Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Advisor

Associate Professor Len King


Research into the benefits of cooperative learning has focussed most attention onto a social psychological perspective with the result that the putative cognitive benefits of these strategies have not been thoroughly researched and clearly delineated. One consequence of this research focus has been that cooperative learning strategies are not always adopted by teachers and included permanently into their regular classroom practice, thereby possibly denying some students the potential for cognitive gain. This study was conceived originally as an investigation into the claimed cognitive benefits of small-group cooperative learning from a cognitive perspective but the investigation of the cooperative learning literature also led to an investigation of the general learning literature base. Recent research suggested that human learning might not have been described adequately by the earlier perspectives. Some authors contended that a fourth metaphor of human learning may be emerging from the socio-cultural perspectives. Investigating how students learn in cooperative situations was seen as a potential vehicle for the wider investigation of a fourth metaphor. It was against this background that the present study was undertaken. Learning was not seen in terms of a dichotomy between the main cognitivist and socially based perspectives so a pluralist approach was adopted in this study in an attempt to reconcile some of the differences between the main perspectives. Process-product research has been criticised for providing a narrow view of the classroom lives of students. Additionally, critics of laboratory-based research have argued for research to regain its connection with real classroom settings. Given the contentions of several authors, this study was conceived as non-positivist, naturalistic and pluralist within the post-modernist era. Five groups of students at two schools were recruited for this qualitative case study. The students' learning from five purpose-designed lessons was tracked through their transcribed discussions and their recall in "learning journals". Journal data were collected as much as twelve months after the last lesson was completed, enabling the longitudinal tracking of student learning. A major finding of the research was the strong mediational effects on student learning of the classroom context and the group within the classroom. The nature of student talk also impacted strongly upon student learning. Evidence was found of both individual and social construction of knowledge. Knowledge sometimes seemed to appear initially as a group construct but was later modified significantly by the students' individual minds. Although all knowledge originated in socio-cultural contexts, usually through the ultimate human social semiotic of language, the final form of the knowledge appeared highly individual and idiosyncratic. The idiosyncratic nature of the students' learning led the researcher to posit that knowledge resided in the individual neural structures of the brain. This "mind-as-brain" proposition was advanced as a contribution towards a fourth metaphor of human learning. The findings suggested several implications for teachers about the recommended procedures for small-group cooperative learning. Implications for research included further neuroscience investigations into human learning because of the potential for this kind of research to inform practice.

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