning in reform settings has been construed as an issue of treatment fidelity. That is, researchers define successful implementation as adherence to a research-based model (Hertz- Lazarowitz, Ivory, & Calderon, 1993; Hintz, 1993; McCarty, 1993; Sapon-Shevin, 1992; Stevens & Slavin, 1995a, 1995b; Talamage, Pascarella, & Ford, 1984). That conceptualization emphasizes the standards of fidelity, effectiveness, and longevity typically used by researchers to judge the effectiveness of education reform, but it ignores the adaptations of reform practices valued by teachers (Cuban, 1996). In contrast to researchers who view variations in practice as signs of poor implementation, teachers view variation as evidence of creative problem solving (Cuban). If teachers likely modify cooperative learning as they implement it, the results of quasi-experimental studies of cooperative learning will have limited “generalizability” to real-life classrooms.
Grossen (1996) cautioned against recommending educational innovations based on the results of quasi-experimental studies with limited generalizability. She argued that in order to understand how new practices are integrated into existing school structures, research of instructional innovations in full context is needed. Potentially negative (or positive) side effects may be visible only over time in uncontrolled settings. Grossen identified cooperative learning as one such instructional innovation that, despite its research base, may produce different effects when implemented by practitioners rather than researchers.
In the present study, constructivist psychology provides the framework for investigating the implementation of cooperative learning by teachers in real classrooms. Traditional constructivist psychology is rooted in the beliefs that knowledge is constructed (i.e., built on prior knowledge) and that knowledge is acquired through interactions with the environment (Perret-Clermont, Perret, & Bell, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). A constructivist approach suggests that in the process of implementation, teachers are engaged in the active construction of knowledge about cooperative learning. Newly developed concepts will be reflected when cooperative learning is used in the classroom.
When teachers are trained to use cooperative learning, their understanding should be influenced by their existing knowledge of teaching practices and instructional methods and by their previous knowledge of current teaching contexts, including school structure, curriculum, and student characteristics. Through the mechanism of assimilation, teachers should reorganize the information that they receive about cooperative learning to fit their existing schema of teaching. In addition, the teaching schema should include cooperative learning.
As a result of changes in their mental frameworks, teachers should use new methods in the classroom. Teachers should internalize the resulting classroom experiences so those experiences contribute to their further understanding of cooperative learning. In some cases, teachers’ understanding and subsequent use of cooperative learning may need to be altered to accommodate new information obtained through their experiences. Thus, a constructivist approach suggests that teachers’ understanding of cooperative learning and the enactment of cooperative learning in their classrooms are related. Constructivism suggests that when teachers implement cooperative learning, they will not adhere precisely to researcher- developed models of cooperative learning.
Researchers who were interested in the education reform movement have used the constructivist approach to examine teachers’ understanding and use of instructional innovations (Alexander, Murphy, & Woods, 1996; Ball, 1996), changes in new teachers’ concepts of effective teaching (Jones &. Vesiland, 1996), systematic mathematics reform (Grant, Peterson, & Shojgreen-Downer, 1996), and effects of subject content on efforts to restructure high schools (Grossman &. Stodolsky, 1995). I located only one study, however, that considered the ways in which teachers think about and use cooperative learning in their classrooms. Antil, Jenkins, and Wayne (1998) used surveys and interviews to examine the prevalence, conceptualization, and form of cooperative learning employed by elementary school teachers. As one would expect from a constructivist point of view, teachers described their use of cooperative learning as modifications or adaptations of “more formal” research-based models. Antil and colleagues concluded that a chasm between researchers’ and practitioners’ approaches to cooperative learning existed, noting that few teachers were using recognizable models of cooperative learning. However, the researchers noted that their method did not allow them to identify the source of such differences. A further limitation of the Antil et al. study is that it relied solely on interviews and surveys. Classroom observations are required for one to complete the examination of implementation in real-life classrooms.
