Cooperative learning in the new educational normality

The foundations of this teaching methodology, which came to prominence in the last third of the last century, date back to Roman times. However, the new educational paradigm that focuses on cross-disciplinary and interpersonal skills makes collaborative learning more relevant than ever before. Let’s see why.

Cooperative learning in the new educational normality

In the first chapter of his book titled Cooperative Learning in the Classroom, David Johnson, a pioneer, together with his brother Roger, of cooperative learning, uses a simple sporting metaphor to explain what this pedagogical method consists of in a very graphic manner. Johnson tells us about Sandy Koufax, one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball. He was a genius who left all the batters on the opposing team quaking in their boots. However, all the strength and expertise of this pitcher would have come to nothing with a bad receiver (the player who stands behind the batter to catch the ball when the batter misses). Or with bad players in the defensive positions. So Sandy Koufax wasn’t a good pitcher as such. He was only able to achieve his greatness as part of a team.

The Johnson brothers believed that in the classroom, as on the playing field, exceptional performances would come about far more often through cooperative effort rather than the isolated individualistic and competitive efforts of the students.

Cooperation involves working together to achieve common goals. In a cooperative situation individuals seek to obtain outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and to all the other members of the group. What is collaborative or cooperative learning? The didactic use of small groups in which the students work together to maximise their own learning and that of others.

Collaborative learning isn’t an innovative method. In fact, Seneca, when he said, “he who teaches, learns”, was in some way laying the foundations of this teaching method which today, 20 centuries later, has become more relevant than ever before in a new world order that needs its citizens to develop skills such as listening, communication, collaboration, resilience and empathy to a significant degree.

In this article we’ll examine exactly what this pedagogical method consists of, what elements need to be in place for cooperation to work, what its advantages are and how it can help us to build global citizens who are appropriately equipped to thrive in the new society emerging from the fourth industrial revolution.

Much more than group work

What’s required for collaborative learning to occur? Is it enough to gather a group of students together and assign them a task? Not at all. “Putting people in the same room, sitting them in a circle and telling them that they’re a group doesn’t mean that they’ll collaborate effectively”. David Johnson explains the above in this EduCaixa video.


For the collaboration to work, five essential elements need to be in place. What are they?

  • Positive interdependence. The teacher should propose a clear task and group objective so that the students know that they’ll sink or swim together. This positive interdependence creates a commitment to other people’s success as well as one’s own, which constitutes the basis for cooperative learning. There’s no cooperation without positive interdependence.
  • Individual and group responsibility. The group must take responsibility for achieving its objectives and each member will be held accountable for doing his/her share of the work. No one can profit from the work of others.
  • Stimulating interaction. The students should work together to promote each other’s success, sharing the existing resources and helping, supporting, encouraging and congratulating each other on their commitment to learning.
  • Interpersonal and group practices. These practices are necessary for the team to function. The group’s members must be able to exercise leadership, make decisions, create a climate of trust, communicate and manage conflicts and feel motivated to do so.
  • Group evaluation. This evaluation takes place when the group’s members analyse the extent to which they’re achieving their goals and maintaining effective working relationships. The groups must determine which of their members’ actions are positive and negative and make decisions about which behaviours they should retain or modify.

Does it work?

Aprendizaje colaborativo

Foto de Ismael Martínez.

Collaborative learning is one of the most cost-effective pedagogical skills with the greatest impact on learning. In this regard, over the years there have been numerous studies and meta-analyses proving that the academic averages of students who work collaboratively are better than those who use more individualistic and classical methodologies (Johnson et al., 1994; Vaillant and Manso, 2019).

In 1989, the Johnson brothers conducted detailed analysis of the 700-plus comparative studies of cooperative and competitive and individualistic learning methods and divided the results of the cooperation into three main categories:

  1. Increased efforts to perform well: this includes greater achievements and productivity among all the students (high, medium and low achievers), increased likelihood of long-term retention, intrinsic motivation, encouragement to achieve a high performance, more time spent on tasks and a higher level of reasoning and critical thinking.
  2. More positive relationships between the students: this includes increased team spirit, supportive and committed relationships, personal and school support and appreciation of diversity and cohesion. For example, a recent study found that this method has very beneficial effects with regard to preventing bullying.
  3. Improved mental health: this includes general psychological adjustment, strengthening of the self, social development, integration, self-esteem, a sense of self-identity and the ability to cope with adversity and stress.

To the above, we must add the huge relevance of these kinds of pedagogical approaches in the current-day context, in a new society in which learning priorities are changing and the new technologies are being incorporated into our daily lives at breakneck speed. In these circumstances, as explained in this Edutopia article, the inclusion of belonging to a group in which the student feels valued fosters resilience, social competences, empathy, communication skills, emotional awareness, judgement, critical analysis, flexible perspective-taking, creative problem-solving, innovation and goal-oriented behaviour. In addition, according to SUMA, some studies in Latin America have shown results in the development of personal skills such as self-confidence, leadership and self-regulation, as well as improved relationships among students.

As we’ve mentioned, collaborative learning is by no means an innovative teaching method, but it has acquired new vitality in the light of technological and social changes that place emphasis on skills other than purely cognitive ones, which this methodology helps to develop. Because the passive reception of knowledge ceased to be useful many years ago. Students must stop being mere spectators of their own learning and become the main players. Education systems will need numerous cost-effective methodologies such as this one to make up for the lost time and learning, particularly in vulnerable environments, which are threatening the future of the next generation. Let’s begin by using what already exists and what we know works.


Johnson, D.W., Johnson R.T., Holubec, E.J. (1994). Cooperative learning in the classroom. Association For Supervision and Curriculum Development, Virginia, 1994.

SUMA (1 March 2022). Collaborative/cooperative learning. Recovered from

Vaillant, D. and Manso, J. 2019. Guidelines for teacher training and work in the classroom: collaborative learning. SUMMA and La Caixa Foundation. Santiago de Chile. 2019.

Willis, J. (November 2021). How Cooperative Learning Can Benefit Students This Year. Edutopia. Recovered from


You may also be interested in…