Resistance to Cooperative Learning: Making Sense of Its Deletion and Dilution (*)

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1992 – vol. 174, no. 2, pages 38-56

Resistance to Cooperative Learning

Making Sense of Its Deletion and Dilution

By Alfie Kohn

[My teacher is] always [going] on about help thy neighbour and [all] that [– but] you try and do that in his lessons and you’re out.

— Dave, a 14-year-old student (quoted in Dunn, Rudduck, and Cowie, 1989)

“In the 1960s educators were busy developing and introducing reforms.  In the 1970s they were busy failing at putting them into practice.”  Those two sentences by Michael Fullan (1982, p. 5) will produce in many of us an unpleasant little twinge of recognition, particularly since this pattern of failing to implement reforms successfully did not end with the 1970s.  New learning strategies, or perhaps the way these strategies are introduced, still lead some educators to react much as a body does to the implantation of foreign tissue.  In each case, the task of figuring out the reason for this rejection, if it is undertaken at all, is conducted as a post mortem, by which time a new pedagogical transplant is already underway.

Those of us who do research, training, writing, or speaking about cooperative learning (CL) disagree on many issues, but we are united in wanting to avoid this fate.  Despite an enormous research literature supporting the value of having students work in pairs or small groups to help each other learn — and, more interestingly, despite the growing awareness of CL on the part of educators — anecdotal evidence suggests that it might eventually meet the same fate as many other worthy educational innovations.  It is impossible to specify the number of teachers who are rejecting CL, either before or after having attempted to use it, but one observer wrote recently that

despite the academic vogue of cooperative learning and efforts at dissemination made by its proponents, it remains an instructional strategy seldom used in a systematic manner over the course of a school year or more (Rich, 1990, p. 83)

Even if this is an overstatement, enough rejection of CL is taking place to warrant a systematic analysis.  Such an analysis, moreover, ought to take place while there is still time to address the problems we find.  In the process, we may turn up deeper, unsettling truths about the ideology of American education.


There are essentially two ways to account for educators’ resistance to the idea of cooperative learning.  The first set of explanations has to do with inferior presentation of the concept.  I will describe these only briefly — not because they are unimportant but because there is nothing peculiar to CL about these criticisms; poor presentation sinks lots of educational reforms.  The second explanations, to be treated in more detail, concern the ways in which CL in particular is threatening to, or incongruent with, the beliefs that many teachers hold.

Misses and Myths

If administrators and teachers came to believe that installing a water fountain in every classroom might improve the quality of learning, educational consultants would instantly appear, claiming expertise as Liquid Delivery Systems Facilitators, to offer their services for a day or two of in-service training on how to install the fountains and how cold the water should be.  In the real world, with CL in demand, consultants market themselves for a brief — and therefore seductively inexpensive — faculty training in the use of teamwork.  But because CL, correctly understood, requires a radical reconceptualization of what learning involves and how the people who spend the day together in a classroom relate to each other, a host of problems and questions inexorably appear.  What to do about children who resist being in the same group?  (“I don’t want to work with Michael; he’s stupid.”)  How long until the groups should be shuffled?  Is CL compatible with conventional curricula and systems of classroom management?  What about students who seem put off by the very idea of helping each other to learn?  Some children, after all, may be “threatened by group work…as a legitimate way of working and so give a powerful message to the teacher who experiments with a new method” (Cowie and Rudduck, 1990, p. 250).  By the time teachers have enough experience to know what problems they need help with, however, the consultant is long gone.

I have seen many teachers acquire cooperative learning methods and use them in their classes only to abandon them when the consultants left the scene.  This occurs because cooperative learning had not become part of school-wide policy where teachers’ needs and school goals were coordinated at the administrative level….The method works, but if the system fails to support it, you cannot use the method  (Sharan, 1986, p.4).

It has been estimated, for example, that only five to 10 percent of participants in a CL workshop will continue to use the cooperative approach over time if ongoing coaching and support are absent (Male, 1989).

One consequence of inadequate training in CL, then, is its failure to address specific questions and problems that appear only after implementation.  Another is its failure to include careful reflection on what cooperation means and does not mean.  Consider three common misconceptions that may persist after one has been introduced to the concept in too perfunctory a fashion.

First, and most fundamentally, CL is sometimes regarded as a gimmick to perk up a classroom now and then, offering a break from serious instruction.  (“OK, kids, it’s the third Friday of the month.  Remember, that means today we work in teams!”)  While teachers doubtless will want to continue making some use of whole-class discussion and individualized work, CL can — and, I would argue, ought to — become the “default” classroom arrangement.

