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Cooperative Learning in the Multicultural Classroom
Rashné R. Jehangir
Associate Counselor Advocate
This chapter addresses the connectedness between developmental and multicultural education and discusses the role and application of cooperative learning in creating an inclusive, interactive classroom for developmental learners. While examining the theoretical premise behind cooperative learning theories, this chapter highlights the specific worth of such methods in classrooms that involve multicultural curricula. Although paradigms of teaching have focused on instructional role and dissemination of knowledge, the paradigm of cooperative learning emphasizes the value of active learning, shared governance, group accountability, and student-generated construction of knowledge, as a means of creating a community of learning in the classroom. Tell me I forget
Show me I remember
Involve me I understand
—Ancient Chinese Proverb
Throughout the history of American higher education, students, educators, and the public have wrestled with the question of college curricula. Indeed, the changes in college curricula have been shaped by the historic forces of the time. With the end of the Civil War, the traditional curriculum was criticized for having “little relevance to contemporary life” (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997, p. 266). This same clamor for relevance and inclusiveness was heard during the Vietnam War, culminating in the birth of Black Studies (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). More recently, the debate on what we should teach in college reached another heated peak in the 1980s when the awareness and demand for a multicultural curriculum swept the nation. In addition, the needs of diverse learners have required us to examine not only what we teach, but also how we teach. With attention to the necessity to reexamine teaching methodology, this paper begins with a description and application of cooperative learning theory, and then focuses on the effectiveness of cooperative techniques in classes with multicultural curricula.
The concept of cooperative learning is not new to the world of academe, but certain forces are pushing it to the forefront for a variety of reasons. From a philosophic perspective, the need to recreate communities of learning stems from what Patrick Hill (1985) calls the “fragmentation of the disciplines and departments and people” (p. 1) in higher education. As we observe our students in the classroom and reflect on our professional relationships, I have begun to question whether the competitive and isolated process of learning has left us so focused on minutiae that we are missing the big picture. Others like Parker Palmer (1991) concur that academia is undergoing a shift from the “atomistic and Darwinian” (Claxton, 1991, p. 22), to a model of reality that is more communal in nature. He argues that “there is a growing sense that teaching and learning don’t really happen unless there is some kind of building of relationships—not only between teacher and students but between teachers, students and subject” (p. 23). Another reason for the growing acceptance of learning communities and cooperative learning is “a changing philosophy of knowledge” (Cross, 1998, p. 4). Cross argues that unlike the traditional view of knowledge, where the learner discovers external realities, the “nonfoundational view of knowledge is built on the assumption of constructivism where knowledge is actively built by learners, working together cooperatively and interdependently” (p. 5).
It is this idea of producing learning rather than the distribution of knowledge in neatly wrapped parcels that separates the Learning Paradigm from the Instruction Paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995). In their article, “From Teaching to Learning,” Robert Barr and John Tagg argue that to truly reform education we need to look outside the framework of traditional instruction and lecture style teaching where students are passive bystanders. Rather, we need to create “environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems” (p. 15). It is to this end that cooperative learning seeks to engage students in their own learning process.
What Is Cooperative Learning?
Roger and David Johnson have been working on cooperative learning since the early sixties. Together with Karl Smith, they argue that cooperative learning theory stems from three theoretical perspectives: cognitive development theory, behavioral learning theory, and the social interdependence theory. Each perspective offers a different lens to examine cooperative learning; they suggest that cooperative learning is most strongly rooted in the work of the social interdependence theory. The Johnsons and Smith (1998; Johnson & Johnson, 1997) have examined all three theoretical positions to demonstrate that each provides a different perspective and dimension to the concept of cooperative learning.
