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Socio-Cultural Psychology in Practice

Socio-Cultural Psychology in Practice


It is common for educational psychologists to recommend best-practice interventions and teaching methods, often after completing a psychoeducational assessment or in response to a referral question. However, their involvement should not stop there; assisting teachers to employ best-practice teaching strategies and methods can be rewarding for all involved. Challenges can arise, however, if the educational psychologist’s and teacher’s perspectives do not align. In these instances, how the discrepancy is handled can make all the difference in interventions being employed with fidelity. The implementation model by Jolliffe (2015) will be used throughout this discussion to demonstrate how to bridge two differing perspectives. Jolliffe’s (2015) model begins with a theoretical basis and shifting of existing beliefs. It then progresses to experiencing the new method directly and concludes with increasing competency and sustaining learning (Jolliffe, 2015). The case scenario, used to demonstrate this progression, involves a teacher that is adamant towards the use of direct instruction despite recognition that this approach is not working for all learners, particularly those individuals with developmental disabilities. On the other hand, the educational psychologist recommends cooperative learning, as “higher effect sizes tend to be associated with approaches which combine group goals and individual accountability” (Topping, 2005, p. 632). Finding a compromise between these two diverse teaching methods will ultimately lead to greater gains for all involved.

Theoretical Basis: Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is defined as “a collection of instructional practices combined together to design and deliver well-crafted lessons that explicitly teach grade level content to all students” (Hollingsworth & Ybarra, 2009, p. 12). Direct instruction is a research-based method that involves demonstrating, explaining, modeling, scaffolding, group work, and immediate feedback (Archer et al., 2011). Lessons typically start with objectives and connections to prior knowledge (Archer et al., 2011). Direct instruction is a teacher-directed approach, with the teacher explaining the concepts and their importance (Archer et al., 2011). Students practice new skills in whole and small groups with teacher guidance and the lessons typically conclude with individual practice and a closure activity (Archer et al., 2011). One method that encapsulates this process is the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR). Through the GRR, concepts progress from teacher, to whole group, to small group, and to individual practice. This can be described as ‘I Do, We Do, You Do it Together, You Do it Alone.’ Opportunities for students to respond and practice the skills increase with each stage. Direct instruction is content- and curricular-focused and originates from behaviour analytic psychology.

Theoretical Basis: Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning, on the other hand, comes from socio-cultural psychology. The cooperative learning method stems from Vygotsky’s work on the Zones of Proximal Development and Piaget’s theory that learning must occur through interaction (Malmgren, 1998). Vygotsky believed that students could reach their full potential by working with slightly more advanced peers (Malmgren, 1998). This method is jointly beneficial (Topping, 2005); while the higher achieving peer is modeling the behaviour and skill for the other child, they solidify their own knowledge through teaching the concepts. Johnson and Johnson (1999) define cooperative learning as “the instructional use of small groups in which students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning” (p. 73). This approach is suitable for any subject and grade. There are five main elements: “positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, appropriate use of social skills, and periodic [group] processing of how to improve the effectiveness of the group” (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, p. 73). All five of these elements must be intentionally planned and included, making cooperative learning different than peer tutoring and typical group work (Jolliffe, 2015).

Theoretical Basis: Elements of Cooperative Learning

Each element of cooperative learning works together to produce benefits for all learners. Positive interdependence – which is often overlooked in traditional small group approaches – occurs when students believe that their efforts and outcomes are intertwined with the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Jolliffe, 2015; Kuntz et al., 2001; Malmgren, 1998). This leads to increased responsibility because individual efforts impact the group, in addition to the individual (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Furthermore, because the “individual’s success depends on the success of the group, students want their peers to do well” (Kuntz et al., 2001, p. 43). While positive interdependence leads to group accountability, there are also individual accountability measures. Johnson and Johnson (1999) note that “individual performance is checked regularly to ensure that all students are contributing and learning. The result is that the group is more than a sum of its parts, and all students perform higher academically than they would if they worked alone” (p. 68). It is important to connect individual responsibility back to the group, such as sharing individual growth (Johnson & Johnson, 1999).

