Cooperative Learning …

A Gauntlet for the Gifted


Pat Stewart

CEP 800, 12/9/01



            In the reading, Ability Group, Cooperative Learning, and the Gifted, Robert E. Slavin discusses his philosophy that all students, including the gifted, have a right to achieve their full potential.  He says he is opposed to any plan that would “hold back” gifted children as long as efforts are equally made to ensure that everyone achieve their full potential by meeting a reasonable minimum standard of achievement.  What he poses as a critical question is how to structure schools and classrooms to meet the diverse needs of all students—not whether they should do so.

            Slavin admits that research on the achievement effects of programs for the gifted is generally poor and that most often students chosen for the gifted programs are compared to matched students not selected.  Yet, he also admits that this “matching” is basically flawed—mostly because differentiation methods between the selected and matched students used factors such as motivation, maturity, and school performance and that these factors tended to weigh in favor of the selected students.

            Though Slavin mentioned earlier that the research on the effects of programs for the gifted is poor, he adds a twist to his claims.  First he categorizes programs for the gifted into two distinct areas:  1) enrichment programs in which gifted students are given “broadening” experiences but not moved ahead in the curriculum and 2) acceleration programs, e.g., sixth graders are allowed to take Algebra I.  Here’s the twist—the research is poor, but he claims that research generally does not show achievement benefits of enrichment programs.  He adds injury to insult by adding that one clear, consistent finding from research on ability groupings is that putting high achievers together does little for their achievement, but on the other hand, there is some evidence that acceleration programs can be effective.   All this, but generally research is poor.

            Slavin feels that gifted programs “can be justified” under some situations, such as when the content of a gifted program represents true acceleration, e.g., at the elementary level allowing students in one grade to receive reading or math instruction in a higher grade, but still remain for other subjects in their homerooms.  He is, however, opposed to enrichment programs that permit gifted students to do more experiments, independent reports, field trips, etc., because he believes that if these activities are so beneficial then all the students should be afforded the same opportunities.  Slavin believes that ability grouping makes serious and lasting decisions about children at a young age, like labeling those not in a gifted program as low-ability students who may be less likely to graduate and more likely to be delinquent.

            Teachers, Slavin argues, can accommodate student differences within the classes.  He does not offer any action steps or recommendations about how to accomplish this, but claims that cooperative learning methods in which students wok in mixed-ability teams can be effective for high as well as average and low achievers.  Heterogeneity is better than homogeneity, in other words.

            Slavin reports that successful cooperative learning methods include two elements:  group goals and individual accountability.  He describes an example of students working in four- to five-member heterogeneous groups and are recognized based on the average individual learning of all groups, using quizzes, essays, or other assessments taken without teammates’ help.  This is the theory in play of a group being only as strong as its weakest link, I suppose.

            In addition to these achievement benefits, cooperative learning provides gains in self-esteem, friendships, liking the subject, and, of course, the ability to work cooperatively with others.  Slavin says the perception that high achievers are used as “junior teachers” is not accurate and that all students are learners and teachers with equal responsibility to explain and discuss the material.

            Slavin concludes that it is possible to reduce the use of tracking and separate enrichment programs, increase the use of cooperative learning and still meet the needs of the gifted students.  He believes that instruction that accommodates the diverse needs of all learns, including the gifted, will encourage all students to reach their full potential, and the best way to accomplish this is to change the regular classroom—not add special programs for the gifted.

            Offering counterpoints to Slavin in Cooperation or Exploitation?  The Argument Against Cooperative Learning for Talented Students is Ann Robinson.  She immediately offers a definition of cooperative learning as “a set of instructional strategies ‘which employ small teams of pupils to promote peer interaction and cooperation for studying academic subjects.’”

            Though Slavin contends that research on the achievement effects of programs for the gifted is generally poor, Robinson points out that one reason why may be that the gifted students are not the population of interest in the research base.  She gives an example of an article that stated in its headlines that cooperative learning could benefit all students. No specific support was sited, although the article provided an example of gifted students who learned how to get along with others.  Robinson refutes other research claims saying that no descriptive data specific to the “ability” groups was provided and that in another study ability was based solely on teacher judgment.  However, what information was available to teachers, factors considered, or how decisions were made was not included.  Overgeneralization is a disturbing trend in making claims that cooperative learning benefits all students.

            What I particularly enjoyed about Robinson’s article is how she clearly delineates the problems with overgeneralization—1) she repeats that the gifted students are not the population of interest and 2) the comparisons made are limited.  There is potential for educational abuse, as Robinson calls it, in using cooperative learning such as using bright students to teach what they already know.  She points out that time is a fixed resource in the classroom and that if the high achievers spend their time teaching other children, then they do not have time to learn anything new or challenging for themselves.

            Robinson saliently points out that gifted children are also exploited by making them responsible for the effectiveness of cooperative learning and then blaming for “accepting” the responsibility.  Of course, most bright students are happy to jump into the role of teacher.

            I feel that Robinson was fair to the role of cooperative learning while pointing out its disadvantages, e.g., encouraging stereotypical thinking about gifted students’ social development, peer interactions and friendship patterns.  She did not “attack” cooperative learning, she merely provided the reader cautions that it is not a catchall for gifted or other students.

            As I discussed in class, I definitely agree with Robinson.  My personal experience with my youngest son provided little room for doubt that gifted, bright children need to be together—at least for part of the school day.  His fourth grade teacher would tell me about how he and his group of friends who are also very bright used to talk during recess about infinity and the world of space and what it really meant for the human race.  They would discuss the state of the nation’s environment and what role they might play as adults to “save the world from itself.”  These kinds of discussions and mind games challenged him and his friends.  It was this type of interaction that kept him interested in attending school—not the traditional classroom lectures.  What was so sad to watch was how, over time, he eventually lost interest in much of school because he and his friends were in different classes by the time they reached middle school (sixth grade) and rarely had opportunities to talk together.  Naturally, the parents provided after-school time for them and other programs to challenge them, but where was the school district in promoting keeping these kids together?

            Parents need to be their children’s advocates, but advocating for an appropriate education for an intellectually gifted child is a time-consuming and stressful process. I know this first-hand, but I feel my husband and I and the other parents were successful in supplementing “enrichment” for our children.  I think what we offered enabled these “gifted” students to be well educated within many different school settings. We took our advocacy roles seriously. We became well informed about our children and the school. We soon found out that to be a successful advocate for one's own child requires time, skill, hard work and considerable self-discipline.   But, I firmly believe that our efforts were worthwhile and that my son deserved nothing less.