To summarize, the goal of many researchers who investigated cooperative learning has been to document its effectiveness. To that end, researchers have attempted to standardize the methods for using cooperative learning and control its implementations. As a result, little is known about cooperative learning as it is used in real- life classrooms. Although evidence suggests that teachers adapt research-based models of cooperative learning for use in their classrooms, teacher concepts of cooperative learning by teachers without researcher input and control are not well understood. Finally, the relationships between concepts and enactment have not been considered.
My purpose was to explore the implementation of cooperative learning by an expert eighth-grade mathematics teacher. Rather than examine the extent to which the teacher adhered to a research-based model, I, along with members of a larger research team,1 described how he conceptualized and enacted cooperative learning instruction in his classroom. Specifically, we examined the teacher’s personal definition of cooperative learning and the enactment of cooperative learning in his classroom according to that definition.
This study was part of a large project titled The Model Project for the Reform of Special Education in the Iroquois School District. (Iroquois is a pseudonym.) In that larger project, researchers docume\nted the reform efforts and instructional innovations designed to change the overall education system of a school district.
During the reform process, schools in the Iroquois district adopted various reform initiatives; middle school teachers adopted a cooperative-learning initiative. To provide the staff development needed for implementing reform initiatives, the district administration established the position of project leader. The role of the project leader was twofold. He or she received training in the initiative and then used various methods to educate other teachers. An eighth-grade mathematics teacher was appointed as the cooperative-learning project leader (also referred to as the “teacher” in this study) to facilitate the implementation of cooperative learning in the middle school. He was taught how to use the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model of cooperative learning. After his initial training, he was involved in providing training to and consulting with teachers who used cooperative learning in their classes. In the present study, we examined the implementation of cooperative learning by the project leader.
The author chose qualitative methods for this study to address the limitations of the previous implementation research. According to Miles and Huherman (1994), qualitative research is conducted through an intense or prolonged contact with a real-life setting. A main task of qualitative research is an explication of the ways in which persons in a particular setting understand, account for, take action, and otherwise manage their day-to-day situations. The researcher attempts to identify themes to describe persons in their contexts. Finally, although many interpretations of qualitative data are possible, conclusions are made on the basis of theory and internal consistency.
Prolonged contact between the Iroquois school district and faculty and graduate students from the University at Albany provided the groundwork for this study. For 5 years, researchers from the university collected data in the school district. Data collection included participating in and observing project leader meetings, observing middle school classes, and interviewing project leaders, middle school teachers, and middle school students. Through conversations with school district administrators, we identified critical research questions. From a broad initial interest in school reform, cooperative learning became the focus of this study.
Our main task was to explicate the ways in which the cooperative- learning project leader understood and used the cooperative learning in his classroom. Data collection involved interviews and observations for soliciting the teacher’s perspective. The goal of data analysis was the identification of themes that explained the teacher’s conceptualization and enactment of cooperative learning. Constructivist theory provided the framework for conclusions on the basis of consistency across interview and observational data.
Administrators in the Iroquois school district appointed an eighth-grade mathematics teacher as the district’s cooperative- learning project leader. After receiving initial training in cooperative learning, he used cooperative learning in his eighth- grade mathematics classes and provided training to and consulted with other teachers who were using cooperative learning. He was viewed as the “cooperative learning expert” in the district. Other teachers referred to him as their “guru.” For those reasons, the author chose the project leader as the participant in this study.
In addition to being the district’s cooperative-learning expert, the project leader possessed several other interesting professional and personal characteristics. He taught eighth-grade mathematics students at a variety of levels, including remedial, general, and accelerated. Special education students were included in his remedial and general mathematics classes. The project leader had an inquisitive nature and motivation for professional development, which together resulted in his being best described as a lifelong learner. Although the project leader was near the end of his teaching career, he eagerly embraced new methods. In addition to his involvement in the cooperative-learning initiative, he explored ways to incorporate authentic assessment into his curriculum.
