The role of cooperative learning in the development of critical thinking

Written by Ria Booysen

Cooperative learning is a teaching method where students of mixed levels of ability are arranged into groups working towards a common goal. They are rewarded according to the group’s success, rather than the success of an individual member (Firestone, 2016).

The literature reveals that cooperative learning could be regarded as an effective teaching strategy to enhance cognitive development (Bjorklund, 2005; Eggen & Kauchak, 2004; Gawe, 2007; Gunter, Estes & Schwab, 2003; McGonigal, 2005; Ormrod, 1995; Slavin, 1987; Woolfolk, 2004;).

To be able to educate good critical thinkers means to combine the developing of critical thinking skills with the nurturing of dispositions such as curiosity, inquisitiveness, skepticism, truth seeking, open-mindedness, analytical, systematic, judicious, integrity, self-confidence in reasoning, humility, courage and perseverance, which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society (Facione, 2015).

Teachers need to adopt the role of a facilitator when engaging learners in critical thinking, to encourage the understanding that solving a problem does not always end up with a correct answer, but sometimes creates more questions (Halx & Reybold, 2005; Arend, 2009). Learners who develop higher-order thinking skills become life-long learners who are capable of analyzing new situations, relating new information to their prior knowledge, thinking critically and creatively to solve problems, improve processes, and understand the world around them (Collins, 2014).

Learners need to be taught explicitly how to become critical thinkers in order to learn meaningfully, to think flexibly and to make reasoned judgments. Wallace (2002) is of the

opinion that all learners can think, but their thinking skills can be enhanced and developed through appropriate practice.

Teachers need to engage learners in activities that involve them in their own thinking and problem solving. Learners are social beings and when they communicate, they create new ideas. Learners can teach one another and they can learn from one another. When learning is in the context of real life experiences, learners can identify with it and relate to the learning in a personal way because it has relevance and meaning (Grosser, et al., 2016).

Apart from the social advantages, the cognitive advantages of using cooperative learning are impressive. Cooperative learning promotes creative as well as critical thinking. Working together in a group may lead to new questions and situations, which force the learners to think critically and creatively how to solve the problem. Cognitive conflict and development benefit through the exchanging of ideas and the comparing, motivating and justifying of different opinions, during cooperative learning activities (Adams & Hamm, 1994; Gawe, 2007; Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 2000; Schniedewind & Davidson, 1987).

Cooperative learning could be regarded as an effective teaching strategy for enhancing the thinking skills of the learners.

Reference list:

Adams, D., & Hamm, M. (1994). Cooperative learning: Critical thinking and collaboration across the curriculum (2nd ed.). Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Bjorklund, D. F. (2005). Children’s thinking. Cognitive development and individual differences. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.

Collins, R. (2014). Skills for the 21st Century: teaching higher-order thinking. Curriculum and Leadership Journal, 12(14). Retrieved from:,37431.html?issueI =12910

Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2004). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.

Facione, P. (2015). Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts. Hermosa Beach, CA: Measured Resources.

Firestone, M. (2016). What is Cooperative Learning? Retrieved from methods.html

Gawe, N. (2007). Cooperative learning. In M. Jacobs, N. Vakalisa & N. Gawe (Eds.), Teaching-learning dynamics: A participative approach for OBE (3rd ed.) (pp. 208–227). Sandton: Heinemann

Grosser, M. et al. 2017 Education in a competitive and global world. Developing critical thinking. A multi-dimensional approach in the context of South Africa. NY: Nova

Gunter, M. A., Estes, T. H., & Schwab, J. H. (1999). Instruction: A Models Approach, (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1994). An overview of cooperative learning. Creative and collaborative learning. Retrieved from http://G:\AnOverview%20of%cooperative% 20Learning.htm

Ormrod, J. E. (1995). Educational psychology. Developing learners (6th ed.). New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Schniedewind, N., & Davidson, E. (1987). Cooperative learning, cooperative lives. A sourcebook of learning. Activities for building a peaceful world. Iowa:
W.M.C. Brown Company Publishers.

Slavin, R. E. (1987). Cooperative learning and the cooperative school. Educational Leadership 45, 7–13.

Woolfolk, A. E. (2004). Educational Psychology. Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.