Second, dividing a class into teams and announcing that students should work with their groupmates is not sufficient for, much less equivalent to, cooperative learning.  Because of this, teachers who have merely put children in groups and are unimpressed with the results have not yet given CL a chance to prove itself.  I have seen classrooms in which the teacher (1) presented a task that allowed children in groups to avoid interacting with each other, (2) offered no guidance regarding social skills, and (3) reminded them every so often to “be cooperative.”  Particularly in light of the values that are salient in our culture, the absence of a classroom norm of caring and the failure to build social skills will reduce the probability that extemporaneous work in groups can produce the psychological, interpersonal, or academic benefits reported in the literature.  Moreover, children may not like it.

Finally, cooperation does not imply harmony.  The relevant question is not whether conflict will occur when people are playing with ideas or struggling to make decisions together:  It will and it should.  The question, rather, is whether conflict will occur in the context of competition or cooperation.  Teachers need not choose between creating a classroom in which students must arrive at a forced and artificial consensus, on the one hand, and one in which conflict is present but manifests itself as an adversarial exercise, such as debate, on the other.  The former asks children to deny reality (because they know that disagreement exists) and deprives them of a real education; genuine learning does not smooth over or soothe.  The latter shifts the lesson from whatever students are discussing to the goal of winning.  Far preferable is a third alternative: inviting disagreement but nesting it in a framework of positive interdependence.

David and Roger Johnson, brothers who have spent two decades cooperating to research and refine the idea of cooperative learning, have referred to this optimal balance as “constructive controversy,” “creative conflict,” or, more poetically, “friendly excursions into disequilibrium.”  Their research suggests that this approach is generally preferred by students to either “concurrence-seeking” or debate, and that it promotes both more effective learning and more interpersonal attraction than the other models (e.g., Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1986).  In short, people who are cooperating are working together to learn something — encouraging and depending on each other but not necessarily seeing eye-to-eye.  Nothing about the concept of positive interdependence requires that members of the group avoid conflict, and there are good data to suggest that they should not do so.

If CL is presented as an infrequent respite from “real” teaching, a haphazard sort of groupwork, or an activity that precludes disagreement, the results will be predictable — and they will resemble the consequences of simply giving a teacher too little guidance (and follow-up support) on how to make cooperation work.  Quick-and-dirty training sessions may help to explain both of these problems, and the very popularity of CL may, in turn, help to explain why such sessions take place.[1]  There is a depressing logic to this process.  A development that becomes sufficiently popular takes on the appearance of a fad.  This means it is treated as a fad rather than with the necessary seriousness.  Such treatment — by people who are either unmindful of what is required or else unable or unwilling to provide it — then virtually guarantees a parabolic trajectory:  One day everyone is talking about cooperative learning; the next day it appears on a nostalgia list between CB radios and disco music.

Why Cooperative Learning Can Be Threatening

Workshops that cut corners were in existence long before most of us had heard of cooperative learning.  Similarly, misconceptions about what is involved in a given pedagogical approach are nothing new.  But there are obstacles to the successful adoption of CL that are peculiar to this way of structuring a classroom — features that would likely cause problems even if trainings were perfection itself.  Advocates of CL need to grapple with these aspects of cooperation in the classroom and understand how they may be unsettling to many teachers.

1.  CL REDUCES CONTROL AND PREDICTABILITY.  Someone — it might have been me — once said that the traditional model of teaching amounts to a rehearsed solo performance by the instructor (with students relegated to the role of audience), whereas CL not only offers instruments to everyone in the room but invites a jazz improvisation.  The analogy has its limits, but it captures two features of CL:  its demand that the teacher guide students in helping each other to learn (rather than being the only source of ideas and information in the room) and its introduction of uncertainty in place of a predictable progression through a prepared lesson plan.  Some teachers have not bargained for either of these changes.

There is a certain pleasure to be taken from the role of king or queen, even if one’s subjects are very short.  To the extent that the process of schooling has been predicated on compelling students to follow directions (which a tenth-grade teacher of mine once announced was “a sign of intelligence”), to absorb information and regurgitate it on command, to work silently on whatever task is presented,[2] the profession may have attracted some people who thrive on autocracy.  I regularly meet teachers who shine with generosity of spirit and an instinct for what children need to grow.  But others, let us frankly admit, are disinclined to embrace an approach that has students look to each other for help and that treats them as beings who actively construct meaning instead of passively incorporating facts.  CL is not simply a set of techniques.  It is not simply the status quo except in groups.  At its best, it is an entirely different way of approaching the act of learning.

