Cooperative learning has been described as “one large step beyond just learning next to one another to learning with, by, and for each other” [1
]. This means that students are consciously clustered in small, heterogeneous groups based on gender, race, ability and socio-economic background to work together ([2
]. Different researchers agree on the five main elements of cooperative learning [4
]: (a) Positive interdependence: it refers to all group members depending on one another to achieve the desired goal, (b) Promotive interaction: it represents group members’ face-to-face interaction during the tasks, (c) Individual accountability: it means that every group member is responsible of a part of the group’s task, (d) Interpersonal and small group skills: they include active listening, giving and receiving feedback, or praising others’ efforts, and (e) Group processing: it means discussing and reflecting on the group’s work.
Over the last 10 years, cooperative learning has become an increasingly used pedagogical model in Education [7
]. Some of the reasons for this success have been: (a) high teacher training from teacher innovation centers, (b) great dissemination of educational experiences based on this approach, and (c) publication of resources with specific strategies [8
]. This methodological approach has helped teachers try to improve the classroom climate and make learning more appealing [9
]. In addition, it encourages shared responsibility, seeking to foster intrinsic motivation for the task [10
]. This increase has been even larger in Physical Education, showing benefits in the classroom climate and in the students’ responsibility, and generating changes in the teaching practices [11
]. However, some studies have shown the initial rejection that Physical Education teachers face when they try to introduce cooperative learning in their classes [12
]. The changes that this instructional approach involve are not easily integrated by many students, who are used to a Physical Education class where dialogue and group work are not relevant [13
]. That is why some individualistic, high-skilled students reject cooperative learning: it requires different social connections, and they are not ready for them.
Implementing cooperative learning in Physical Education entails addressing the subject from a different perspective, and changing its view as simple “healthism” [14
]. It makes little sense to expect students to cooperate if the curricular focus is on performance. Physical education, properly conducted, can make an essential contribution to educating young people in, about and through the medium of active engagement with organized physical activities, and in so doing can enrich their lives and empower them as members of their communities [15
]. Motor performance, being the axis that regulates Physical Education classes, must be used in reflexive processes that allow students to be aware of what and how they learn and who is at their side, to be able to learn more effectively with increased motivation [16
]. This is closely related to the basic psychological needs associated with learning, with novelty and social relations being two variables that are related to high significance [17
]. These ideas, together with the development of students’ responsibility and autonomy, are what can lead them to positive group experiences [18
] which, over time, generate bonding among classmates. For this reason, it is necessary to integrate contents and contexts that demand group involvement, like being diverse, as an aid to solve the different tasks successfully [19
In a recent review, [4
] found that cooperative learning can promote social interactions among students who experience this approach, and develop, among other skills, “care, concern, empathy, respect for each other, and supporting and encouraging one another to learn”. Cooperating through movement will allow students to develop personal and social skills, which will be difficult to promote in other learning contexts (e.g., individualistic, competitive). In addition, it can help encourage active listening, dialogue, and consensus, decision-making and acceptance of personal strengths and weaknesses [20
Previous research has shown the benefits of cooperative learning in Physical Education [4
], but there is no existing literature comparing its implementation in Primary and Secondary Education. During adolescence, students experience different changes in the affective and social domains, which, in many cases, result in conflict and disruptive behaviors [21
]. Their impetuous character, the concern for their body, the need for self-realization and self-affirmation, and the rejection from the adult’s world are some of the characteristics that differentiate Secondary Education from Primary Education students [22
]. The question is: can cooperative learning play a role in this situation? Physical Education is not a subject that can improve social relations, tolerance and respect between partners per se. Only the methodological approach used by the teacher will be able to lead to these changes. A Physical Education class focused on competition, individualism and low commitment to the group can lead to an ego orientation, being it socially accepted [23
]. Therefore, Educational contexts that generate positive attitudes towards classmates should be generated, and cooperative learning can help.
Based on the aforementioned, the aim of the present study was to compare the effects of Cooperative Learning in two different Educational stages: Primary and Secondary Education. This goal, which has not been previously addressed in the scientific literature, will allow researchers and practitioners, to see how this methodological approach is internalized by students of different ages. The first goal was to assess the effects of a long-term cooperative learning implementation on students’ attitudes towards Physical Education, motivation and social interaction. The second goal was to assess the participating teacher and students’ perceptions during and after the intervention program.