To obtain information about the project leader’s personal definition of cooperative learning, we interviewed him several times. We conducted two formal interviews at the start and at the end of the data collection period and developed the protocol for this study. The initial interview protocol, which is contained in Appendix A, is a semistructured instrument intended to engage the teacher in conversation about cooperative learning. We developed follow-up interview questions based on data that we collected during the study for clarification purposes. Follow-up interview protocol is contained in Appendix B of this study. Both interviews were tape- recorded for later transcription and analysis.
In addition to the two formal interviews, we engaged in conversation with the project leader throughout the data collection period. During the informal conversations, the project leader provided information about his understanding of cooperative learning and explained the use of cooperative learning in his classroom. We recorded information from those informal conversations and considered it as data for analysis.
To obtain information about the enactment of cooperative learning in the project leader’s classes, we conducted classroom observations. The observations focused on students in cooperative- learning groups during 40-min class periods. We observed six student groups-three groups from one general mathematics class and three groups from one accelerated mathematics class. We observed each group three times, totaling 18 observations, over a period of 10 weeks during the third marking period of the 1995-1996 school year. We did not observe remedial mathematics classes because the project leader said that he used cooperative learning less frequently in those classes.
To ensure that key events were not overlooked, the author developed a preliminary coding scheme along with another researcher who was examining cooperative-learning instruction in a high school in the Iroquois school district. On the basis of the literature and previous observations in the district, we identified the following broad categories of interest: (a) basic elements of cooperative learning; (b) grouping patterns; (c) presentation of content, learning tasks, material, and activities; and (d) evaluations of learning, classroom management, and classroom environment. During classroom observations, we recorded narrative field notes in 5-min intervals. We then coded observations by recording observed events in each category and modified and elaborated categories to account for all observed events.
Interrater agreement for the preliminary coding scheme and observation procedure was established; the researcher and I simultaneously observed classes. Using that scheme, we recorded field notes independently. We examined results for congruent evidence of each category identified; iruerrater agreement was 92%.
To analyze the data specific to the current study, the researcher and I developed a more focused coding scheme. From the data organized in broad categories identified in the preliminary coding schema, two major categories of phenomena emerged as relevant: cooperative-learning methods and lesson plan format. Cooperative- learning methods included those aspects of instruction that were specific to cooperative learning; lesson plan format included those aspects of instruction that represented the project leader’s general teaching style. We developed several subcategory codes to classify different types of events under each category. In the process of classification, we identified 20 cooperative-learning variables and 6 lesson plan variables; Table 1 contains a list of those variables.
Following the development of the coding scheme, we used descriptive statistical methods to analyze and reduce the emergent variables. We used the 18 class periods, which served as the units of observation, as the primary units for data analysis. Although some cooperative-learning methods were used in nearly all class periods, many of them were evident in only some of the classes that were observed. For that reason, we used frequency counts by class period to summarize the cooperative-learning variables. To obtain frequency counts, we determined the presence or absence of each cooperative-learning variable in each class period. For example, we counted 13 of the classes as including evidence of round-robin discussion between student group members (i.e., face-to-face interaction via turn taking). Frequency counts for cooperative- learning variables are shown in Table 2.
In contrast to the use of cooperative-learning methods that varied, the project leader’s lesson plan format appeared consistent across multiple classes. Therefore, we determined that calculations of the amount of class time engaged for each lesson plan variable would be the most descriptive method. For each class period, we identified the number of minutes that we observed each lesson plan variable. To summarize the data further, we calculated the average number of minutes for each variable by dividing the total number of minutes across observations by total number of observations. For example, we recorded engagement in cooperative-learning activities as occurring for 360 min, which we calculated was an average of 20 min for each of the 18 classes observed. Average amount of time engaged for each lesson plan variable is shown in Table 3.