Part of this shift is reflected in the movement toward Whole Language learning, about which much has been written.  (For an engaging introduction intended for non-specialists, see Gursky [1991].)  But CL introduces a new element:  learning is no longer something that happens only as the individual child makes sense of a text or the world; it happens to some extent as children interact with one another.  The teacher now has allies throughout the room — a scenario exciting and refreshing to some educators but highly disconcerting to those who, like trial attorneys during cross examination, never ask a question to which they do not already know the answer.[3]

2.  CL DEMANDS ATTENTION TO SOCIAL GOALS.  When employers complain that the people they hire seem unable to work with others, we should not be surprised:  Through 12 or 16 years of schooling, they have had little encouragement for doing so — or even opportunity to do so.  After all, when students in most American classrooms help each other to learn, this is called “cheating.”  Long before these students enter the workforce, a lack of social skills and concern for others can be worrisome to parents.  Children sometimes seem indifferent to, or even amused by, suffering, unable to resolve conflicts fairly, and likely either to try to get their needs met by coercing others or, conversely, to be victimized by coercion.

Teachers can scarcely avoid noticing these patterns, but even those who recognize that the time spent together in the classroom could be used to attend to social goals may believe that this focus would be inappropriate.  Because I have elsewhere argued that schools can and should play a role in helping children to become good people and not merely good learners (Kohn, 1990, 1991a), I will not attempt to reconstruct such a case here.  Instead, I will simply observe that many educators assume their charge is limited to providing instruction in the traditional academic subjects.  Even when attention is given to the development of children’s social skills and prosocial orientation, this enterprise is “frequently viewed through an instrumental prism of how [these skills] affect academic achievement rather than as schooling goals with inherent legitimacy” (Rich, 1990, p. 83).

These attitudes constitute another explanation for resistance to CL since many of the leading models explicitly call for attention to be paid to the phenomenon of working together — what it means and how it can be improved.  The Johnsons, for example, emphasize that “collaborative skills are directly taught in classrooms where teachers are serious about using cooperative learning” — not only because these skills are a prerequisite for realizing academic gains but also because they are valuable in their own right (Johnson and Johnson, 1991, p. 146; see also Graves and Graves, 1985).  Models that call for the creation of a caring classroom community, and not merely the teaching of discrete social skills such as listening carefully or making eye contact (e.g., Solomon et al., 1990), would be even more disconcerting to teachers who see such objectives as inappropriate.

If cooperative learning is perceived by teachers as primarily promoting pupils’ personal or social goals, we would not expect very many teachers to voluntarily participate.  And if they are required to participate in the workshop, few of them will arrive at the decision to adopt the new method, assuming they are allowed some choice in the matter, no matter how well the workshop is conducted.  And if they are required to adopt the new method, even fewer will implement it with a reasonable degree of fidelity  (Rich, 1990, p. 89).[4]

3.  CL CHALLENGES OUR COMMITMENT TO INDIVIDUALISM.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the watchword of the American classroom is:  “Keep your eyes on your own paper!  I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do.”  This orientation, typically taken for granted, is entirely compatible with — indeed, a reflection of — the wholesale individualism of American culture.  From our aversion to collective enterprises, which Tocqueville observed in the nineteenth century, to today’s popular-culture celebration of personal heroism; from an ethical orientation that begins and ends with noninterference and personal choice, to schools of psychology that, however varied on other issues, all “reinforc[e] an individualistic, self-contained perspective [and] play down the importance of interdependent values”[5] (Sampson, 1977, p. 780), we are encouraged to emphasize and promote the accomplishments of separate selves.

Individualism has its costs.  Any number of social critics have pointed to the frantic mobility in American society, the absence of commitment to shared values or to the value of what is shared.  We are divided from each other, cast back upon ourselves to the point that it is profoundly unsettling to acknowledge our alienation.  Instead, like a lonely soul who noisily boasts of being free from constricting attachments, we insist this is not a predicament but a choice, indicative not of crisis but of an advanced set of values.

In the classroom in particular, our exclusive focus on individual accomplishment holds us back from doing even what we set out to do because

learning is never the result of the efforts of isolated, competitive individuals alone….[T]he evident weakness in American schools has much to do with the weakening of their community context. …Education can never merely be for the sake of individual self-enhancement.  It pulls us into the common world or it fails altogether (Bellah et al. 1991, pp. 172, 176).

