Cooperative Education and Social Change

I often think of sexuality education as a critical space for provoking social change. A comprehensive sexuality curriculum designed for younger folks typically emphasizes lesson plans on healthy relationships and interpersonal skills. In these classrooms, learners work on not only understanding but also practicing communication and respect. If a large part of sexuality education is to improve the ways we relate and interact with one another (and considering so many of the problems in the world are rooted in the way we perceive and treat each other), then the classroom can be a powerful tool for social change. While there are several instructional models that can be used to create a democratic learning environment, I would like to highlight cooperative learning as an example.

Teacher and students working on a project together about sexual reproduction

What is cooperative learning?

Cooperative learning is not necessarily the same thing as group work, although group work can be cooperative. So, what makes learning a “cooperative” effort?

“Most researchers agree that groups are cooperative when there is a common or closely related set of goals, equal distribution of labor in meeting the goals, and close contact as the goals are being pursued. Face-to-face interdependence and individual accountability are such as the hallmarks of cooperative learning.” (Estes, Mintz, & Gunter, 2011, p. 259).

So, how can an instructional model be useful from a social change or social justice perspective? The way I see it, a classroom can serve as a microcosm for the society we want to build outside the learning environment. This is especially true for sexuality education because so much of society at large is structured around aspects of human sexuality.

Unlike individual learning – which is largely competitive in nature – cooperative learning encourages students to share skills, resources, and ideas. They learn not only basic skills in communication but also negotiation, shared decision-making, and sometimes even conflict resolution. For students working collaboratively, notions of personal responsibility and accountability reach beyond concerns of grades. Instead, students must consider the needs of the entire group while striving to complete a given task. Estes, Mintz, & Gunter (2011) compare the passivity of a traditional classroom with a classroom that incorporates cooperative learning: “students listen, write, tell, paraphrase, read, assist others, and interact” (p. 275). In other words, learners are practicing critical thinking and interpersonal skills. This type of collaborative effort provides an environment in which students learn from each other and ultimately have the ability to learn more about themselves. Engaged, socially effective, and self-actualized students will make for more well-rounded participants in workplaces and in the world at large.

bell hooks (1994) argues that “as a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence” (p. 8). Basically, cooperative education has the power to not only create more effective people but also build a more cohesive momentum for learning. Imagine if the only perspective you learned about all day was your instructor’s. Not very exciting, right? As part of her articulation of an engaged pedagogy (influenced largely by Paulo Freire), hooks implies that this shared sense of excitement is critical for not only the students but also the teacher, who can also learn from the stories and perspectives of students.

My most memorable class to this day utilized cooperative learning in ways that were unimaginable to me before I walked into that classroom. It was my first year of college at a tiny liberal arts school. I enrolled in a fifteen-credit course that examined American identities through three different academic lenses: anthropology, literature, and documentary photography. Three professors, one from each discipline, co-taught the course. While as students we often broke into groups and worked cooperatively, we also had the model of our professors who were working together to reach a common goal and who were learning from each other in the process. While I did not appreciate it as much as an eighteen year old as I do now, this learning environment was both radicalizing and life-changing for me. I argue that through interpersonal skill-building and momentum-building, a greater emphasis on thoughtfully planned cooperative education can transform the ways we work together as people.

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students” (hooks, 1994, p. 13).

Cooperative education in a sexuality classroom

Cooperative learning is clearly a vital component of instruction. It can be challenging, however, to effectively piece it into sexuality education. In the United States traditional classrooms are largely individualistic, and students often groan at the mention of group work. Especially in this context, I suggest activities that are lively, interactive, and generally fun. For instance, asking students to walk around the room and use colorful markers for a graffiti wall activity can energize the classroom. Learners can use this activity to brainstorm lists surrounding a wide range of topics such as aspects of the circles of sexuality or information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Role-playing is another example of a cooperative learning activity. Students might break into pairs or small groups to practice negotiating barrier use or navigating verbal consent, followed by reflecting on how this might feel to do with their partners. “Participation in dyads and triads help individuals feel included and can reduce performance anxiety,” which is crucial with sensitive topics (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996, p. 133). Incorporating this type of skill-building empowers learners to be healthier communicators not just sexually but in all aspects of their lives.


Estes, T., Mintz, S. & Gunter, M. (2011). Instruction: a models approach (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Hedgepeth, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: New York University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

4 responses to “Cooperative Education and Social Change

  1. I agree with your analysis. I think that using a cooperative learning approach would better suit sexual education. I do not think the traditional lecture and note taking style is effective for today’s youth. Utilizing a graffiti wall and more interactive activities would provide a greater chance of student comprehension.

  2. I absolutely love that you utilized bell hooks’ work to discuss the importance of cooperative learning. I wholly agree with hooks that a learning environment is a sort of community, and it’s important to foster the community and help it to thrive. The best way for a community of youth to thrive is learning together and from one another, and I would argue that this is true for adults too. As you said, Rae, “this shared sense of excitement is critical for not only the students but also the teacher, who can also learn from the stories and perspectives of students.” Excitement for learning is a key aspect of actually learning.

  3. I like how you argue for cooperative education as way to cultivate interpersonal skills between students, and address individual education as more competitive. This post allowed me reflect on my own school experience, which seemed to foster competition no matter what the classroom format or activity structure: if we split into groups, the groups competed with one another; if we split into groups of three, two members would butt heads and demand that the third member choose a side. Group activities seemed only to add to the competitive environment by giving us more opportunities to compete. While I completely agree with you that cooperative learning should be used in the classroom, in some unusually cut-throat environments, introducing the activity is only half the battle. Teachers may need to directly address cooperative behavior through class rules, self-evaluations, group evaluations, etc. if they want to cultivate interpersonal skills.

  4. This is an amazing post! You blended your opinion with other sources seamlessly. Cooperative education is so important, especially for sexuality. Having knowledge is great, but if you’ve never been given the opportunity to develop communication and respect it will be difficult to navigate many sexual situations. Bringing in that piece that helps us relate to one another and enhance our relationships is extremely valuable in education. There is so much we can learn from other people apart from the educator, and traditional classrooms don’t often benefit from this. In my experiences dyad and triad activities have been used for brainstorming but never for learning how to communicate more effectively.

    I appreciate how you see the learner not just in the classroom but also as a member of the workforce and the world. So often I see educators teach students as members of that specific classroom instead of teaching them as people of the world. I know that I often do this as well. Thank you for reminding me that lessons extend beyond what the educator may have intended, which in my opinion is a good thing.

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