It is clear that human wellbeing depends on the degree to which people cooperate with one another and minimize coercive social interactions (Biglan, 2015). There is increasing understanding not only of the importance of cooperation for human wellbeing but of the need to understand how cooperation can be fostered in modern society. In this effort, many social scientists have looked to our evolutionary past to understand the nature of cooperation and how it can be promoted in a variety of modern social contexts. In this essay, I describe a school-based small-group instructional practice (i.e., cooperative learning; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2013) that is a powerful way to increase cooperation and other forms of prosocial behavior and reduce uncooperative or antisocial behavior among children and youth.

Cooperation in our Evolutionary History

Cooperating flexibly in groups is central to being human; it is a uniquely human activity that is a key part of our evolutionary history. Cooperative groups enabled our ancestors to hunt large game and thus expand their resource pool. These groups also evolved cooperative means to address other types of problems, such as building or finding shelter and arranging group defense, and this enabled them to adapt and thrive compared to other branches of our family tree.

Evolutionary pressures at this time operated not only at the individual level but also at the level of groups (Sober & Wilson, 1998; Wilson and Wilson, 2007). Groups of early humans that were more effective at cooperating had greater access to resources and, consequently, a better chance of survival. Thus, cooperative behavior at the individual level was driven by selection processes at the group level.

The groups that were most successful were those that established a culture of cooperation, with social norms that encouraged group members to monitor the contributions of others, rewarding them when they cooperated and punishing them when they did not (Boehm, 2011; Henrich, 2016). These social norms ensured that cooperation within groups could thrive even in the face of evolutionary pressures that might otherwise encourage selfish individual behavior. The groups that could establish social processes to minimize fitness-reducing conflict and maximize cooperation were the groups that were more successful over time.

These social norms and processes were necessary because, in their absence, there can be advantages to be gained through a lack of cooperation, or more precisely, by displaying aggressive, exploitative, or free-riding behavior. When such behavior is punished, and when rewards can be gained through cooperative behavior, then cooperation will become more prevalent. The suppression of aggressive or free-rider behavior in groups of early humans was easily accomplished due to the environment in which they lived; specifically, selfish, aggressive, or free-riding behavior could be punished through social sanctions, which could manifest as temporary social rejection or even outright ostracism, which could be deadly, as individual humans or even whole families could struggle to survive on their own in the ancient world.

Threats to Cooperation in Modern Times

The need for cooperation is still present in modern times. We may go months or years without needing our fight-or-flight response, but we can’t go a single day without needing to apply our social skills to cooperate with those around us. Cooperation is at the core of modern life as much as it was for our ancestors. Almost every important accomplishment in modern society has been achieved by a cooperative group of some kind.

However, existential threats to individual survival no longer exist, and this shift in our living conditions has created several barriers to cooperation. First, we no longer belong to readily definable groups, at least most of the time, and even within the groups in which we reside (e.g., places of work), there is often no readily definable entity to which we feel a sense of belonging. As a result, we are often unsure of how we can contribute to the group, and even if an individual does manage to make a positive contribution, it can be overlooked or be so inconsequential given the grand scale of the group (e.g., a large multinational corporation) that a good deed can go unrewarded, or even unnoticed. And, importantly, selfish deeds are often rewarded; at the very minimum, there are few social sanctions for selfish behavior in most modern societal contexts.

Elinor Ostrom (1990) studied groups of individuals in various parts of the world who were attempting to cooperatively manage a common-pool resource (e.g., a pasture or a fishery) and found that neither privatization nor top-down control was needed to avoid the overuse of the resource. Instead, she showed that some groups evolved cooperative norms and processes that prevented them from outstripping the carrying capacity of their environment. In other cases, such processes did not evolve, and the common pool resources were considerably diminished. This suggests that cooperation can emerge in modern times, but requires certain conditions in order to be sustainable.

Subsequent research has expanded this work to many different sorts of groups, such as neighborhoods (Wilson, 2011) and places of work (Wilson et al., 2020). This research highlights the need to make cooperation a more central aspect of modern life, which will require that, in every context, we put in place norms and processes to foster increased cooperation.