Arguably, it has failed altogether.  But while there is no shortage of critics willing to charge American education with failure, often they miss the point about what has gone wrong and why.  The problem is not so much that students cannot find Turkey on a map but that they do not find themselves part of a community of learners.

To understand CL properly may be to have exaggerated apprehensions about collectivism allayed.  Children do not sacrifice their own psychological or academic development when they work with others; they do not lose their individual selves in an amorphous blob of a group.  Indeed, because of the social support they receive and the intellectual successes facilitated by groupwork, conventional measures of self-esteem, for what they are worth, consistently reveal an advantage for cooperative as opposed to individualistic or competitive models of instruction (e.g., Johnson and Johnson, 1989).  Similarly, the positive interdependence at the heart of CL — the probability of one child’s success being enhanced by another’s success — is quite different from self-sacrifice.  CL is not tantamount to unanimity, conformity, or the subjugation of the individual.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that teachers in CL classrooms are likely to have a new watchword — to wit, “I want to see what you and your neighbor can do together.”  They are likely to ask students to turn first to their partners to check out an idea or request an explanation.  They may evaluate some projects as group efforts, which is what they are.  They probably have arranged the room so children are clustered around tables most of the day instead of seated at separate desks.  They recognize that “socializing” is not something one relegates to recess and lunch, something that distracts from learning; rather, they know that learning proceeds not only from what transpires between student and teacher or between student and text but also from what happens between student and student.  In short, CL challenges the extreme individualism of American education and may be viewed with suspicion for that reason.

4.  CL CHALLENGES OUR COMMITMENT TO THE VALUE OF COMPETITION.  When students in American schools are not separated from each other — and sometimes even when they are — they are set against each other, told in effect that their success comes at the price of someone else’s failure and vice versa.  Grading on a curve (which establishes an artificial scarcity of top grades), choosing only the best papers to be displayed on the wall, playing games such as spelling bees that sort children into winners and losers, forcing them to try to edge each other out for schoolwide awards — all of these explicit contests, along with the subtler competition for recognition and approval in the classroom, teach children one enduring, fundamental message:  Other people are potential obstacles to my own success.  This message continues to be learned in classrooms around the nation despite literally hundreds of studies confirming that competition in the classroom not only sabotages relationships and undermines self-confidence but also impedes achievement and long-term interest in learning (Johnson and Johnson, 1989; Kohn, 1992b; Nicholls, 1989).

Competition signifies mutually exclusive goal attainment, an arrangement in which one person succeeds only if others fail — or, in the stronger variety, only by actively making others fail.  This is quite different from individualized achievement, in which the outcome of one person’s efforts is unrelated to what others do.  Still, both of these structures are supported by an ideological apparatus in our culture, and both are challenged by cooperative learning.  If any antinomy could be more stark than “working alone versus working with others,” it is “treating others as rivals versus treating others as collaborators.”  The pervasive rivalry sanctioned and socialized by our culture — in the workplace, on the playing field, in the family, and at the core of our political and economic system — is unsurprisingly manifested in the classroom as well.  To that extent, any proposal that children should learn cooperatively will strike some teachers as unfamiliar or peculiar (and therefore will be dismissed as “unrealistic,” “idealistic,” or “utopian”) — and even as un-American, radical, and subversive.

(Strictly speaking, these last three adjectives are quite accurate:  CL [1] offers an alternative to this country’s confusion of excellence with victory, [2] by its very existence goes to the roots[6] of established norms, and therefore [3] subverts efforts to teach children to accept competition as unavoidable and desirable.  While not all teachers who use CL reject competition tout court, it is safe to assume that the more enthusiastic a teacher’s endorsement of the value of setting children against each other in competitions, the greater the likelihood that he or she will be inclined to reject CL.)

Before concluding these remarks on the rejection of CL, I should note that the extent and intensity of some educators’ resistance cannot be predicted just by understanding CL’s challenge to a teacher’s control of the classroom, to an exclusively academic agenda, to individualism and competition, respectively.  For predictive purposes, we would also want to know the teacher’s subject matter, the grade level and achievement record of his or her students, and the model of CL to which that teacher had been exposed (Rich, 1990).  But the point here is simply that CL explicitly or implicitly clashes with deeply held beliefs about school and society.  It would be far more remarkable if it did not encounter resistance on a wide scale.


