History of Theory and Research

Three theoretical perspectives have guided research on cooperative learning: social interdependence, cognitive-developmental, and behavioral.

 Social Interdependence Theory

Interaction with other people is essential for human survival. In an education setting, social interdependence refers to students’ efforts to achieve, develop positive relationships, adjust psychologically, and show social competence.

The social interdependence perspective of cooperative learning presupposes that the way social interdependence is structured determines the way persons interact with each other. Moreover, outcomes are the consequence of persons’ interactions. Therefore, one of the cooperative elements that has to be structured in the classroom is positive interdependence or cooperation. When this is done, cooperation results in promotive interaction as group members encourage and ease each other’s efforts to learn (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998).   

History of Theory and Research: Social Interdependence Theory (adapted from Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1998, p.3:18)


The way in which social interdependence is structured determines who individuals interact with and determines outcomes.

Early 1900s

Kurt Koffka: Groups are dynamic wholes featuring member interdependence


Kurt Lewin: Interdependence among members, common goals


Morton Deutsch: Positive, negative, and no goal interdependence (cooperative, competitive, individualistic efforts); two mediating variables (trust & conflict); distributive justice


David and Roger Johnson:Impact of social interdependence on achievement, relationships, psychological health and social development, mediating variables (positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, group processing)


Dean Tjosvold: Research in business and industry setting

Assumptions of social interdependence theory:

  1. Cooperative efforts are based on intrinsic motivation generated by interpersonal factors in working together and joint aspirations to achieve a significant goal
  2. Focus on relational concepts dealing with what happens among individuals

Cognitive Developmental Theory

The cognitive developmental perspective is grounded in the work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piagetian perspectives suggest that when individuals work together, sociocognitive conflict occurs and creates cognitive disequilibrium that stimulates perspective-taking ability and reasoning. Vygotsky’s theories present knowledge as a societal product (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998).   

History of Theory and Research: Cognitive Development Theory (adapted from Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1998, p.3:18)


When individuals cooperate on the environment, sociocognitive conflict occurs, thus creating cognitive disequilibrium, which in turn stimulates perspective-taking ability and cognitive development.


Piaget, Vygotsky, Kohlberg, Murray, controversy theorists (Johnsons & Tjosvold), cognitive restructuring theorists


Focus on what happens within a single person (e.g., disequilibrium, cognitive reorganization)

 Behavioral Learning Theory

 The behavioral-social perspective presupposes that cooperative efforts are fueled by extrinsic motivation to achieve group rewards (academic and/or nonacademic) (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998).   

History of Theory and Research: Behavioral Learning Theory (adapted from Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1998, p.3:18)


Actions followed by extrinsic rewards (group contingencies) are repeated.


Skinner (group contingencies); Bandura (imitation); Homans, Thibaut & Kelley (balance of rewards and costs); Mesch-Lew-Nevin (specific application to cooperative learning)


Cooperative efforts are powered by extrinsic motivation to achieve group rewards.



           Johnson, D., Johnson, R.& Holubec, E. (1998).Cooperation in the classroom. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.