The belief that schools should help children learn to look out for others in addition to themselves is not new. But in a society pervaded by the spirit of competition, relatively few classrooms are organized and run cooperatively.
Nonetheless, some of the ideas of the cooperative learning movement have found their way into a number of specific reform programs, like Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools and Theodore Sizer's Essential Schools. And a decade-long landmark study in California's San Ramon Valley, known as the Child Development Project, is stirring interest among teachers across the nation.
The project is based on the premise--and research evidence--that cooperation promotes higher achievement among youngsters than individualized competition, that attention to social skills and moral values does not have to come at the expense of academics, and that children are more likely to follow rules that they understand and help formulate.
Because cooperative learning is so radically different from conventional schooling, teachers do not find the transition an easy one. The CDP invests considerable time and effort in training teachers and working closely with them. The project has chosen 12 schools in six districts across the nation where teams of educators will be trained and become qualified to train others.
The children in the CDP schools have been followed into junior high school, and preliminary findings suggest that cooperative learning has worked for them. As one San Ramon teacher says: "It's wonderful to see; these kids are helping each other, caring for each other. I said to myself, 'Holy Mackerel! Don't tell me this actually works!'
The project seeks to change what is taught, how it is taught, and the traditional relationships between teacher and student and student and student. In a CDP classroom, children take part in making the rules and deciding how discipline is handled. They work on assignments with a student partner or as part of a team, jointly devising problem-solving strategies. Often, evaluations or letter grades are based on group performance rather than individual accomplishment. Outside of class, older children are assigned a younger "buddy'' with whom to work and socialize.