Children play on a teeter-totter at the S. G. Moore Lab School

Peacemaking—one playground at a time

Cooperative learning pioneers David and Roger Johnson

The children on the playground were having fun—except for two girls, one a new fifth-grader. Highlands Elementary principal Peter Hodne, ’80, witnessed the scene.

“They were arguing, and the new girl pushed the other girl,” recalls Hodne. “Then some other kids told her, ‘We don’t do that at Highlands.’ They talked to her, and I didn’t need to say a thing.”

The incident turned out well because children at Highlands Elementary School in Edina, Minnesota, learn to resolve conflicts peacefully, just as they learn from and help each other academically by working in small groups. This success story and thousands like it owe their existence to nearly 50 years of work on cooperative learning by a pair of professors at the University—brothers David and Roger Johnson. The Johnsons have now retired, but cooperative learning continues to change classrooms around the world.

Wherever students learn by working together in peer groups, it’s likely due to the Johnson brothers’ research on the practice of cooperative learning and how best to make it work. They have taught it to generations of future teachers in the College of Education and Human Development and at conferences nation- and worldwide. Guiding children to become peacemakers like those at Highlands plays a vital role—in fact, the brothers personally worked with teachers at Highlands, and they count Hodne among their former students.

Out of the ’60s, working for change

Raised in a family of seven children on an Indiana farm, the Johnson brothers arrived at the University of Minnesota from opposite coasts. In the great social ferment of the 1960s, David completed his graduate work at Columbia University under Morton Deutsch, a giant in the fields of social psychology and conflict resolution.

“I came out of the civil rights movement, looking at how to end racism,” he says. “I had friends killed.”

David joined the University’s educational psychology faculty in 1966. Two years later, he called his elder brother, who was finishing a doctorate at the University of California in Berkeley, about an opening across the street.

“I said I was looking for a warmer spot,” Roger remembers, “but a strong assistant dean, Marcia Edwards, said I belonged here.”

Roger joined the faculty in curriculum and instruction, part of the same college as his brother’s department.

Roger and David Johnson
Roger and David Johnson

The Johnsons founded the Cooperative Learning Institute in 1987. Among their many contributions, they performed meta-analyses of more than 1,200 studies comparing competitive learning, where students compete for grades; individualistic learning, where students work on their own; and cooperative learning.

“About 50 years ago we asked, ‘How should students interact with each other?’” Roger recalls. “Our research overwhelmingly indicated that learning cooperatively was more effective than other ways.

“We went to work to change things.”

Tomb vs. tumult

David, the theorist of the pair, and Roger, who shines when working with teachers and students, researched their methods with help from teachers doing their graduate work with Roger.

“They opened up their classrooms,” says Roger.

For example, the Johnsons were able to randomly assign fourth-graders so that one-third were studying individually, one-third in competition with each other, and one-third cooperatively.

“It was dramatic walking into those classrooms,” he says. “The individual learning spaces were like a tomb, with the teacher moving around quietly. In the competitive space, students were asking each other, ‘What did you get [on a test]?’ But the cooperative learning spaces were cheerful and noisy, with students leaning over the table with each other.”

“They were explaining to each other how to solve problems,” David adds.

In one study, the brothers worked with a colleague in special education, an expert on Down syndrome. Their goal was to learn what relationships could be built with children schooled with the different learning styles. They went bowling and randomly assigned at least one Down syndrome child to teams. Again, the differences leapt out.

“Adults would enter and gravitate to the cooperative learning group,” says Roger. “I asked why, and the adults said, ‘They’re helping each other, giving each other advice, having fun.’ Whenever a Down syndrome student had trouble, the team would go crazy [helping him or her]. That spirit shows in the classroom.”

“The cooperative learning spaces were cheerful and noisy, with students leaning over the table with each other.”

Not surprisingly, another study showed that the more cooperative the class, the less bullying occurred.

“Bullying is competitive,” David explains. “But if you pick on one member of a group, the other members will defend them.”

“[Roger] taught us how to interact in ways that promoted each other,” recalls Wright State University’s Michelle Fleming, an assistant professor of teacher education and a former graduate student of Roger’s. “[The Johnsons’] text Teaching Children to be Peacemakers makes you think about your own actions.”

