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Studying in Teams Pays Off for Students : Educators Learn Virtues of Cooperation

November 14, 1987|From Times Wire Services

OXFORD, Ohio — A Miami University professor thinks education is just discovering what business has practiced for years: cooperation, not competition, produces a better product.

Lawrence W. Sherman, associate professor of educational psychology, believes the idea of cooperation can be practiced as easily in the classroom as in the corporation.

He structures classes to let students work together on projects, with individual grades based not only on test scores but also on how each group does.

"I think one of the things that is being stressed is that they can use each other as resources," Sherman, 46, said recently. "I don't necessarily see it as cheating when a group of people get together to learn the material. That's fine if the material is learned."

Shooting From Hip

Too much of what we believe is a mythology of John Wayne rugged individualism, Sherman said. "If everyone shoots from the hip like John Wayne, nothing gets done," he said.

Japanese industry has learned the lesson in its team-oriented manufacturing plants, Sherman said.

American business may talk competition, but studies show that higher pay tends to go to those executives who can get their employees to work together, he said.

The early work goes back to the 1930s and 1940s and studies in group dynamics, he said.

"We just didn't buy into it right away. Most of the people who bought into it weren't in teaching. They were in business. Most of us were sitting back, I think, and operating on a social Darwinism type of notion," Sherman said.

The move toward cooperation in the classroom isn't a revolution, but is gaining ground slowly, partly through social need, he pointed out.

The need to get black and white students brought together by desegregation to work together brought some of the ideas into the classroom, Sherman said.

"Because of that, there has been a fairly large dissemination of these strategies, especially in urban areas. There are a number of classrooms in Cincinnati, for instance, that I know of that are working with this," he said.

Popular Book

Lately, the idea of cooperation has been popularized with a book, "No Contest: The Case Against Competition," by Alfie Kohn.

Kohn recites many studies that he says show that employment agency interviewers, scientists, airline pilots and reservation agents, and students all performed better when they worked together than when they competed.

His work was excerpted in Psychology Today.

Sherman says cooperative education in elementary and high school classrooms often is structured so that teams of three or four students compete against each other in quiz games similar to the old television show, "College Bowl."

Another technique uses students in a group to tutor one another to take tests that are geared to their ability. Teams earn points based on the test scores of each member.

"Kids like themselves, they like each other and they do better," Sherman said.

Ensuring Failure

Classes graded on a curve designed to ensure a percentage of students receive each grade also are designed to ensure that some students fail, he said.

"So many classrooms are built on a system of grading that is not quite real," Sherman said.

Sherman is compiling his own studies. His college classrooms also have been laboratories for his work, as has a high school in Ross, Ohio.

His high school study among two mathematics classes showed that even in a school with a relatively homogenous white student body, students who studied together showed more improvement when pretest and post-test scores were compared.

Sherman's college classroom study didn't show such a marked difference between the groups. But there was a result that would help any professor's ego.

"In the cooperative classes without intergroup competition, the class and the professor had the most favorable evaluation" from the students, Sherman said.

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