A foundational component of SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) is cooperation and collaboration. Cooperative learning is not a new learning tool, but it has never been more valuable than it is currently. With globalization technological and communication advances continue to increase the quantity of accessible information and opportunities for advancement in all realms of human endeavor. The brain has the neural networks that can, with guidance, prepare students through the executive functions, emotional self-awareness and control, interactive social skills to become effective participants, problem solvers, and innovators in the 21st century and beyond. As educators, we can, and must, provide those opportunities and shoulder our share of responsibility to prepare all students for the new challenges and opportunities that await them.

Successfully planned cooperative units provide the cognitive stimuli needed to activate and enrich executive functions such as — emotional awareness, judgment, critical analysis, flexible perspective taking, creative problem solving, innovation, and goal-directed behavior. The interactive and interdependent components of cooperative learning offer the emotional and interpersonal experiences needed to stimulate the development of the prefrontal cortex networks that direct successful communication, collaboration, adaptation, and resilience. 

Defining Neuro-logical Cooperative Learning

When the term “cooperative learning” is used, it will be with the understanding that it refers to instruction that incorporates the following prerequisites:

  • Clear learning objectives
  • Connection to students’ interests
  • Authentic learning and performance tasks
  • Participation by all members is necessary for goal achievement
  • Students have the prerequisite knowledge and know how to seek help when they need it
  • Everyone appreciates the importance of participation by all group members
  • Choice
  • Group and individual accountability
  • Each member has opportunities to participate through his/her strengths
  • Opportunities for development of communication skills including group discussions and consensus building
  • The planned time for metacognition and revision

Access to Highest Human Potential

Keys to successful cooperative learning arise from understanding brain functions particularly in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC) and applying strategies to maximize their benefits.

Emotions exert powerful influences on all aspects of the learning process, including attention, memory construction and retrieval, and higher-order thinking. The amygdala is a switching station deep in the brain’s primitive, emotionally reactive limbic system. When stress is high, the increased metabolic activity in the amygdala directs incoming information down to the lower automatic brain. In fMRI scans of children in states of high stress or anxiety, the increased metabolic activity is accompanied by decreased activity in the PFC as new information/learning is blocked from entering memory construction .

Without the reflective input from the PFC, when the amygdala diverts intake to the lower brain, behavior output is driven by survival instincts. Under these stress conditions, emotion is dominant over cognition and rational thinking. Responses are narrowed to fight, fright, or freeze. 

Sustained boredom can put the amygdala into the stress state such that in the absence of input to the PFC, the brain creates its own stimulation. When students do not have frequent opportunities to engage with learning in meaningful, successful, and enjoyable ways, the stress of sustained boredom or frustration that diverts control to the lower brain’s fight/flight/freeze responses results in the behaviors interpreted as acting out or zoning out.

Common threats to students’ perceptions of safety, such as making embarrassing mistakes in front of the whole class, being called on when they don’t know the answer, concerns about their mastery of English as a second language, and for older children, fear of appearing too smart or not smart enough and risking ostracism by peers, are reduced in by the interdependence of group collaboration. 

A positive emotional state promotes the flow of input through the amygdala to the PFC. Students’ expectations of pleasure increase attention and memory and reduce the impact of stressors that might otherwise present as behavior management problems.

Well-planned cooperative group learning experiences reduce stress, decrease boredom and frustration, and increase expectations and experiences of pleasure. With goals designed to connect with students’ interests and authentic performance tasks that they consider relevant, students want the knowledge tools they need to succeed. Students are then in the ideal state for motivated, attentive learning because they want to know what they have to learn.

Neuro-logical Success Cycle

Because the executive functions of judgment, analysis, and the ability to delay immediate gratification for long-term goals are still maturing well into their twenties, many students do not understand that effort toward a goal promotes progress. Many students equate their potentials with grades received based only on summative assessments. These students often develop fixed mindsets that limit their efforts when they do not believe they have the capacity to succeed. 

A neuro-logical success cycle, promoted by cooperative group learning, can reduce preexisting negativity, and increase PFC activity supported by the emotionally positive impact of group cohesiveness, choice, and opportunities for students to participate through their strengths. In contrast to whole-class instruction, successful cooperative group work includes opportunities for more frequent and specific feedback and revision. 

When students begin to experience successful cooperative group work and the feedback, it illuminates the association between their effort and their incremental goal progress; the resulting intrinsic gratification activates the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when increased sufficiently, promotes feelings of pleasure, deep satisfaction, and motivation to repeat or continue the action associated its release. 

As students continue to have positive learning experiences in cooperative groups, they develop more positive attitudes about school and more characteristics associated with growth mindsets. With the addition of the dopamine-pleasure influence of intrinsic motivation, students develop greater confidence and resistance to amygdala-blocking stressors, such as participation and mistake fear. 

The cycle continues as students have more positive experiences in their small groups and become more comfortable with participation and academic risk-taking (i.e., willingness to risk being wrong, offer suggestions, defend their opinions, etc.). As students transition toward a growth mindset, they dedicate more effort to academic work, especially when they know that it will increase their successful participation in their group (e.g., homework that practices a math skill that they want to use to gather data for their project). 

Increased confidence, positive connections to learning group goals, and opportunities to participate through their strengths build students’ resilience to the previous stressors — as their amygdala supports the passage of input to the PFC. 

