The Power Within: Cooperative Learning

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn, Oct 8, 2014.


Time and again, at the beginning of a Train-the-Trainer programs we are delivering with HRD Academy, the trainees, all of them aspiring organisational learning facilitators ("trainers"), tell me that sound technical knowledge of the learning matter is key - and, with some poignant and content-comprehensive slides to fall back on, the rest will surely come by itself.

Lah dee dah - where have you been hiding? - For sure, the idea that the learning power rests in the learner's group much rather than in the instructional bravado of the trainer, is not new. Well, yes: it was in 1965, when the Byrds yankey-doodled Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man into the charts, and Sonny & Cher sound-tracked the summer with I Got You Babe, that the anthropologist Francis Ashley Montagu, ahead of the times, dared propose that in human societies the individuals who are most likely to survive are those who are best enabled to do so by their group (On being Human 1966).

But even after this and other messages, sounding the chimes that The Times they (were) a-Changing, the basics of cooperative learning remained largely ignored for more than another few decades. Responsible for this neglect seems to have been the lingering influence of Social Darwinism, and the belief that it is merely competition and strain, that drives the learner forward, towards greater competence and skill.

Since the turn of the century, at last, the times have really changed - and I dare say that also I, as a profesional train-the-trainer, have changed with the times. Gone are the days of the trainer in the spotlight. Learning, thank heavens, is no longer a matter of having a technically competent feller in front of a classroom. No longer is the trainer a thou-shallt-lean-back-and-listen kind of guru, who showers her (admittedly brilliant) content over the heads of the learning devotees. No more fix-it-up-chappie.

Learning, today, is a process that happens, or is made to happen, in an environment congenial to learning - and among people who interact and co-learn with each other, with the subject matter, and with the organisational context in which the subject matter is due to become a driving force.

Learning, today, is intimately linked to the identification and establishment of concise learning goals (" desired future states of demonstrating competence or mastery in the subject area being studied" - Johnson & Johnson 1989, 1999). Once known and defined, the instructional designer, as a genuine stage master, assigns the learning goals to relevant learning processes, which promote either cooperative, competitive, or individualistic efforts - or a combination of these, according to the nature of the learning goals.

In every case, the goal structure specifies the ways in which trainees will interact with each other and with the trainer during the instructional session. Thus, trainees alternately learn how to work cooperatively, compete for fun and enjoyment and excitement , and work autonomously. The trainer, now called a learning facilitator, decides which goal structure to implement for each of the incremental steps on the learning ladder.

In any case, and for any learning goal, the single most important goal structure, and the one that should be used predominantly throughout the flow of learning situations, is cooperation (Johnson & Johnson 1999).

In the end, the success of the learning track, or the learning results, depend mostly, if not solely, on how much learners have learned with each other, among each other, and from each other.

With all this, changing times and changing views on andragogy and the study of how adults learn, have brought us into an era in which change and growth have truly come within everyone's reach.

Do no longer believe those who propose that change and growth have proved to be neigh impossible, with such and such a target group, or in such and such an environment. If managed well, and with impeccable instructional design, organisational change, liberal growth of competence and opportunities, and fully enthused human development are now the norm.

And anything less than the norm is not good enough, wouldn't you say?