Promotive interaction occurs as students work on a common task and goal (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). Through group problem-solving and discussions, students have increased opportunities to respond and this leads to improved social and academic results (Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Malmgren, 1998; Siegel, 2005). Promotive interaction differs from other approaches, as it involves specific roles being assigned (Bryant & Bryant, 1998; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Kuntz et al., 2001; Prater et al., 1998). Students must share resources, distribute the workload, and cooperate for the common good of the group, creating a positive classroom climate and increased participation (Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Jenkins et al., 2003; Kuntz et al., 2001). Through this process, transferable social skills are developed (Topping, 2005). Social skills must be explicitly taught around “leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills” (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, p. 71). In fact, for this approach to work, social skills cannot be viewed as an add-on but as a necessary component. Prater, Bruhl, and Serna (1998) express that “cooperative group social skills instruction should be the backbone of cooperative learning experiences” (p. 170). Elementary students may need explicit instruction in turn taking and sharing, whereas older students may need to learn how to accept mistakes, consider multiple perspectives, and engage in active listening (Mitchell et al., 2008; Prater et al., 1998). Finally, groups must engage in reflection about how and if they achieved their behaviour and/or academic goals (Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Jolliffe, 2015). Group members must decide on helpful versus unhelpful behaviours and strategies, placing importance on the process, as well as the product. Cooperative learning is an inclusive approach as the social and academic skills often needed by those learners with learning disabilities and emotional-behavioural disorders are embedded for all learners.

Shifting Perspectives

While the benefits of cooperative learning are apparent for those with varying abilities and general education students alike, Siegel (2005) notes that successful implementation depends on the teacher’s expertise. Finding a compromise between cooperative learning and direct instruction approaches would allow for an effective shift in practice. Prater et al. (1998) found that the best way to teach the social skills required for cooperative learning was through direct instruction. Furthermore, from a behavioural psychology perspective, students can be reinforced for their effective use of social skills, albeit as a group rather than individually. Many direct instruction strategies could still be used, such as demonstrations, feedback, and scaffolding. Instead of an overall abandonment of the teacher’s current teaching style, a shift in thinking and structuring is required. For instance, the objectives at the start of the lesson could continue, albeit as group goals. Group work can continue but with explicit roles and positive interdependence elements added. A shift from individual to group assessment would occur. In fact, informal cooperative learning may already be occurring through think-pair-shares (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). A shift to formal cooperative learning is possible by intentionally planning heterogenous groups for a set timeframe to meet specific goals (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Constantinou (2010) notes that “the main goal of cooperative learning is to take some of the teacher’s responsibility and progressively shift it to the students” (p. 35). Thus, the largest shift would be from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach, but this occurs over time with the teacher still facilitating the learning as student demands increase (Constantinou, 2010; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Malmgren, 1998; Topping, 2005). Presenting this as a complimentary approach may reduce initial feelings of resistance from the teacher. Furthermore, the psychologist can use direct instruction strategies to model how cooperative learning can be implemented. This compromise will allow for increased teacher comfortability and fidelity to the approach.

Developing Competency through Experience: Implementation of Cooperative Learning

Implementation of cooperative learning starts with intentionally planning the heterogenous small groups and their shared tasks (Bryant & Bryant, 2005). In this case scenario, the teacher will create small groups of six, ensuring that all group members will be present during the scheduled time as they all have a role to play (Bryant & Bryant, 2005; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Malmgren, 1998). The social skill of decision-making will be demonstrated first, with the teacher using familiar explicit instruction approaches to teach the expected behaviour before the students are to apply it in their groups. The teacher can create a t-chart with specific rules and responsibilities (Bryant & Bryant, 2005; Grenier et al., 2005; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004). For instance, the t-chart may outline what cooperative group work and the specific social skill should look and sound like or a breakdown of the various roles:   