In the process of computing frequency counts and determining amount of class time engaged, we detected differences between the genera\l mathematics class and the accelerated mathematics class. Although differences between groups within the same class were considered, these comparisons did not demonstrate a consistent pattern. For purposes of further analysis and comparison between types of classes, we calculated percentages for each of the cooperative-learning frequency counts and for each of the lesson plan class time averages. We calculated cooperative-learning percentages by dividing the number of classes for which each variable was observed by the total number of classes observed. Returning to the previous example, round-robin discussion between group members was evident in 72% of the classes observed. We calculated lesson plan percentages by dividing the average amount of class time by the total number of minutes per class (i.e., 40). For example, I found that cooperative-learning activities accounted for 50% of class time. Cooperative-learning percentages and lesson plan percentages are shown in Tables 2 and 3, respectively.
TABLE 1. Emergent Variables
TABLE 2. Cooperative Learning Variables (Occurrence by Type of Class)
TABLE 3. Lesson Plan Variables (Minutes of Class Time by Type of Class)
We next applied the coding scheme to transcripts of the teacher interviews. We used teacher descriptions of observed events to elaborate major themes and subcategory codes. In addition, we used quotes from the transcripts to explain (a) the teacher’s understanding and use of emergent cooperative-learning and lesson plan variables in general and (b) differences in these variables between the two types of classes. I based my conclusions on consistency between observation and interview data.
Analysis of observation and interview data supported three major findings. First, the project leader’s conceptualization of cooperative learning was consistent with a research-based model. second, as would be expected given a constructivist approach, the project leader adapted the research-based model for use in his classroom. Finally, we identified three distinct types of adaptations: (a) the project leader used personal techniques to implement cooperative learning, (b) implementation involved the integration of cooperative learning with the project leader’s previous basic lesson plan, and (c) implementation differed between accelerated and general mathematics classes.
Personal Definition of Cooperative Learning
As revealed in the interview transcripts, the project leader’s concept of cooperative learning reflected the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model in which he was trained. He defined cooperative learning as instruction that contained the five essential elements identified by Johnson and Johnson: (a) face-to-face interaction, (b) individual accountability, (c) positive group interdependence, (d) social skills instruction, and (e) debriefing. The project leader described face-to-face interaction as “equal participation and discussion between all group members.” He identified individual accountability as “the part that makes most kids work, and do the job . . . whether it is a test, a quiz, or verbal questions, something that makes them know they each have to understand what’s being taught.” Also, he defined positive group interdependence as “the idea that we sink or swim together, everyone has to understand and do the work.” He described social skills instruction as teaching students “how to listen, how to speak, and practice taking turns” at the beginning of the school year. The project leader explained that he emphasized the social skills of “politeness and courtesy, showing respect for other people and their ideas” throughout the school year. Finally, he described debriefing as “the time at the end of the class to reinforce what was good and discourage what was bad,” including academic and social aspects of group functioning.
Implementation of a Research-Based Model With Personal Techniques
Analysis of classroom observation data revealed that the teacher used specific techniques to implement each of the five elements of cooperative learning. Examples of the techniques and percentages of classes in which they were observed are presented in Table 2. I observed face-to-face interaction in most classes as students took turns explaining problem solutions to the group. The teacher fostered individual accountability through individual tests and quizzes and structured activities. He used group worksheets to promote positive interdependence. Because I conducted observations in the second half of the school year, verbal directions and reminders were the most commonly observed method of social skills instruction. Finally, we observed that debriefing most often entailed the teacher providing general comments during group work.
Review of classroom observation data further revealed that the enactment of cooperative learning in the project leader’s class involved the integration of the five elements with his basic lesson plan. This lesson plan consisted of review of previously learned material, introduction of new material, and practice of newly acquired skills. Data on the lesson plan variables are shown in Table 3. The teacher used cooperative learning primarily for practicing newly acquired skills and occasionally for reviewing previously learned material.
A typical lesson in the project leader’s classes began with students sitting in rows facing forward. The project leader began with review. He announced answers to the previous night’s homework or a recently administered quiz. Students checked to see if their answers were correct. The teacher demonstrated solutions to difficult items. In the accelerated mathematics classes, students compared and discussed homework answers with their group members.