Mutual respect is key. Fleming has watched Roger get down on his hands and knees and talk to first-graders on their level.

“He spoke to them as if they were experts, asking how engaged they were,” says Fleming. “The kids—who included many Somali and African American students—opened up, and by the end, many wanted to give him a hug.”

Five conditions for success

The Johnson brothers have left an indelible mark on the field of social interdependence theory, particularly positive interdependence, an all-for-one-and-one-for-all setting in which each group member realizes that he or she can’t succeed unless all the others do. The brothers have added to the theory and translated it into practices that teachers and administrators can follow in order to give their students the benefits of cooperative learning.

Five conditions must be met for cooperative learning to work, they’ve shown. In addition to positive interdependence, they are:

  • • individual accountability, where each person realizes he or she is responsible for his or her share of the group effort
  • • promotive interaction, in which group members encourage and help each other
  • • interpersonal and small-group skills like communication, leadership, trust building, decision making, and conflict resolution
  • • group processing, where the group reflects on its performance and how it can improve

After students have worked together and presented their results, it’s important that teachers test individuals, not groups as a whole, on their learning to ensure that each group member has learned the material.

“From our work we’ve seen that any subject or any level of curriculum can use cooperative learning,” says David. “We wanted to create generalized teachers’ roles so they could apply cooperative learning anywhere, including Little League, scouting, or Outward Bound.”

“We’ve seen that any subject or any level of curriculum can use cooperative learning.”

It also applies at the University. CEHD is one of several colleges, including health sciences units, that use cooperative learning in some form. A strong proponent is Karl Smith, award-winning professor emeritus of civil engineering who now splits his time between co-directing the U’s STEM Education Center and leading as cooperative learning professor of engineering education at Purdue.

“When I started, I used the only model I had—I lectured, assigned homework, gave exams—and it didn’t work very well,” says Smith. “Students asked questions that indicated they had no idea what I was talking about.”

But after a course from one of David’s graduate students, Smith changed direction. He earned a Ph.D. with David and went on, in cooperation with David and Roger, to introduce cooperative learning to engineering and STEM education around the world, starting in the 1970s. Smith says engineering students listen when he tells them employers are looking for the teamwork skills they will learn by working cooperatively.

From conflict to consensus

Some educators don’t want to encourage argument, says Roger. But, continues David, teachers can create learning when two kids disagree. The concept is called constructive controversy, and it begins with assigning students different sides in a controversy and teaching them how to argue about ideas while encouraging students on the other side—that is, they learn to argue over ideas, not people.

The students find information on the topic that supports their assigned position and advocate for it. Then, says Roger, “the roles are switched, and the students argue the other point of view. On the last step, the assigned positions are dropped, and the students work toward a consensus based on what they really believe.”

The students rearrange into new working groups on a regular basis. This helps them get to know all their peers, which also plays an important role in cooperative learning.

“Usually, even if kids are very different, say, from different socioeconomic groups, they get along well,” says David. “From my civil rights standpoint, I want black and white kids to become friends.”

Brother energy

The Johnson brothers’ personal warmth and sense of humor suffuses everything they do. Fleming recalls their presentation at a new graduate student orientation talk.

The Johnson brothers as boys.“Those two got up and were like a TED talk or a standup comedy act, so humorous,” she says. “They engage you. They really are rare people [and] unique faculty. I’ve never met faculty so compassionate and giving.”

It takes effort to learn how to instill the values and skills of cooperative learning in students. But teachers studying under the Johnson brothers have benefited from their synergy of expertise.

“They’re a nice complement to each other,” says Geoffrey Maruyama, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology. “They’ve done workshops all around the country, and teachers have been spreading the word to their peers for more than 40 years.”

The brothers have won many accolades for their work, and this year came another on the world stage. On October 1, Roger and David Johnson received a lifetime achievement award from the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education in Odense, Denmark. Honored with them was their Columbia University colleague and David’s graduate adviser, Morton Deutsch.

Learn more about cooperative learning and David Johnson, or contact Roger Johnson.

Story by Deane Morrison | Photos (from top) by Greg Helgeson, Gayla Marty, and courtesy of the Johnson family.