From the standpoint of cognitive developmental theory, they reflect on the work of Piaget and Vygotsky (Johnson & Johnson, 1997; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998) who believe that collaborative learning and problem solving are critical to the construction of knowledge. The work of Piaget is founded in the belief that when individuals interact with their environment, some type of socio-cognitive conflict is likely to occur. The efforts towards managing this cognitive dissonance “stimulate perspective taking ability and cognitive development” (Johnson & Johnson, 1997, p. 97). Vygotsky (1962) posits that knowledge is socially constructed from cooperative group efforts to comprehend and collectively solve problems. Thus, both theorists focus on the cognitive aspects of processing conflict, the result of which is newfound knowledge.
The Johnsons’ and Smith’s (1998; Johnson & Johnson 1997) examination of the work of behavioral theorists such as Skinner, Bandura, Thibaut, and Kelly suggests that cooperative learning is “designed to provide incentives for members of a group to participate in the group’s efforts” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, p. 29). More specifically, Skinner focuses on the importance of conditioning and reinforcement in determining behavior. Skinner suggests that behavior modification individually and in groups is based on positive reinforcement of desirable overt behavior (Schultz & Schultz, 1992). His position on verbal behavior is also relevant to cooperative learning in that he suggests that “speech is a behavior and thus is subject to the contingencies of reinforcement and prediction and control, just like any other behavior” (Schultz & Schultz, p. 359). Like Skinner, Bandura has a behaviorist approach, but his theory has a cognitive component as well. Although he agrees with Skinner’s notion of reinforcement as a motivation for changes in human behavior, he also posits
All kinds of behavior can be learned in the absence of directly experienced reinforcement. We do not always have to experience reinforcement ourselves; we can learn through vicarious reinforcement, by observing the behaviors of other people and the consequences of those behaviors. (Schultz & Schultz, p. 366)
Thus, modeling plays a role in learned behavior based on observing and emulating the behavior of others. From the perspective of behavioral modification and concrete learning, one can see the connection between effective modeling and reinforcement of positive behavior in shared governance, open communication, and cooperation in the classroom. Yet, the behavioral perspective does not examine the introspective aspects of individual and group motivation towards common goals.
Although the aforementioned theoretical orientations have their supporters, social interdependence theory has been the strongest theoretical basis for the examination of cooperation and competition. This theory has a long history, one that began in the early 1900s when Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka suggested that groups were dynamic wholes, and its members depended on each other to varying degrees (Johnson & Johnson, 1997). Koffka’s colleague Kurt Lewin (1935) further developed this concept of group interdependence by suggesting that the nature of this dynamic relationship is dependent on two factors. First, the essence of the group is the extent to which the members of the group are interdependent on each other in their pursuit of common goals. The pursuit of these shared goals creates a dynamic whole such that a change in the “state of any member or sub group changes the state of any other member or sub group” (Johnson & Johnson, p. 97). Second, the inherent tension among group members pushes them toward achieving their common goals. Thus, the push and pull of cooperation and conflict within groups, and the manner in which this shapes the achievement of collective goals, was borne from Lewin’s theory and research on interdependence.
One of Lewin’s graduate students Morton Deutsch (1949) expanded the ideology of social interdependence to develop a theory on cooperation and competition. His theory was based on two principles. The first principle related to the type of interdependence that existed among people in a given group, and the second principle related to “the types of actions taken by people involved” (Johnson & Johnson, 1997). These principles illustrate that the way we are connected shapes the types of outcomes that will result from our interactions. “Positive interdependence (cooperation) results in promotive interactions as individuals encourage each other’s efforts to learn. Negative interdependence (competition) typically results in oppositional interaction as individuals thwart each other’s ability to succeed” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998, p. 29).
David Johnson was one of Deutsch’s graduate students, and along with Roger Johnson and Karl Smith, he has continued the work of cooperative learning theory. Although there are differences between the three theoretical perspectives, each provides a valuable dimension to developing and sustaining classroom dynamics that result in student centered learning. At the heart of cooperative learning is the concept of interdependence between members of a group that results in enhanced problem solving and the birth of new ideas. Yet, one should not simplify the concept of cooperative learning into group work. Simply throwing students into groups does not result in the development of community, nor does it dissolve the competitive, individualistic behavior that many students think is expected of them. Simply declaring that the group will be a community is like declaring that there will be world peace. It doesn’t work. To create community requires facilitating, teaching, and familiarizing students with what it means to work together.