Following review, the teacher often introduced new material. He outlined definitions of concepts and sample problems on the blackboard. The teacher used a type of guided practice to model solutions to sample problems. During that process, he demonstrated initial steps to a solution and then called on students to answer questions or provide the next step in the solution. For example, when demonstrating how the students could determine the area of a triangle, the teacher drew a triangle on the blackboard and announced the length of the base and the height. He then asked, “What’s the formula for the area of a triangle?” When a student replied, “One-half base times height,” the teacher wrote the formula on the board and asked, “What should I do next?” As students supplied the answers to his questions, the teacher completed the steps on the chalkboard. He often used that method to model several examples before he assigned students to small groups for continued practice.
Following the whole-class introduction of new material, the students typically worked in groups of 2 or 4 students to practice new skills. The project leader presented the assignment and directions for group work by writing them on the chalkboard or distributing a typed list. The assignment often included real-life applications of the new skills. For example, group practice problems on percentages and decimals consisted of calculating restaurant bills and determining the appropriate tip.
The students moved their desks from facing forward to facing their group members. Each group worked with one textbook or worksheet. Typically, one student who was the discussion leader read the problem to the group and verbalized the solution. Other group members wrote down the solution as it was explained. If a calculator were necessary to complete the problem, a second student in the group entered numbers and computed the answer as the first student described the solution process. If the group were required to submit one page of written answers to the teacher, a third student in the group took the responsibility for writing the answer. Students switched roles at the beginning of each problem. The textbook, the calculator, and the answer page were passed to other group members.
Most often, the process was enacted in each group for each question. Variations to the typical process occurred, however, when students did not understand the problem or when members disagreed about the solution described. When misunderstandings did occur, students (a) asked for clarification, (b) gave more detailed explanations, (c) tried different methods of problem solving and comparing answers, (d) referred to the textbook, or (e) asked the teacher for help.
During group practice, the teacher observed the students, monitored group progress, and provided help where needed. Occasionally, the teacher called out reminders for the students to “stay together,”"help each other,” and “take turns.” As he walked around the classroom, he also stopped to provide feedback to groups about their process of interaction. Sometimes that feedback consisted of a verbal summary of the group process as seen by the teacher. On other occasions, the teacher returned a group worksheet or quiz with an academic grade and a group-process score. He explained how he had arrived at the score and offered suggestions for improving group functioning.
At the conclusion of the group activity, the teacher typically collected one worksheet or answer page per group. Sometimes he randomly selected one student’s paper. Other times, the group had completed one paper to be submitted. Following group practice, the teacher often assigned homework problems for individual practice. If time were remaining in the class period, students moved their desks back into rows facing the blackboard and began the practice problems. On a few occasions, the teacher made concluding comments about the new skills that were practiced or described positive aspects of group functioning that he observed.
Effects of Context
In terms of the emergent variables, we noted differences between the general and accelerated mathematics classes.
Although differences in individual va\riables were not large, taken together they represented a pattern of difference between the classes. That pattern was evident in the cooperative-learning variables and the lesson plan variables (see Tables 2 and 3, respectively).
With regard to lesson plan format, we noted differences between the two types of classes in the amount of time and type of activity for which each variable was used. For example, in the general mathematics classes, cooperative learning accounted for 40% of class time; 55% of class time was designated for whole-class instruction. In contrast, in the accelerated classes, 60% of class time was spent in cooperative-learning activities, and 40% of class time was spent in whole-class instruction. In the general mathematics classes, cooperative-learning activities were limited to practice of new skills. In contrast, cooperative-learning activities were used for review of previously learned material as well as practice of newly acquired skills in accelerated classes. Teacher-led review of previously learned material accounted for a greater percentage of class time in general (30%) than in accelerated mathematics classes (20%).