From a distance, those who promote cooperation in the classroom seem distinguished principally by this commitment, particularly when contrasted with the rest of the education field.  Up close, though, those who huddle together under this conceptual umbrella are sometimes strikingly different from one another in the way they conceive of cooperation and, for that matter, learning itself.  The potentially threatening features of CL identified in the previous section may help to explain some of these differences.  Just as some educators have decided to stay away from CL — or to back off very quickly once having tried it — others continue to use it but in a form intended to reduce its dissonance with their previous beliefs.  In describing some of these variants, I mean to be prescriptive as well; I will argue against what I see as the dilution of CL’s power.

Consider, first, the challenge that CL poses to a teacher’s absolute power over the classroom.  Like the conversation between a teacher and a pupil, a situation in which “teachers instruct pupils to talk to each other,” specifying what and when and how they may talk, leaves the teacher in control.  “But when pupils talk to other pupils without the teacher’s authority or without the teacher being able to hear the exchanges, then…an area of potential pupil power is exposed” (Dunn, Rudduck, and Cowie, 1989, pp. 186-187) and the classroom no longer belongs just to the teacher.  When the nature of the interchange among group members is highly circumscribed — more than the students’ age or the subject matter would seem to require — we might suspect that the teacher has compromised the process of cooperation more to maintain control than to maximize the heuristic value of the experience.

Interestingly, the versions of CL that seek to dictate to students each component of cooperation — thereby reducing their sense of autonomy as fellow meaning-creators and idea-explorers — are likely to be so structured and systematized that teachers, too, are deprived of authority.  So-called “teacher-proof” curricula, we ought to have realized by now, are not only disrespectful but chimerical:  They are the perpetual-motion machines of education.  Cookbook approaches to CL similarly attempt to specify in advance what cannot be specified in advance, to reduce learning to a series of discrete steps that renders the process sterile and excludes both teachers and students from the real work (and joy) of what happens in the classroom.

The second feature of CL identified as potentially discordant with teachers’ values is its emphasis on social goals.  Here, the temptation for someone inclined to remake rather than repudiate cooperation is to take a narrowly academic approach to having students work in teams, letting the social interaction that must occur in these groups take care of itself.  As noted above, this approach is probably counterproductive on its own terms since children need to be helped to work together effectively in order to learn from each other.  But the processes of coming to look upon one’s peers as potential collaborators, of learning to accept those who are different from oneself, and of developing perspective-taking skills and a prosocial orientation more generally are valuable things in their own right.  They may be lost if CL’s social aspects are not given the appropriate weight and attention.

CL’s third challenge — namely, to the ethic of individualism — unmistakably gives pause to the teacher who wants to bend the structure to fit his or her commitments.  The fact of working together would seem an unavoidable affront to the principle that academic accomplishment is or should be a solitary phenomenon.  Teachers who embrace this principle, however, could sharply limit the amount of class time spent in groups.  Further, they might minimize interaction by employing versions of CL in which students learn on their own and are tested on their own but simply check each other’s work in between.

Does the use of CL, per se, really serve to challenge an individualist world view, though?  David Hargreaves, an astringent English educational critic who argues that collaborative experiences are largely denied to teachers as well as students because of our ideological commitment to educating separate individuals, offers a startling observation in passing that has the effect of reframing the discussion about CL:

We tend to see collective experiences merely as means of giving students a range of social skills, the capacities to ‘get along’ with other people.  This is the social dimension of the cult of individualism — the cult of ‘chumminess'” (Hargreaves, 1980, p. 197).

Hargreaves here calls our attention to the largely tacit doctrine that the only purpose of schooling is to offer each individual a set of skills.  CL, paradoxically, may have the effect of legitimating that doctrine by virtue of the fact that it merely adds techniques of interpersonal engagement to the list of skills in each student’s repertoire.  At the very least, the practice of marketing CL in terms of how each student will benefit (e.g., teaching future employees how to deal more skillfully with their co-workers) does nothing to challenge the individualism at the core of American education or society.  Although Hargreaves offers no specific alternative curricula, his implication is that schooling (and surely CL) would take on an entirely different coloration if its long-range goal was social transformation and not simply the education of a collection of discrete individuals.

Finally, there is the question of competition — a matter worth considering at some length.  Teachers who continue to believe that there is value in having students try to defeat each other can keep competition alive in two ways even while making use of CL.  The first is to turn cooperative activities into group competitions; the second is to have students compete individually when they are not engaged in cooperative activities.  Neither, I will argue, is necessary for any conceivable academic or social goal.  In fact, either version may defeat our best efforts to promote cooperation in the classroom, sending conflicting messages in the process and undoing much of what we have managed to achieve by the use of CL.