My Job (Teacher) is to…Your Job (Students) is to…
create groups;provide resources and role options;present the task and objectives;monitor group work and answer questions; model social skill: decision-making; listen to group processing and reward group (Bryant & Bryant, 1998; Grenier et al., 2005; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Malmgren, 1998; Topping, 2005).work collaboratively with your group;select and rotate through roles;accomplish the objectives as a group; ask questions first of your group and then of your teacher; model social skill: decision-making;engage in group processing and earn group rewards (Grenier et al., 2005; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Kuntz et al., 2001; Topping, 2005).

It is important that students know about the reward system and that they will be rewarded as a group (Bryant & Bryant, 2005; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004). In this scenario, a marble jar will be used wherein each group can earn marbles when they effectively make decisions and/or collectively meet or show growth towards the task objective. Once the group fills their marble jar or receives a pre-determined amount of marbles, they can exchange this for a preferred activity or item.

The task is then outlined for the students, starting with a familiar template or repeated strategy (Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004). Initially, the psychologist can assist the teacher by co-teaching the strategy and providing feedback about implementation. The Jigsaw strategy is a great approach that lends itself to positive interdependence and individual accountability. Students are put into cooperative learning groups to learn about one portion of a topic after the teacher introduces it (Kuntz et al., 2001; Kyndt et al., 2013). Then, each member of the initial group joins a new group to teach them about what they learned. Therefore, students ultimately learn from all their classmates. Since each student has the responsibility to teach a portion of the concept, individual accountability and positive interdependence is present. At times, there can be a team score at the end and there should always be time for group processing and reflection (Kuntz et al., 2001). Johnson and Johnson (2009) note how the Jigsaw strategy can reduce social loafing and overcompensation of group members. Furthermore, Jigsaw can be structured to have English as Additional Language speakers with bilingual and English-only speakers (Kuntz et al., 2001), making concepts and group discussion accessible to all.

In the Grade 7 Saskatchewan Physical Education Curriculum, outcome 7.1 involves students making a fitness plan that incorporates daily movement as it relates to flexibility, and cardiovascular and muscular endurance (Ministry of Education, 2009). Students learn to monitor their heart rates as they safely participate in physical activities, such as sit-ups, push-ups, and v-sits (Ministry of Education, 2009). After the teacher’s direct instruction about the task and safety objectives, students are placed in their cooperative groups, with each group focusing on brainstorming activities from one of the following areas: flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, and muscular endurance. Then, using the Jigsaw approach, group members will shift allowing for a person from each cooperative homegroup in the new formations. In this second formation, students teach each other what they have learned in their cooperative homegroups. Finally, students go back to their cooperative homegroups to relay the most important thing that they learned and make an exercise list. They reflect upon what went well in the process using the ‘Stop/Start/Continue’ graphic organizer to chart specific behaviours and objectives.

The next day, students are in the gymnasium and back with their cooperative homegroups. The teacher shows the students how to monitor their heart rates before and after the warmup laps. Students are then put into their cooperative homegroups and assigned roles: motivator, heart rate monitor, recorder, participant, videographer, and safety patrol. Students take turns rotating through each role (Bryant & Bryant, 1998; Grenier et al., 2005; Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Johnson & Johnson, 2009). While they are the participant, students engage in exercises from the previous lesson. Students decide together if each exercise targets cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, flexibility, or a combination of two or more areas. Meanwhile, the teacher monitors and encourages participation and appropriate social skill use, particularly effective decision-making. To promote individual accountability, students are randomly called upon to discuss what they learned and which activities resulted in higher heart rates. Furthermore, students are asked at random which skill fits under cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, or flexibility and the teacher charts this on a classroom poster. The teacher asks students to go back to their collaborative homegroups and discuss if they met their social decision-making goal and their academic goal of classifying exercises. Students discuss what helpful and unhelpful behaviours were observed using the ‘Stop/Start/Continue’ graphic organizer. They collectively plan and set group goals for the next day.