The unfortunate reality is that most of our students have been accustomed to simply receiving pellets of knowledge from teachers and then regurgitating this material back to us in the form of tests and papers. Hence the questions “Will it be on the test?” Or, “Is this important?” I can hardly blame students for this approach; it is simply what they are used to. To show students that they can be engaged and active participants in their own learning requires specific steps and criteria.
Roger and David Johnson together with other educators (Johnson & Johnson, 1991, 1995, 1997; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1990; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991) have written numerous books on facilitating cooperative groups and describe some basic factors that must be set in place to create positive interdependence. First there must be a way to link classroom activities or assignments so that group members need each other’s input in order to be successful. Second, there must be a means of capturing individual accountability within the group process. Third, students must be encouraged to help each other and provide feedback to their group members about individual and collective work. This step requires that we as instructors have the ability to model and develop an environment of trust and respectful communication. Finally, because all these pieces rarely fall into place immediately, groups need to have time to reflect and identify ways to improve their collective process of learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1995; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998).
Can We Disagree?
It is also important to note that although cooperative learning encourages accountability and shared learning, it does not require that members of the learning community engage in agreeable group think. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (2000) have introduced the concept of constructive controversy to engage students in discussion and debate in the classroom. They suggest that constructive controversy exists when there is dissonance between the beliefs, information, and conclusions of two or more students around a given topic. This dissonance results in a process in which both put forth cooperation and conflict in an effort to reach a resolution. “Controversies are resolved by engaging in what Aristotle called ‘deliberate discourse’ (that is, the discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of proposed actions) aimed at achieving novel solutions (that is, ‘creative problem solving’)” (p. 2).
Although controversy is not uncommon in classrooms, the way in which instructors facilitate controversy and the level at which student groups are working effectively together will determine whether disagreement results in new knowledge and synthesized arguments or pointless yelling matches. To develop an environment that fosters creative conflict, instructors need to examine the role of the questions they are asking students to answer. Do the questions invite debate and synthesis of knowledge, or are they limited to responses that demonstrate mastery of facts? Do the questions open the door to new inquiry and collective problem solving? This takes us back to the notion of setting a standard of cooperation in the class. Research comparing constructive controversy with concurrence seeking and individualistic learning suggests that controversy in a cooperative context “induces more complete and accurate understanding of the opponent’s position (and feelings) and greater utilization of others’ information” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2000, p. 7). In addition, constructive controversy promotes “greater liking among participants than concurrence seeking (avoiding disagreement to reach a compromise) and individualistic efforts” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, p. 7).
These findings are particularly relevant to creating community and creative conflict in classrooms that focus on multicultural curricula. Why? For starters, as many colleges have incorporated cultural diversity requirements into their curriculum, students who may not have opted to enroll in a “diversity” class are required to take one. Second, even students who choose to participate in such courses are surprised and fearful of the broad range of ideological differences that exist between them and their peers.
As we examine racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, and ableism, classroom reaction can range from strong resistance to complete shutdown. If there is engagement, it often translates into angry outbursts, blame, and the inability of two parties to listen to each other. How do we help our students cross the chasm between resigned resistance and misdirected anger to a place of “creative” conflict? How do we help them create a space where their ideas and diverse experiences become the impetus for a paradigm shift allowing them to see the world from many different perspectives? Cooperative learning and constructive controversy theories provide a powerful template for creating community and trust in the developmental multicultural classroom.