The predominant experience with cooperation in our society consists of having a group of people work together in order to defeat another group of people.  The group may be a basketball team, a company, or, in its most dangerous incarnation, an entire country.  While some activities featuring a blend of intragroup cooperation and intergroup competition, such as sports, are widely acclaimed precisely on the basis of promoting teamwork, the most salient lesson they actually teach is that the ultimate reason to cooperate is to defeat a common enemy.  Such a message is mixed at best and exceedingly damaging at worst.

Considerable evidence (reviewed in Kohn, 1992a) suggests that (1) nothing about the nature of group functioning presupposes the presence of a common enemy, (2) intergroup competition does not enhance, and may actually diminish, the achievement of a given group, and (3) intergroup competition also is unnecessary for promoting in-group affiliation and other social benefits of cooperation.  A comprehensive review of the classroom research (Johnson and Johnson, 1989, p. 122), for example, supports the finding that “cooperation seems to promote better relationships when intergroup competition is absent.”

This conclusion is particularly germane to the practice of CL.  Individual teachers may sometimes decide to turn a cooperative learning experience into an intergroup competition, but the best-known packaged model requiring groups to compete against each other is Teams-Games-Tournament, devised by Robert Slavin and his colleagues.  The third edition of a book describing this and another team learning activity (Slavin, 1986) begins with the announcement that “competition between teams is no longer recommended” (p. 1).  This is particularly remarkable for two reasons:  First, the reason given for this shift is not a change of heart or mind on the part of the author but a growing resistance to the technique on the part of educators themselves:  “The same teachers who are attracted to cooperative learning are often repelled by moving competition up to the team level” (p. 1).  Second, notwithstanding this comment in the introduction, the manual proceeds to set out the rules for how “students compete” in the tournaments (p. 24; see also Slavin, 1990, ch. 4).

Even teachers who avoid setting groups against each other in contests may establish competitive interactions alongside CL — that is, when students are not working in groups.  Some do so deliberately, others inadvertently.  Even a teacher who would never dream of grading on a curve may unwittingly create a classroom norm of competition by pitting students against one another for the teacher’s attention and approval.  This may occur through the use of manipulative behavior management strategies (e.g., “I like the way Joanne is sitting so nice and quiet”) or through the conventional arrangement of asking a question of the whole class.

The teacher asks the question, the students who think they know the answer raise their hands, and the teacher calls on one of them.  We’ve all seen it many times:  when one student is called on, the other students who have their hands up register their disappointment with a little ‘Oh.’  It’s a structure that sets the kids against each other  (S. Kagan in Brandt, 1989/1990, p. 8).

A teacher or trainer who deliberately employs competition in the classroom, whether among individuals or groups, may carefully limit the proportion of class time spent in such activities and take other steps to restrict its destructive impact, such as grouping or pairing students homogeneously, maximizing the number of winners, striving to minimize the importance of the result, and so on (e.g., Johnson and Johnson, 1991, ch. 5).  But the premise of this approach is the belief that the disadvantages of competition derive from its being overused or badly implemented.  The contrary view, that any arrangement in which one person or group can succeed only at the price of another’s failure is inherently destructive (Kohn, 1992b), will incline teachers to do their best to eliminate competition from the classroom.

Teachers who seek to turn a classroom into a caring community will be hard-pressed to justify any use of competitive activities; if the point is to promote concern and compassion for one another, then the last structure they would adopt, even temporarily, would be one in which students must work at cross-purposes.  Competition typically reduces or retards perspective taking, empathy, and generosity (Barnett and Bryan, 1974; Barnett, Matthews, and Corbin, 1979; Feshbach, 1978; Lanzetta and Englis, 1989; Rutherford and Mussen, 1968; Tjosvold, 1983; Tjosvold et al., 1984).  In fact, “competition may serve to suppress generosity to others to a greater extent than cooperation serves to enhance it” (Barnett, Matthews, and Corbin, 1979, p. 93).

When this evidence is added to the enormous collection of data showing that competition can undermine both self-esteem and the quality of learning, the case for avoiding win/lose structures altogether — at least in the classroom — grows more compelling.  Why, then, would a CL researcher or trainer continue to reserve a role for competition?  Two justifications are frequently heard:  first, children enjoy competing and, second, like it or not, they need to learn how to do so.  Let us take each in turn.

