Cooperative Learning as a Catalyst for Critical Thinking

The field of education has always been peppered with trends and revolutions, lofty aspirations and methodologies that aim to disrupt. But one constant trend that has caused increasing ripples since the mid-1960s is cooperative learning.

What springs to mind for me when I hear that term is a bustling thinktank of ideas, where students become active contributors to their learning journey, an environment where critical thought is fostered and encouraged. It’s not just a teaching technique; it’s a thought revolution that ignites the flames of curiosity and nurtures critical thinking on a higher level.

Travelling back in time

Cooperative learning has its roots in the Socratic dialogues and the apprenticeships of ancient craftsmen. In fact, collaborative learning in an environment of constructive feedback has been a quietly powerful force in education, resurfacing often before disappearing again.

The roots of cooperative learning run deep, with a pivotal moment appearing in 1975 when the ground-breaking book by David and Roger Johnson, Learning Together and Alone, laid the foundation for structured cooperative learning. Their publication introduced the principles that continue to shape cooperative learning today, and set the groundwork for the crucial concepts of positive interdependence among learners and the importance of individual accountability.

Their work didn’t merely introduce a pedagogical technique; it birthed a philosophy that sees education as a communal journey instead of the traditional one-wolf show. By highlighting the benefits of students working together towards shared goals, the Johnsons set in motion a wave of educational practices that extend beyond the confines of the classroom.

Cooperative learning vs group work

At a first glance, cooperative learning and group work may not appear to differ much from one another, and while they certainly are not mutually exclusive, there are some differences in the application and the desired outcomes.

Group work is akin to organising a playdate – students team up to tackle a task, usually with a game plan spelled out step-by-step. Cooperative learning, however, focusses more on actual collaboration.

Encouraging interdependence

In a traditional group work setting, learners divide tasks among themselves, and work on independent segments. This fosters the ability to manage time and to delegate, it also strongly promotes the “divide and conquer” concept.

Cooperative learning, however, emphasises a positive interdependence, where the success of one is definitively linked to the success of the group. Here, success isn’t a solo act; it’s an ensemble performance. Learners carry the weight together, sharing the responsibility for the final masterpiece.

Encouraging interdependence in cooperative learning

Individual accountability

When group work is evaluated and assessed, accountability may be collective, with individual contributions receiving less recognition. Often, some learners contribute more than others without clear expectations for individual assessment. Assessment becomes complicated and convoluted, a cry of protest about unequal workloads is often heard.

Cooperative learning structures, however, focus on specific techniques to manage and steer group dynamics to foster collaboration, helping, sharing, and accountability. These structures are designed to promote positive interaction and equal participation.

The teacher’s role

The teacher’s role in the traditional group work includes assigning tasks and facilitating initial group formation, but ongoing management and guidance is often reduced to a minimum, allowing learners to delegate and assign tasks. During cooperative learning, teachers play a more active role, not as a lecturer, but as a facilitator, structuring activities from team formation to tasks, monitoring group dynamics, and providing guidance and feedback where needed.

It is important to reiterate that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. However, one method is more suited to promote and nurture critical thinking.

Practical applications

When I think back to my first encounters with cooperative learning, my reaction was certainly critical. Being faced with a teaching methodology that is disruptive to one’s teaching style is often challenging. However, testing the actual methodologies quickly convinced me that there is a lot more to be found here. While there is an abundance of methodologies, I personally count on the following three.


In a placemat activity, a group is presented with a central question or topic on a large sheet of paper divided into sections. Each member writes or draws their ideas in their designated section. For instance, in a history class discussing the causes of a historical event, students might jot down key factors in their sections. Afterward, the group shares and synthesises these factors into a comprehensive understanding.

An example could involve studying World War II. Each student writes down different causes of the war, like political tensions, economic factors, or the Treaty of Versailles. Sharing and discussing these perspectives deepens their comprehension and fosters a collectiveunderstanding of the historical context.


Think-pair-share begins with students individually reflecting on a question, such as a mathematical problem or a moral dilemma. They then pair up to discuss their thoughts. For instance, in a science class, students might think about the implications of a scientific experiment. Partners can discuss their hypotheses and reasoning before presenting their ideas to the class.

This approach encourages peer learning and allows students to benefit from diverse viewpoints. It also hones communication skills as students articulate their thoughts to others. This method is not limited to STEM subjects; it’s effective for discussing ethical issues, literature, or any topic that benefits from multiple perspectives.

Reciprocal questioning

Reciprocal questioning revolves around students taking turns to act as questioners and responders. Ideally, this occurs in a partner setting, but works well in smaller groups too. In an English literature class, for example, one student may ask a question about a character’s motivations, and their partner responds, justifying their answer with evidence from the text. Then, roles switch, and the partner asks a question, preferably a different one.

This method encourages critical thinking, as students need to generate meaningful questions and well-supported responses. In introducing this method, teachers can first rely on question-and-answer cards until learners are familiar with the concept of leading meaningful, critical conversations with one another.

This is a practical way to enhance comprehension of complex material, as seen in a science class where students ask each other questions about a challenging experiment. Through this process, they deepen their understanding, clarify doubts, and practice effective communication, ultimately strengthening their grasp of the material.

In these examples, these cooperative learning activities promote active participation, shared understanding, and the development of critical thinking and communication skills, making them valuable tools for educators in a variety of subjects.

Critical thought in schools

A catalyst for critical thought

Critical thought includes the abilities to analyse and evaluate information, to examine various contexts and perspectives, to generate solutions based on logic and creativity, and to approach work with openness, curiosity and self-awareness. The ability to think critically enables lifelong learning and enables us to adapt to the ever-changing situations.

At the heart of cooperative learning is its ability to foster critical thinking skills. Research indicates that collaborative learning environments promote higher order thinking, problem solving, and decision making. By encouraging active discussion and diverse perspectives, cooperative learning nurtures a culture of inquiry, empowering students to think critically and independently.

By exposing learners to varied viewpoints in form of discussions and reciprocal questioning, as well as encouraging them to collect and analyse information from peers, horizons are broadened and assumptions challenged. Additionally, the activities as set out above allow learners to gain important skills such as active listening and providing constructive feedback.

The depth of engagement with content, but also with peers, in combination with the shared accountability and the shared drive towards a common goal allows learners to improve both social and communicative skills. Most importantly though, the collaborative work on this metacognitive level encourages reflection and careful formulation and gathering of thoughts.

When we as educators set ourselves the goal to equip our learners for an ever-changing, fast-paced world where the careers of tomorrow still are a mystery today, we cannot miss out on equipping our learners with the ability to think critically and to collaborate effectively; skills that we can learn and teach through cooperative learning as a classroom methodology.