The aim of the present study was to compare the effects of Cooperative Learning in two different Educational stages: Primary and Secondary Education. The first goal was to assess the effects of a long-term cooperative learning implementation on students’ attitudes towards Physical Education, motivation and social interaction. Results showed that only Secondary Education students significantly improved their social interactions after the intervention program compared to their pre-test scores, but also to their Primary Education counterparts. On the other hand, both groups obtained significant improvements in motivation. The second goal was to assess the participating teacher and students’ perceptions during and after the intervention program, and the results highlighted the importance of cooperation in Physical Education to promote respect for others in Primary Education students, and feelings of belonging to a group and group responsibility in Secondary Education students.
Quantitative and qualitative data showed that students’ motivation significantly increased in both age groups after experiencing Cooperative Learning. This increase is noteworthy among Secondary Education students because motivation towards school tends to decrease at this stage [45
]. These results are in line with those obtained in previous studies where a similar significant increase in Secondary Education students’ intrinsic motivation was observed [31
]. Both studies indicated that when Cooperative Learning is implemented on a long-term basis, it can successfully promote students’ motivation in class. Some practitioners believe that the implementation of a Cooperative Learning program can generate motivation among students because of the lower motor demand of the cooperative tasks [46
], but results from the present and the previously mentioned study does not support this hypothesis. Cooperation and motor skills seem to be closely linked to motivation, as long as they integrate responsibilities, group roles, and interpersonal skills such as listening to others and empathy as fundamental elements in the tasks [4
]. Other studies, such as [48
], reflect how students do better academically when there is a motivational, home-oriented climate. The learning climate created by the teacher and the student’s active participation have been identified as fundamental to increase students’ motivation [49
]. Cooperative Learning climates, like the ones promoted in this study, can boost students’ motivation in Physical Education since they have been found dependent upon three elements: cooperation, participation, and respect [50
]. The three were fostered by the different task experienced by the teachers (e.g., group challenges, icebreakers, trust activities). Qualitative results reinforced quantitative data. Regarding motivation, Primary Education groups highlighted the games and the novelty of the activities, while the Secondary Education students underlined the feeling of belonging to the group (social relations). As indicated by [51
], gameplay is an essential part of Physical Education, and it should always be present in class. This is even more important in Primary Education since it can act as a catalyst for creativity and a promoter of teamwork. In Secondary school, it is also necessary to use movement as a tool to favor social relationships, self-esteem, physical self-concept and critical reflection of what is learned [52
In this same trend, results also showed a significant increase in students’ social interactions, but only at the Secondary Education level. Adolescence is a key stage where personality is being re-defined, and social relations are complicated because of increased competitiveness and convulsed friendships [53
]. Results from the present study showed that Cooperative Learning can play an important role to overcome egos, create bonds among classmates and develop paths for an adequate social development [54
]. This holds special relevance to reduce current negative issues such as bullying or disruptive, violent or sexist behaviors in school [55
]. Learning has been found to promote learning in all four domains [4
], including social learning. These aspects are perfectly applicable to the sports field, where the group climate is fundamental to achieve positive results. Some experiences indicate that athletes perceive a greater climate of mastery, valuing effort as the main cause of success [56
]. One of the fundamental elements of Cooperative Learning is the combination of individual and group achievement, which can help build a positive perception towards the group, and the development of interpersonal skills such as respect to peers and tolerance, which can contribute to socialization [57
]. Classroom frameworks like the one created through Cooperative Learning move away from competitive models where individual performance prevails over the success of the group, often excluding the less skilled or less accepted individuals. Moreover, social interaction is one of the most important factors linked to learning [58
]. Therefore, Cooperative Learning can influence student’s academic performance creating social bonds among groupmates. This is even more important in times where everything seems to collapse, like adolescence. Regarding social interaction, Qualitative results reinforced quantitative data. A positive evolution of the Secondary Education students’ social relations were also highlighted. Activities like group challenges probably helped achieve this positive outcome. Task-oriented learning climates, like the ones promoted by Cooperative Learning, have been linked to students’ intrinsic motivation and satisfaction [59
], and they should be promoted, especially among Secondary Education students.