The preference that some students express for competitive experiences may be confounded, to begin with, by the number and quality of their previous exposures to cooperation.  While individual differences naturally play a part, it may be that those who say they enjoy competitive games, for example, have never had an opportunity to sample cooperative sorts of recreation.  A student who seems glad for the chance to play a competitive game in the classroom, moreover, actually may be responding to its status as a game (and the break from ordinary studies this represents) more than to its competitive nature.  In my experience, teachers who play games that do not create winners and losers find no less, and often a good deal more, enthusiasm for these activities.

For students who really seem to enjoy competitive experiences, it might behoove the teacher to ask what aspects of those contests they enjoy — and then to explore whether those features might not be attainable in noncompetitive activities.  If some students — typically, those who win frequently — continue to insist that it is the irreducible pleasure of trying to beat other people that they seek, the teacher must attend to the consequences that these experiences have on the rest of the participants before deciding whether to retain them.

Some educators believe they are doing children a favor by having them compete since this will prepare them for the rivalry they will encounter when they leave school.  To this we can respond that students in our society already are well acquainted with competition.  Even if some experience with it were useful, children have more than they could ever need.  Imagine a school that studiously avoids having children compete against each other, in the classroom or on the playing field, from kindergarten through twelfth grade.  We may be confident that not a single graduate of this school, upon entering college or the work force, will suddenly exclaim, “Whoa!  What’s all this about ‘competition’?”  Our best efforts to promote cooperation notwithstanding, children are all too familiar with win/lose activities.

What students need is not more of the same but experience with alternative arrangements so they can achieve a sense of perspective about the competition that proliferates in our culture.  While a case can be made that students would benefit from a curricular unit in which they explicitly consider the effects of competition, talking about it is quite different from immersing them in it.[7]  (By way of analogy, consider the distinction between teaching children about religion and indoctrinating them to be religious.)  Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that having children participate in competitive activities week after week after week would provide any incremental benefit.

Is competition justified by virtue of there being value in learning that we cannot always be successful in obtaining what we seek?  In fact, the psychological benefits of failure are often overrated; the experience quickly becomes redundant and gratuitously punishing.  Making children fail in order to teach them to cope — in fact, any use of competition — calls to mind an ironic notice I once saw tacked to a wall in a sixth-grade classroom:  The beatings will continue until morale improves.  Perhaps another analogy will make the point:  The notion that we best prepare children for unpleasant experiences by providing them with unpleasant experiences at a tender age is exactly as sensible as the proposition that because the environment is teeming with carcinogens, children ought to be exposed to as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they are young.

But even to the extent that some experience with failure is useful, let us remember that failure does not require losing.  As far as I am aware, no evidence exists to suggest that the particularly toxic form of failure that comes from being defeated by someone else provides any psychological benefit at all.  Conversely, while there is plenty of reason to arrange for children to have successful experiences with learning, interpersonal interaction, and so on, there is no reason for their success ever to occur in the context of triumphing over someone else.  The fact that success and victory are conceptually — and, often, practically — distinct experiences helps to explain why people typically perform better when they are not engaged in competition.  The distinction proves relevant again here, belying the idea that competition provides students with a necessary or useful preparatory experience.

In short, there are no compelling reasons to have students try to beat one another — even for a small fraction of their total educational experience.  There are, however, numerous reasons not to do so:  competition’s adverse effects on cognitive performance; its tendency, shared by other extrinsic motivators (Kohn, 1991b), to undermine a long-term commitment to learning; and the likelihood that it will inhibit both self-esteem and positive relationships with peers.  For these reasons, CL trainers and teachers typically are skeptical of competition.  It is disappointing when, instead of following their instincts, experience, and data to the logical conclusion, they continue to make use of competitive classroom activities — either alongside CL or as a framework in which to fit CL.  While completely eradicating any one structure may strike us as unpalatably extreme, we sometimes fail to appreciate a simple truth:  Not everything that is destructive in excess is desirable in moderation.


If CL is falling victim to a series of generic problems concerning the implementation of pedagogical change — deficient trainings, the perpetuation of misconceptions, and so forth — it is only common sense to call for an effort to study and remedy those problems.  Sociologists of education and other students of change (e.g., Fullan, 1982; Berman and McLaughlin, 1976) have written detailed accounts of what can go wrong and, by extension, how to avoid these predictable pitfalls.

The more pressing question, however, is what to do with a specific reform that is discrepant with the values of some who are being asked to adopt it.  The most obvious response is to water down the change in order to dilute its impact; in the case at hand, this process might be styled “co-opting cooperation.”  This option, as should be clear from the foregoing, I want to repudiate explicitly.