With respect to cooperative-learning methods, we noted differences between the two classes regarding methods for promoting individual accountability and group interdependence. To promote individual accountability, the teacher used individual assignments and structured activities more often in general classes (22% and 100%, respectively) than he did in accelerated classes (11% and 44%, respectively). He used worksheets to promote group interdependence in 67% of the observed general mathematics classes; no instances of group worksheets were observed in the accelerated mathematics classes.
In addition to teacher behavior, differences in student behavior between the two types of classes also were noted among the cooperative-learning variables. Disagreements during group discussion were observed less often in the general mathematics classes (33%) than in the accelerated mathematics classes (78%). When disagreements did occur, students in general mathematics classes asked the teacher for a solution twice as often as they solved the disagreement through group discussion (22% vs. 11%). In contrast, group solutions to disagreements were observed in most of the accelerated classes (67%), with no instance of asking the teacher.
We reviewed narrative notes for further analysis of the differences between general mathematics and accelerated mathematics students’ approaches to disagreements. In the general mathematics classes, the discussion leader’s method for solving a problem, as well as providing the solution, was typically viewed as correct and adopted by the group. On the few occasions when general mathematics students disagreed about the solution process, they adopted another member’s method and solution as correct, referred to the textbook, or asked the teacher for help. In contrast, in the accelerated mathematics class, students in groups often disagreed with the discussion leader’s method for solving a problem. Accelerated students suggested alternative solutions and discussed different possible solutions within the group. Often, more than one solution yielded the correct answer. Individual group members adopted different methods, but all agreed on one answer.
Perspective of the Project Leader
Data from interview transcripts provided insight about the project leader’s (a) perspective on his adaptation of the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model, (b) integration of the model with his previous lesson plan, and (c) differences between the general and accelerated mathematics classes.
According to the project leader, his approach to cooperative learning differed from the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model in two ways. First, the project leader explained that he did not assign students to specific jobs. Rather, he suggested that students take turns and switch roles throughout the lesson. He believed that his approach encouraged each student to practice a variety of different skills. second, he limited group size to two to four students. Whereas Johnson and Johnson recommended up to six or eight students in a group, the project leader believed that smaller group size better facilitated equal participation.
In terms of the integration of cooperative learning with his basic lesson plan, the project leader explained that tie used cooperative learning in this manner because he had been trained to use cooperative learning only after teaching for 20 years. He added that if he had been trained in cooperative learning as a new teacher, he probably would have used it differently.
When planning a cooperative-learning lesson, the project leader considered the content that he would cover, as well as student ability. Differences in those factors between his general and accelerated mathematics classes might have accounted for observed differences in implementation. The project leader explained that when planning for cooperativelearning lessons, he first determined the lesson objective and then considered “how to do it in a cooperative way.” He reported that objectives in the accelerated classes often required multiple-step problem solving that fit with cooperative-learning activities. When planning for review of previously learned material, the project leader also considered student ability. He said he often used cooperative learning for review activities in the accelerated classes because he was “confident at least one student in the group would have an accurate understanding” of the procedure or content. He admitted that he had less confidence in the ability of students in the general mathematics classes and suggested that he subsequently felt a need to use teacher-led instruction methods for review in those classes.
Because of its potential to increase student achievement and social skills development, cooperative learning has been advocated for school reform. Prior to such broadbased recommendations, however, Grossen (1996) identified a need for research in real-life classrooms, as opposed to researcher-controlled classes. In response to Grossen’s recommendation, the author undertook the research reported here to demonstrate that the implementation of cooperative learning in real-life classrooms is a complex process, a point that despite the extensive previous research in cooperative learning appeared to be lacking. The findings of this study are consistent with Cuban’s (1996) conclusion that teachers will adapt research- based models for use in their classroom, but they contrast with results reported by Antil and colleagues (1998) in which research- based models of cooperative learning were unrecognizable among practitioner approaches. We expanded Cuban’s conclusion by identifying sets of factors that influenced variations in teachers’ implementation of cooperative learning. Interpreted within a constructivist framework, results support the conclusions that in real life, the project leader used personal techniques derived from prior knowledge and experience to implement research-based models of cooperative learning and that use of these personal techniques was influenced by his teaching context.