What Future Collaborators Need

The qualities sought for the top jobs in emerging industries go beyond the strong foundational knowledge to focus on applicants’ abilities as innovators and creative problem-solvers who can interpret and utilize new information, communicate clearly, collaborate successfully, and solve problems creatively. As globalization progresses, with more advances in information and technology, there will be more complex, multifaceted problems, often beyond the domains of experts in single specialties. 

Solving these problems will require interdependence, open-mindedness, flexibility, and strong communication skills for successful collaboration. The most capable applicants will be those who have developed their highest executive and social/emotional assets. The neurological classification of executive functions includes judgment, planning, estimation, analysis-based prediction, prioritization, pattern recognition and extension, metacognition, risk assessment, flexibility, clarity of communication, and goal-directed behaviors.  

Emotional, Social, and Communication Skills

Active engagement in cooperative learning experiences builds cognition and emotional control circuits. Students do not have enough one-on-one teacher experiences throughout the day to provide this feedback. However, as cooperative groups build their cohesiveness, trust, and collaborative skillsets, students become less dependent on their teachers for this feedback. 

The nature of cooperative group interdependence also increases emotional sensitivity and communication skills.  The planning of cooperative learning transfers the responsibility of decision-making and conflict resolution to the students. Inevitably, unpredictable social and emotional challenges arise, such as different opinions about the choices regarding their investigation or about group member roles and responsibilities. These occur in safe settings and provide opportunities for students to build self-awareness and learning skills as they participate in discussions, ask questions, make predictions, disagree or agree with interpretations of others, and collaborate on common goals.

Cooperative classroom work, by nature of project designs, benefits from multiple perspectives, areas of expertise, and talents. Group members are appreciated for the contributions provided from unique past experiences, talents, and cultural backgrounds. The group members gain social awareness and flexible open-mindedness listening to a variety of perspectives. Group experiences promote activation of the neural networks directing emotional awareness, self-control, social responses, and successful communication and collaboration. Cooperative group experiences are preparatory for emotional awareness to guide student participation in their future global collaborations. 

Picking Up Cues

With less interpersonal contact, as children spend more time in the digital and remote-learning world, cooperative groups become increasingly important for the brain’s construction of emotional cue awareness. In preparation for the higher demands on communication that accompany globalization, students need to build the PFC networks to identify emotional cues and employ conscious strategies to maintain the reflective behavioral self-control to take actions to sustain collaboration.

In cooperative group learning, there are frequent unpredictable situations that arouse emotions such as differences of opinion, sudden insights with the desire to interrupt, or disappointment when the consensus directs group decisions contrary to a student’s desire. The brain makes predictions regarding social and emotional decisions or choices the same way it makes cognitive predictions regarding answers to questions – based on prior experiences.

Cooperative groups are powerful and authentic playing fields for these experiences, so students develop skills of recognizing the nonlinguistic emotional cues. This will become increasingly critical when global interactions and interdependencies require communicating with others with whom they do not share a language or cultural norms. In these situations, accurate interpretations of cues will serve to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts that could otherwise disrupt collaboration.

With cooperative group experiences and feedback, students develop an increased ability to interpret the emotions and cues of others and respond with interventions that sustain successful communication. They may even be gaining emotional network development that increases group intelligence. 

Researchers evaluated group effectiveness in solving puzzles and negotiating and brainstorming complex rule-based design tasks. Groups whose members took turns and allowed all members to apply their skills were described as having greater collective intelligence, exceeding the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members. (Average and maximum intelligence features of the individuals did not significantly predict the performance of the group). In contrast, groups dominated by one person were less successful than the groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed. The researchers attributed the success to members’ sensitivity and response to each other’s emotions and considered the ability to perceive and respond to the emotions of one another highly predictive of group success. 

The Future

Through trial and error, instruction in specific strategies, observation of other groups’ successful strategies, metacognition, and the other components of successful cooperative group learning, students build their executive functions, communication skills, and awareness of and appropriate response to emotional cues. 

In cooperative groups, where students have more opportunities to activate and strengthen their circuits of long-term conceptual memory, executive function, emotional awareness/control, they develop the prerequisites for success and personal satisfaction in the world in which they will live and work – to understand new information as it continues to increase in availability, analyze this information for accuracy, evaluate opinion versus fact, and identify bias. They will deduce novel uses for new information and technology, communicate and collaborate with others to solve new problems and contribute innovations and ideas to expand the benefits of the global information pool to all people throughout the globe. 

Consider now the components of the required skill sets for 21st-century success, the thinking and behaviors defined as executive functions, and the cognitive, social, and emotional behaviors necessary for successful cooperative group work. You will recognize these as essentially one and the same. Students who participate in successful cooperative group learning throughout their education and develop PFC networks with the full array of executive functions and emotional control networks will have the 21st-century skillsets. These students will be equipped with the SEL components and will have the passports to personal fulfillment and achievement of their brains’ highest capabilities. They will meet the challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities of their globalized world.

The Neuro-Science Behind How Cooperative Learning Augments Social-Emotional Learning Skills

Students who participate in successful cooperative group learning throughout their education and develop PFC networks with the full array of executive functions and emotional control networks will have the 21st-century skillsets — the thinking and behaviors defined as executive functions, and the cognitive, social, and emotional behaviors.

The Neuro-Science Behind How Cooperative Learning Augments Social-Emotional Learning Skills

In cooperative groups, students can develop the prerequisites for success and personal satisfaction in the world in which they will live and work.

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