Some proponents take pride in the fact that CL is “easy to sell to teachers because it doesn’t make them change that much of what they do.”  Unfortunately, this sales job “sells short both teachers and the process and potential of cooperative learning” (Sapon-Shevin and Schniedewind, 1989/1990, p. 65; also see Sapon-Shevin, 1991).  The question we might ask, in other words, is:  What profit is there to gaining converts to a reform if we have lost the soul of that reform in the process?

This trade-off is particularly pronounced in the case of models of CL that are advertised as being appropriate to any curriculum.  The soothing message here is not only that CL will work regardless of what is being taught, but that educators need not reflect on how challenging or valuable their material may be because students will benefit from learning whatever it is so long as they do it in groups.  Sapon-Shevin (1991) has mischievously referred to this approach as the “hamburger helper” model of cooperative learning.  Sharan (1987/1988, p. 5) is no less blunt when he warns that if we reduce the potentially liberating principles of CL to

a set of prepackaged procedures for managing the movements of warm bodies in the classroom…to get them to study, with just a little less boredom, the same material that would bore them more if it were studied in some other way…[then CL] will soon be discarded as another fraud, as will so many other packaged methods now loudly touted in the educational marketplace.

We do not need to antagonize CL’s skeptics gratuitously.  Surely there is nothing objectionable in trying to show how CL, properly implemented, is likely to produce results in any number of areas that a skeptic values.  In itself, there is nothing particularly controversial about wanting to enhance students’ cognitive skills, their interest in intellectual exploration, their sense of personal competence and efficacy, and their ability and inclination to participate constructively in group efforts.  In theory, there is no limit to the number of educators (as well as parents and students) who will respond positively to the promise that CL can bring these things about.

But teachers who expect to stay on center stage once children are in groups, teachers who scorn social goals as inappropriate to the classroom, and teachers who are firmly committed to individualistic or competitive arrangements might as well hear from the beginning that CL will rock these expectations and values.  There is an enormous difference between emphasizing those aspects of teamwork that are likely to have wide appeal and effectively gutting cooperative learning in order to render it innocuous.  CL, despite its literal replacement of desks with tables, is not merely a rearrangement of the furniture of the status quo, and it ought not to be billed as such.

In the long run, there is no substitute for constructive controversy — an ongoing dialogue in the fullest sense of that word — on the subject of the convictions that predispose some people to delete or dilute CL.  If, for example, we encounter in someone an attachment — even a residual, half-hearted, heavily qualified attachment — to the value of competition, our response should not be to resign ourselves to stretching CL until it accommodates tournaments between cooperative groups.  Rather, we should engage this individual in a continuing discussion on the nature of competition itself.  The same is true for those wedded to a classroom configuration in which an omnipotent teacher imparts truth to passive student receptacles, and so forth.

This essay began by offering an account of what is impeding the successful implementation of CL.  But it has proceeded, in idiosyncratic fashion, to draw one of many possible lines between acceptable and unacceptable varieties of CL, specifying compromises that may go too far in increasing its salability.  The point of this is to stimulate discussion and reflection so that all those with an interest in promoting cooperation in the classroom can work together to address troubling questions about what that cooperation should look like and what its ultimate goal should be.


1. Limited budgets for in-service programs, as for other aspects of public education, also help to account for the reliance on inadequate — and, in the long run, counterproductive — training sessions.

2. The extent of “on-task” behavior in a classroom tells us at least as much about the teacher as about the students.  When a teacher complains that children are off task, our first response might be to ask, “What’s the task?”

3.”Placing more emphasis on students’ explanations necessarily requires teachers to relinquish some control over the direction the lesson will take.  This can be a frightening prospect to a teacher who is unprepared to evaluate the validity of a novel idea that students inevitably propose”  (Stigler and Stevenson, 1991, p. 44).

4. Rich’s analysis not only draws out the implication of devaluing social goals, but also reminds us of a fundamental truth:  Policy makers, trainers, and theorists cannot change what goes on in classrooms.  All they can do is invite teachers to change what goes on in classrooms.

5. For Freudians, humans are antisocial by instinct and driven principally by intrapsychic forces; for behaviorists, the laws of learning pertain to the individual organism as it responds to the contingencies of its environment; for humanists, the summum bonum is self-actualization; for developmentalists, maturity and health are typically equated with autonomy and individuation; and so on.

6. Radical comes from the Latin word for “roots.”

7. For curriculum guides that not only suggest the use of CL but make cooperation and competition topics for study, see Schniedewind and Davidson (1987) and Hierta (1984).


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Copyright © 1992 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. — © Alfie Kohn

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