Consistent with Cuban’s (1996) conclusion that, in practice, teachers’ use of instructional innovations will vary, the project leader’s approach to cooperative learning demonstrated that he adapted the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model for his classroom. A constructivist framework suggests that one set of factors influencing a teacher’s use of cooperative learning will be his or her prior knowledge of teaching and experience as a teacher. The effect of the project leader’s prior knowledge and experience was evident in his basic lesson plan. During his 20 years as a mathematics teacher, the project leader had developed a personal structure for executing his classes. For implementation purposes, the project leader used cooperative learning within his existing lesson plan format. A constructivist framework suggests that a second set of factors influencing a teacher’s use of cooperative learning is his or her teaching context. The project leader’s explanation of differences in implementation between his accelerated and general mathematics classes revealed that his use of cooperative learning was influenced by lesson content and perceived student ability.
The results have implications for educators who are interested in school reform. Rather than making broad-based recommendations to use cooperative learning, proponents of this instructional initiative should consider designing professional development programs based on a constructivist framework. Specifically, in-service training should include activities that encourage teachers to describe their knowledge of teaching and their daily teaching practices, strategies that help teachers incorporate cooperative learning (or other instructional innovations) into their daily practices, and opportunities for teachers to consider specific contextual variables that may influence their use of cooperative learning.
A unique contribution of this study was that the project leader implemented a research-based model of cooperative learning without researcher supervision. That finding contrasts with results reported by Antil and colleagues (1998) in which practitioner approaches differed significantly from research-based models. One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the research methodology and theoretical orientation used in this study might have allowed for the detection and explanation of a research-based model, which was not evident through the methods used by Antil and colleagues. Those researchers used interview and survey methods to obtain information about teachers’ use of cooperative-learning techniques. Although those methods yielded considerable information about implementation, the researchers repor\ted that they were left to infer some things about their practice from illustrations of cooperativelearning lessons that were described in earlier studies. The use of observations and follow-up interviews in the current study left little to researcher inference. Furthermore, Antil and colleagues evaluated practitioner approaches by using a checklist of criteria derived from the research literature on cooperative learning. In this study, I used a theoretical framework that allowed for examination and explanation of the relationship between a research- based model and a practitioner’s approach.
There are several alternative explanations for the discrepant findings between this study and the Antil et al. (1998) research, each of which has implications for practice. First, in the Antil et al. study, practitioners were trained in several different research- based models of cooperative learning. In contrast, the Iroquois School District adopted one model of cooperative learning-the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model. The use of other models was not encouraged. Antil and colleagues hypothesized that when teachers are exposed to multiple methods of cooperative learning, they are likely to conclude that there is great latitude in what is considered cooperative learning. The results of this study suggest that fidelity of implementation can be increased when teacher attention is focused on one model.
A second alternative explanation for the greater fidelity of implementation that I observed was the congruence between the project leader’s belief system and the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model of cooperative learning. The project leader reported that the goals of education are to promote academic, as well as social, development of students. To the project leader, cooperative learning was one logical way to attain those goals. That finding has implications for educators who are interested in school reform, as well as researchers who are studying cooperative-learning implementation. To facilitate use of cooperative learning (and other instruction innovations), one might need to consider the congruence between teacher philosophy and novel methods. Knowledge of teacher beliefs about education might allow researchers to predict which teachers will be more likely to implement cooperative learning.
Finally, the project leader’s implementation of the Johnson and Johnson (1983) model could be related to the fact that he has taken ownership of the model. In the position of “project leader,” he has been assigned a leadership role. He defined that role as modeling the implementation of the Johnson and Johnson approach to cooperative learning. To encourage the use of cooperative learning, the project leader invited newly trained teachers to observe how he used cooperative learning in his classroom. Thus, the present results suggest that in order to promote the use of cooperative learning for school reform, teachers need to share in the ownership of the instructional innovation.
