All of Us Are Smarter Than Any of Us

Does interdependence make more sense than independence, especially for learning?

Posted Sep 23, 2020

For me, the first step was questioning our culture's conflation of achievement (doing well) with competition (beating others). Only once we realize that the first idea has been collapsed into the second is it possible to see that it's unnecessary and irrational to set things up — at work, at school, at play — so that one person has to fail in order that another can succeed.

Indeed, scholars point out that the ideology supporting this arrangement is just a cultural prejudice: People who weren't raised to worship winning are better able to understand that competition actually holds back everyone — even the winners — from doing their best.

But it was only when I started to dig deeper that I discovered something else about our culturally bound (and ultimately counterproductive) conception of achievement: The problem isn't just that we reduce it to a compulsion to triumph over others. It's also a function of our commitment to individualism. And the practical price for that commitment may be steeper for some of us than others of us, according to a new study (which I'll describe in a moment).

In America, the individual is almost always the point of reference for thinking about success, about morality, about how children are educated, and what defines adulthood. It's about me, not us. As I argued recently, the astonishing selfishness of people who refuse to wear masks or restrict their activities during an epidemic — putting their "liberty" to do whatever they please above a sense of responsibility to (let alone concern for) the well-being of others -- is really just an amplified version of what our whole culture represents.

Once you start to pay attention, you notice this motif everywhere. You hear it when we're told that the hallmark of maturity — the primary indicator of healthy development for young adults — is self-sufficiency. (The corollary is that moms and dads who value their children's interdependence, not just their independence, are often accused of "helicopter parenting.")

You hear it when well-meaning teachers talk about providing "scaffolding" for students —that is, temporary support for what the kids can't yet, but soon will be expected to, do entirely on their own. Again, it's taken for granted that continuing to rely on others is something to be outgrown. (And if it's not, well, providing help to — or receiving help from — a classmate is sometimes given another name: "cheating.")

Most of us are no more aware of the individualistic worldview that shapes us and defines our culture than a fish is aware of being in water. This is the context in which to understand how the central lesson in American schools, as Philip Jackson memorably put it, is "how to be alone in a crowd." Learning is regarded as an activity for a roomful of separate selves, not for a community. One of my elementary school teachers used to trumpet, "Eyes on your own paper! I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do!" This announcement, which issued from her with all the thoughtfulness of a sneeze, annoyed me at the time mostly for its contrived use of the word neighbor. Later I came to realize how misconceived the whole posture was. An impossibly precocious student might have turned to that teacher and said, "So you want to see what happens when I’m stripped of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments? Geez, why wouldn't you want to see how much more my 'neighbors' and I could accomplish together?"


About 20 years ago there was a period of what felt like 45 minutes during which a few states experimented with authentic assessments as alternatives to traditional fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests. Maryland's MSPAP exam, for example, included group projects. Clusters of kids would do science experiments together, allowing evaluators to gauge their skill at understanding and applying scientific principles. It would be impressive enough that these assessments were tapping kids' ability to think rather than just to memorize. But learning -- and thus the process of demonstrating that learning —was also being treated as not just active but interactive. Imagine.

Of course, those few brief flashes of enlightened thinking about assessment from policymakers are long gone. And because standardized tests, especially those with high stakes attached, tend to drive instruction, the choice to evaluate students only as individuals, which few of us even think about as a choice, helps to ensure an individualistic approach to teaching. The Powers That Be want to see only what you can do devoid of neighbors.

What a mammoth missed opportunity. Decades' worth of research demonstrates the benefits of cooperative learning (CL) —an arrangement in which students of all ages and in just about all subjects figure stuff out together, in pairs or small groups.1 CL isn't just about dividing kids into teams; it's about creating "positive interdependence," meaning that assignments are constructed so as to foster active collaboration.

Research over the last 40 years or so shows that carefully structured CL produces consistently impressive gains of many kinds: healthier self-concept, improved social interaction (and more favorable views of peers from different ethnic backgrounds and ability levels), more positive attitudes about learning (and about particular topics), and higher achievement (comprehension, creativity, problem-solving strategies, and — last and also least —recall of facts).

Social psychologist David Johnson conducted many of those studies in cooperation with his brother Roger and reviewed even more done by other scholars. Their summary: "[W]orking together to achieve a common goal produces higher achievement and greater productivity than does working alone is so well confirmed by so much research that it stands as one of the strongest principles of social and organizational psychology." (Incidentally, I borrowed the title of this essay from a favorite motto of the Johnsons.)

CL in particular is so powerful not only because students can share their talents and resources, but also because they are encouraged to explain and refine their thinking, to challenge one another's ideas and build on them. Higher-quality reasoning tends to emerge from a process of considering others' perspectives. Those left to their own devices miss out on all these benefits.

And yet most of the time kids are on their own. They're made to sit at separate desks, as if on private islands, and the fact that each is supposed to be responsible for his or her own assignments and behavior means that each is (at best) irrelevant to the others' learning. (At worst, they're pitted against one another, which means their classmates have been set up as obstacles to their success.) Again and again, we need to be reminded that this ethos, which is baked into our understanding of concepts like achievement and justice and maturity, is not a fact of life. Nor is it shared by most human beings.

In fact, even within a single culture like ours we may witness class-based differences. Consider those widespread warnings about helicopter parenting that, as I noted, are rooted in an individualistic ethic: A successful young adult is primarily seen as someone who can make it on his or her own. A fascinating series of studies published in 2012 by a multi-university research team revealed that “predominantly middle-class cultural norms of independence that are institutionalized in many American colleges and universities” are particularly ill-suited for young adults who are the first in their families to attend college. These norms “do not match the relatively interdependent norms to which many first-generation students are regularly exposed in their local working-class contexts prior to college.” And the result of this mismatch is to create a hidden academic disadvantage for these students, one that adversely affects their performance.

Given the expectations of self-sufficiency that permeate our institutions — “learn to do for yourself” — connections with, support from, and maybe even interventions by parents become that much more important to help students persist and succeed in a challenging environment. Often unpleasant denunciations of helicopter parenting, which are simplistic and troubling in any case, are particularly unfortunate when no attention is paid to differences among students and their backgrounds.

And that takes us to a brand-new study that considered just such differences in the context of classroom performance. Citing earlier research showing that people with less education are often more likely than those with a college degree to see themselves as "connected to others and social contexts," researchers found that students from working-class backgrounds who were enrolled in a particular college course did better when working collaboratively than when working alone — as long as they were in groups with at least one other working-class student. A follow-up study showed that cooperating actually helped such students to perform better than middle-class students.

I confess to some misgivings about the class-based conclusions drawn from these studies as a result of the limited way the researchers defined class (and also because the "working class" sample was somewhat atypical by virtue of attending an elite university). But the larger point is that it doesn't make sense to think of achievement in a purely individualistic way, as we do in schools, workplaces, and society more generally. Tackling tasks together — particularly but not exclusively for people already predisposed toward interdependence — is usually a lot more productive.

Not only should we offer opportunities to learn and work cooperatively, but the whole idea of achievement should be reframed to reflect collective accomplishment.


1. For a detailed description of various models of cooperative learning, along with the research base that supports the whole approach, see chapter 10 ("Learning Together") of my book No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).