The Relationship Between Developmental Education and Multicultural Education
Spann and McCrimmon (1998) argue that three terms, “remedial,” “compensatory,” and “developmental,” have emerged to define the educational experience of students who are “underprepared.” The term remedial implies a deficiency in the student and therefore a push to fix or remedy the issue. The use of the term compensatory began in the 1960s, as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, when the goal of education was “the lessening or removal of environmental induced deficits” (Spann & McCrimmon, p. 41). Although the former term focuses on remedying the deficit, the latter acknowledges that the deficit is not innate but a result of external factors. Both terms however, smack of negativity and tend to label their referents. Hence, in the 1970s faculty working with at-risk students chose to remove the negative connotations by referring to their work as developmental. This term focuses on the students’ “potential rather than the deficits” (Spann & McCrimmon, p. 41). By refocusing on potential, developmental educators argue that they also take a holistic approach to their students—focusing on academic transition and personal development beyond the limited realm of academic skills alone (Higbee, 1996; Spann & McCrimmon, 1998).
In an effort to further articulate the difference between what is considered remedial education and the work of developmental educators and students, Higbee (1996) writes:
Among the meanings of “develop” are “to evolve the possibilities of…to promote the growth of” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981, p. 308). “Development” is defined as “the act, process, or result of developing” (p. 308). “Remedy,” meanwhile refers to “a medicine, application, or treatment that relieves or cures a disease…something that corrects or counteracts an evil” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 970). To remedy is “to provide or serve as a remedy for” (p. 970). Pardon me if I bristle every time I hear someone refer to what I do as remedial…My students are not sick, and they do not need to be cured. They are evolving, and the possibilities are limitless. (pp. 63-66)
This argument further illuminates the fact that academically underprepared students are not the only ones served by developmental education. Rather, the ideology of promoting intellectual and holistic growth serves the needs of “the learning disabled, the visual and hearing impaired, those with mobility impairments, the English as a Second Language student, the student-athlete, the returning adult student, and the first generation college student” (Spann & McCrimmon, 1998, p. 41).
The same themes of deficiency and lack have been challenged by multicultural educators in their battle to incorporate cultural pluralism into the educational process. Multicultural educators face those who assign a deficiency orientation to students who are “socially or culturally deprived” (Sleeter & Grant, 1988, p. 38). These terms are code for students of color, multilingual students, students with disabilities, and low-income students. Much like developmental educators, multicultural educators have challenged this model by creating their own paradigms of teaching. There are numerous approaches to multicultural education that honor difference and illustrate the value that diversity brings to the learning experience. Two approaches that I will highlight include the human relations approach and the multicultural education approach.
Human Relations Approach
The theoretical background for the human relations approach comes from general psychology and social psychology (Sleeter & Grant, 1988). Like cooperative learning, this approach is also referred to as intergroup education, and focuses on “helping students communicate with, accept, and get along with people who are different from themselves” (Sleeter & Grant, p. 77). This movement towards reaching and teaching students at an affective level began during World War II and continued after the war in an effort to eliminate discrimination, not only abroad but also at home in the United States. Human relations advocates argue that to use this approach effectively it must be infused in the curriculum and actively involve students in the process of learning. They also suggest incorporating real life scenarios into the understanding of intergroup hostilities and most importantly, creating a classroom environment in which a student’s ability to be successful is not dependent on the failure of others in the class (Sleeter & Grant). These premises clearly reflect social interdependence as discussed with respect to cooperative learning and support the ideology of an environment that facilitates sharing of knowledge, resources and problems.
Multicultural Education Approach
Although multicultural education has now become the catch phrase for much of the work involving race, class, gender, homophobia, and disability issues, the multicultural education approach grew out of the 1960s when the potency of the civil rights movement pushed for a reassessment of the deficiency orientation. Sleeter and Grant’s (1988) review of the literature demonstrated five primary goals of the multicultural education approach: “(a) Promoting the strength and value of cultural diversity; (b) promoting human rights and respect for those who are different from oneself; (c) promoting alternate life choices for people; (d) promoting social justice and equal opportunity for all people; (e) promoting equity in the distribution of power among all people” (Gollnick, 1980, as cited in Sleeter & Grant, p. 137). Thus, the multicultural education approach celebrates the ideology of cultural pluralism and is not limited to issues of race but examines the similarities of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism as systems of oppression.