Sustaining Practice: Implementation of Cooperative Learning in Math  

As the teacher gains competency, they can implement cooperative learning practices in additional classes. In math class, students are working on outcome 7.1 which focuses on divisibility strategies (Ministry of Saskatchewan, 2007). The teacher employs the Team Assisted Instruction (TAI) cooperative learning strategy. For this strategy, students work in heterogenous, cooperative groups but on individualized math units (Kuntz et al., 2001; Salvin, 1984). This allows for the benefits of cooperative learning to occur but accounts for the reality that students will be at different instructional levels (Kuntz et al., 2001; Salvin, 1984). In this scenario, some learners may be working on one- by one-digit division, while others are working on two- or three-digit division. Heterogenous groups allow students to learn from those at various levels and provide students with additional opportunities to discuss concepts and solidify their knowledge (Jenkins et al., 2003; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Malmgren, 1998). Students are put into heterogenous teams and then take a placement test to determine what unit they will start on. The teacher circulates to each group for 15-minute individualized lessons and the students help each other with understanding instructions and determining the correct answers for the units they are on (Salvin, 1984). All students, regardless of level, can help each other because answer keys are provided (Salvin, 1984). Furthermore, promotive interaction can occur if roles are assigned, such as timekeeper, corrector, material collector, etc. (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). In addition to their group role, students work on their unit, which consists of an instruction sheet, worksheets, checkout questions, and a final test to determine mastery (Salvin, 1984).

The teacher can still utilize direct instruction, immediate feedback, and whole class lessons and quizzes as necessary (Salvin, 1984). However, Bryant and Bryant (2005) note that “peers can provide instruction and feedback more often than teachers can provide individual assistance to students who require it” (p. 41). Adaptations can be offered to all learners within a group, such as assistive technology, alternative forms of assessment, and scribes (Bryant & Bryant, 1998; Malmgren, 1998). This helps to reduce the barriers that students with disabilities may face, while normalizing and making adaptations available to all learners. Furthermore, “students learn to respect and accept one another’s strengths and limitations” (Constantinou, 2010, p. 35). Kuntz et al. (2001) report that “students with mild learning disabilities produced more accurate work in mathematics with cooperative learning over individual instruction” (p. 49). TAI allows for an inclusive, yet individualized approach to cooperative learning that benefits all students.

Positive interdependence occurs with TAI, as teams are rewarded as a group based on the average amount of units that they achieve and the individual improvements that they make (Kuntz et al., 2001; Salvin, 1984). Thus, if all members increase their score on individual tests and assignments, then the group is rewarded (Malmgren, 1998). Since everyone works at their own level, they have equal opportunities to earn rewards for their group (Salvin, 1984). Students can also be rewarded for effective group processes and use of social skills so that individual ability is not penalized or viewed as a liability to the group (Grenier et al., 2005). While individual marks are not shared with the group, individual improvements are charted (Kyndt et al., 2013) and students can collectively earn marbles like they did in physical education. Jenkins et al. (2003) note that teachers often fail to share individual performance with the group, which negatively impacts group accountability and positive interdependence. Johnson and Johnson (2009) recommend that “the performance of each individual member is assessed and the results are given back to the individual and the group to compare against a standard of performance” (p. 368). Thus, the TAI collaborative learning method allows for both individual accountability and positive interdependence, while fostering group processing, social skills, and promotive interaction.