Spreading cooperative practices throughout modern society will be facilitated by a process of variation and selection; that is, only if we have a variety of efforts to promote cooperation can we identify the most effective and further their dissemination. One context in which it is particularly important to foster cooperation is K-12 education, where our society’s children and youth will either learn to cooperate, and subsequently grow to understand the value of vital concepts such as prosociality (Atkins, Wilson, & Hayes, 2019) and nurturance (Biglan, 2015), or they will learn selfishness, and contribute to our society’s ongoing deterioration (Biglan, 2020).

Cooperation in Education

A close look will reveal that K-12 education is not particularly good at encouraging cooperation among students. Outside of widely publicized school shootings, there remains a variety of uncooperative or antisocial behaviors plaguing schools, including bullying, academic disengagement, delinquency, and dropout (Hussar et al., 2020). This is likely because our schools reflect modern society: There is often no clear sense of belonging to a group, either because group membership is unclear or the setting is so large (e.g., a modern high school) that it becomes too diffuse and impersonal. In addition, there are rarely rewards for cooperative behavior or sanctions for uncooperative behavior (e.g., peers very rarely intervene in bullying episodes), and there are often rewards (social and otherwise) for selfish behavior (e.g., bullying can result in elevated social status, cheating on tests can result in higher grades).

To elicit cooperative behavior among students, schools must create a social context that reflects the evolutionary history from which cooperative behavior originally arose. Specifically, a social context must be established in which group-based selection pressures once more come into play. To do this, the educational context must possess the following dimensions:

  1. Groups must be highly salient: The learning environment must make group membership absolutely clear and must encourage a sense of belonging to the group by fostering within-group social relationships through disclosure and exchange. Students must have an incentive to contribute to group success, whereby they can realize individual benefits for cooperative behavior, much like our ancestors.
  2. Each student must understand how to make a positive contribution: Students must be given important roles that clearly contribute to the success of the group. In addition, students must be expected to fulfill their role, ensuring that other group members will monitor and evaluate each individual’s contribution to group success.
  3. There must be rewards for cooperative behavior: The group must possess contingencies to reward individuals (socially and otherwise) who make positive contributions to the success of the group. In an educational context (particularly in middle and high school), this reinforcement is much more powerful when it comes from peers.
  4. There must be consequences for non-cooperative behavior: The group must also provide consequences (social and otherwise) when an individual does not contribute sufficiently to group success. Again, these consequences are much weightier when it involves peer expectations rather than just the teacher.

Even more important than knowing “what” schools need to do, however, is knowing “how” they can do it. Very few, if any, of the dimensions described above exist in typical K-12 settings, or even in typical small-group instruction, where students are often simply placed into groups with little opportunity to develop a sense of belonging, few clear roles, and little incentive to cooperate. Unsurprisingly, such approaches to small-group instruction generally fail to yield any cooperative behavior, and often result in negative academic and social experiences for group members.

To more clearly identify how schools can establish the appropriate social context, Johnson and colleagues (Johnson et al., 2013) can provide guidance. Their procedures for small-group instruction (i.e., “cooperative learning”) include design criteria that create a learning environment that elicits cooperative behavior. Over 40 years of research attests that cooperative learning can enhance peer relations, prosocial behavior, and academic engagement and achievement, and can suppress bullying and other forms of uncooperative behavior across a variety of educational contexts (Johnson & Johnson, 1989, 2005; Johnson et al., 2014; Roseth et al., 2008; Van Ryzin & Roseth, 2019a, b; Van Ryzin, Roseth, & Biglan, 2020). Recent findings also demonstrate that cooperative learning can reduce racial disparities in educational outcomes and promote greater success for students of color (Van Ryzin, Roseth, & McClure, 2020). Given research on trajectories of development and adaptation from childhood to adulthood, it is clear that these immediate effects can be expected to promote positive long-term outcomes for children and youth.

Cooperative learning achieves these goals by creating a social context that mirrors that of our ancestors. Not only is group membership highly salient when using cooperative learning, but it is clear how each student can contribute to the group and earn rewards for doing so. For example, cooperative learning requires close interpersonal interaction with structured mutual disclosure to encourage group members to get to know one another and develop a sense of belonging to the group. Cooperative learning also specifies the creation of positive interdependence among students, where individual goals are aligned with the goals of the group such that individual goal attainment promotes the goal attainment of others in the group, and vice versa. For example, the lesson may specify an interconnected set of roles (role interdependence), tasks (task interdependence), or materials (resource interdependence) such that the students must collaborate in order to complete the lesson. In addition, teachers may implement goal interdependence, in which they require a single finished product from a group, or reward interdependence, in which they offer a reward to the group if everyone achieves above a certain threshold on an assessment. Thus, not only are students aware of their group membership but are incentivized to contribute to group success.