Discussion and Future Directions
The major limitation of this study is that conclusions were drawn on the basis of data from 1 teacher. Considered an expert in cooperative learning, the project leader is not a typical teacher. Thus, the current findings may have limited generalizability to other teachers. Nonetheless, results of this study demonstrated that teacher implementation of cooperative learning is influenced by prior knowledge and experience and current teaching context. In addition, findings suggest that use of cooperative learning can be promoted by (a) teacher attention to one model, (b) congruence between teacher philosophy and instruction methods, and (c) teacher ownership of the innovation.
In contrast to previous implementation studies that emphasize the researcher’s perspective, I provide a description of the practitioner’s perspective of cooperative learning implementation. To obtain that perspective, I used (a) qualitative methods of prolonged engagement in a natural setting, (b) collaboration with the participants in defining the research agenda, (c) multiple data collection methods, and (d) data analysis based on consistency of findings within a theoretical framework. Those aspects of the current design are strengths of this study. The design provided methods for the exploration of expected variation in the teacher’s use of cooperative learning, specifically differences between practitioner and researcher approaches. In addition, the design allowed for detection of unanticipated variations, most notably within-teacher differences in implementation.
Researchers need to use a constructivist framework and qualitative methods to examine cooperative learning. Data provided by other teachers would allow researchers to further explore the notion that variations in teacher implementation are related to differences in prior knowledge and experience and would confirm the conclusion that within-teacher differences in implementation are related to differences in teaching contexts. Further exploration also would reveal other factors that influence teacher implementation of cooperative learning.
1. The pronoun “we” is used throughout the article to indicate that this research was conducted by the author and by members of a larger research team, including faculty and graduate research assistants, unless otherwise specified.
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Georgia State University
Address correspondence to Christine Siegel, Department of Counseling and Psychological Services, Georgia State University, MSC 6A0915, 33 Gilmer Street, SE Unit 6, Atlanta, GA 30303-3086. (E- mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHRISTINE SIEGEL is an assistant professor of school psychology, Georgia State University. Her research interests include instructional consultation, academic interventions, and implementation of evidence-based practices in psychology and education.
Initial Teacher Interview Protocol
1. What grade level and subject do you teach?
2. How many years have you been teaching?
3. How long have you been at (Iroquois) school district?
4. Describe your students in general.
5. Describe the cooperative learning training that you received.
6. What is your personal definition of cooperative learning?
7. How did you arrive at that definition?
8. What do you think are the essential elements of cooperative learning? Why?
9. What do you think are the goals of education?
10. What are the goals of (subject area) instruction?
11. How is your definition of cooperative learning consistent with those goals?
12. What do you believe is the teacher’s role in cooperative- learning instruction?
13. What do you believe is the student’s role during cooperative- learning instruction?
14. What are the advantages/disadvantages of cooperative learning?
15. Why do you use cooperative learning?
16. How does cooperative learning vary in your classes and why?
17. For what tasks do you think cooperative learning is the most appropriate? Why?
18. How do you plan for cooperative-learning lessons?
19. What factors influence your planning decisions?
20. How do you group your students for cooperative-learning lessons?
21. How do you arrange your classroom during cooperative- learning lessons?
22. What materials do you use during cooperative-learning lessons?
23. What do your students produce during cooperative-learning lessons?
24. When and how often do you use cooperative learning? Why?
25. For cooperative learning activities, what aspects of student functioning do you assess? How?
Follow-up Teacher Interview Protocol
1. What is your personal definition of cooperative learning?
2. What do you mean by positive group interdependence?
3. How do you establish individual accountability?
4. What does social skills instruction mean to you?
5. Describe face-to-face interaction.
6. What do you consider debriefing?
7. What do you think are the advantages of cooperative-learning instruction?
8. What are the disadvantages of cooperative-learning instruction?
9. How do you plan for cooperative-learning lessons?
10. What does a typical cooperative-learning lesson look like in your class?
11. Why do you use cooperative learning this way?
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Jul/Aug 2005