Bridging perspectives can be accomplished through Jolliffe’s (2015) model. Educational psychologists can help teachers progress from a theoretical basis to increased competency and sustained learning in new teaching methods (Jolliffe, 2015). With a few intentional instructional and structural shifts, teachers can employ cooperative learning in their inclusive classrooms, while still drawing from their own expertise. Differing perspectives can be acknowledged as strengths and opportunities to compromise, which is what we would suggest to students engaging in collaborative learning. Goor and Schwenn (1993) define cooperative learning as “a set of instructional strategies that encourages cooperative student-student interactions in collectively and individually achieving lesson objectives” (p. 7). Cooperative learning offers many benefits from increased productivity, time on-task, and outcome achievement (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). Students learn valuable social skills, such as repair strategies, labour division, and perspective taking, all while making and maintaining peer friendships (Hannon & Ratliffe, 2004; Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Kuntz et al., 2001). Johnson & Johnson (1999) note that “when individuals work together to complete assignments, they interact (improving social skills and competencies), promote each other’s success (gaining self-worth), and form personal as well as professional relationships (creating the basis for healthy social development)” (p. 73). Cooperative learning is a socio-cultural psychology practice that increases academic and social skills for all learners in inclusive classrooms.

Works Referenced

Archer, A., Hughes, C., & Ebrary, I. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

Bryant, D. P., & Bryant, B. R. (1998). Using assistive technology adaptations to include students with learning disabilities in cooperative learning activities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31(1), 41-54.

Constantinou, P. (2010). Keeping the excitement alive: Tchoukball and cooperative learning. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 81(3), 30-35.

Goor, M. B., & Schwenn, J. O. (1993). Accommodating diversity and disability with cooperative learning. Intervention in School and Clinic, 29(1), 6-16.

Grenier, M., Dyson, B., & Yeaton, P. (2005). Cooperative learning that includes students with disabilities. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 76(6), 29-35.

Hannon, J. C., & Ratliffe, T. (2004). Cooperative learning in physical education. Strategies: A Journal for Physical Education and Sport Educators, 17(5), 29-32.

Hollingsworth, J., & Ybarra, S. (2009). Explicit direct instruction (EDI): The power of the well-crafted, well-taught lesson. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press Data Works Educational Research.

Jenkins, J. R., Antil, L. R., Wayne, S. K., & Vadasy, P. F. (2003). How cooperative learning works for special education and remedial students. Exceptional Children, 69(3), 279-292.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999) Making cooperative learning work. Theory into Practice, 38(2), 67-73.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365-379.

Jolliffe, W. (2015). Bridging the gap: Teachers cooperating together to implement cooperative learning. Education 3-13, 43(1), 70-82.

Kuntz, K. J., McLaughlin, T. F., & Howard, V. F. (2001). A comparison of cooperative learning and small group individualized instruction for math in a self-contained classroom for elementary students with disabilities. Educational Research Quarterly, 24(3), 41-56.

Kyndt, E., Raes, E., Lismont, B., Timmers, F., Cascallar, E., & Dochy, F. (2013). A meta-analysis of the effects of face-to-face cooperative learning: Do recent studies falsify or verify. Educational Research Review, 10(1), 133–149.

Malmgren, K. W. (1998). Cooperative learning as an academic intervention for students with mild disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 31(4), 1-8.

Ministry of Education (2007). Grade Seven Mathematics Curriculum. Saskatchewan Curriculum. Retrieved from:

Ministry of Education (2009). Grade Seven Physical Education Curriculum. Saskatchewan Curriculum. Retrieved from:

Mitchell, M. G., Montgomery, H., Holder, M., & Stuart, D. (2008). Group investigation as a cooperative learning strategy: An integrated analysis of the literature. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 54(4), 388-395. 

Prater, M. A., Bruhl, S., & Serna, L. A. (1998). Acquiring social skills through cooperative learning and teacher-directed instruction. Remedial and Special Education, 19(3), 160-172.

Salvin, R. E. (1984). Team assisted individualization: Cooperative learning and individualized instruction in the mainstreamed classroom. Rase, 5(6), 33-42.

Siegel, C. (2005). Implementing a research-based model of cooperative learning. The Journal of Educational Research, 98(6), 339-349.

Topping, K. (2005). Trends in peer learning. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 25(6), 631-645.

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