At the same time, the teacher and fellow group members ensure that each student is held accountable for fulfilling their role or task (i.e., individual accountability). These specific roles or tasks enable the other members of the group to detect and sanction free riding or other uncooperative behavior. In addition, cooperative learning asks teachers to observe student interactions during learning activities and reward students that exhibit particular kinds of positive, helpful behavior (e.g., checking for understanding among group members, encouraging others to participate, summarizing the group’s thinking). Finally, after the lesson, group members are instructed to find something specific and positive to say about each other’s contributions during the lesson, providing valuable positive feedback that not only reinforces cooperative behavior but also further develops a sense of belonging within the group.

Cooperative Learning and Social Norms

Much like the social processes developed by our ancestors, cooperative learning leverages the notion that people fear social exclusion. As noted above, early humans could be socially sanctioned, ridiculed, or even expelled from the group, which would have dire consequences for survival. Although such selection pressures don’t exist today, the consequences of social ostracism remain highly significant among children and youth, for whom social acceptance is paramount (Steinberg, 2014). Most children and youth strive for conformity, to fit in, and thus they adhere to group social norms. Unfortunately, the social norms in most schools do not favor things like cooperation or academic achievement. By making achievement a group activity, as in cooperative learning, social norms can be re-oriented in favor of academic achievement, and the pressure to conform can be leveraged to promote students’ active engagement in learning. By creating a situation in which individual students can benefit from the success of the group, it also becomes more likely that each student will monitor the behavior of others in the group and provide social sanctions for a failure to cooperate.

Although the context is quite different, this sort of well-designed small-group instruction is similar to the principals put forth by Ostrom (1990). She found that the successful groups possessed a group identity and a consensus-based process for decision-making, which provides a role for each person to fulfill that contributes to the group. Ostrom also found that groups successfully managing common-pool resources must have mechanisms for monitoring individual behavior, rewarding those that contribute to the success of the group and providing graduated sanctions for those that do not.

The key difference between cooperative learning and the groups studied by Ostrom is the role of the teacher. A successful cooperative learning lesson requires the teacher to undertake specific steps to make group membership salient, to create contingencies to reward cooperative behavior, and to monitor the contribution of each student. In other words, teachers must explicitly create the social norms and contingencies where cooperation can thrive; in contrast, the successful groups studied by Ostrom created their social norms and practices organically as a group of individuals with relatively equal status. The norms and practices put in place by Ostrom’s groups created a context that rewarded group members for all the things they did to produce positive outcomes for the group; in the case of cooperative learning, the teacher must explicitly structure the lesson to ensure that cooperative behavior is monitored, recognized, and rewarded, not only by the teacher but by fellow students as well.


This point of this essay is not to argue that cooperative learning can solve all the myriad issues within K-12 education. Rather, it is only to highlight that cooperative learning can help to establish social conditions that are similar to those that brought about cooperation in early humans. Given its established track record in the research literature, it is clear that the core principals of cooperative learning can be used to promote a greater degree of prosociality in K-12 education and, perhaps, in other sectors of modern society. 


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Published On: November 9, 2020

Mark J. Van Ryzin

Mark J. Van Ryzin

Dr. Mark J. Van Ryzin is a Research Scientist at the Oregon Research Institute and faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Dr. Van Ryzin has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota and has conducted research with middle and high schools for more than 15 years. In that time, he has published a substantial number of scientific research articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics such as school climate, bullying and victimization, adolescent substance use, delinquent and prosocial behavior, academic engagement and achievement, stress and mental health, and teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships (see here). He has also published several books on prevention science that emphasize family and peer processes. He brings a unique blend of scientific theory and evidence-based practices combined with the insight provided by his many years of experience working with teachers and students in a variety of K-12 settings, as well as his work with diverse college students in his classrooms at the University of Oregon. His mother and best friend are both teachers, and their experiences have strongly influenced his work over the years.

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