Cooperative Learning and Hesed in the Classroom

  • by: Ephraim D. Becker

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Nisan 5753, pp. 39-41. Appears here with permission.
We would all like to foster the development of the mentsch in our classrooms. We bemoan the illustrations which underscore the absence of mentschlihkeit and hesed and yet we stand by, seemingly unable to consistently enhance the hesed climate in our schools.
It can be said that hesed begins with “promotive awareness” – being aware of another’s needs and promoting their fulfillment. It can also be said that there is no substitute for modeling in the development of the mentsch. A teacher who is promoting his or her self-needs in the classroom is invariably going to overlook some of the needs of the students, and, either by omission or commission, will thereby demonstrate the opposite of hesed. But even kind, caring educators may inadvertently guide a class away from the hesed climate by structuring lessons in which a student promotes his/her own needs at the expense of others. It is hoped that the following model, that of Cooperative Learning, will suggest alternative approaches to the traditional individualistic and competitive structures, thereby bringing the interactions in the classroom closer to the ideals of hesed.

How We Interact

There are three interaction models in instruction: a) individualistic, wherein the individual successes or failures of two students are not related; b) competitive, wherein one succeeds and the other does not; and c) interdependent, wherein the successes of two individuals are dependent upon each other.
There is a place for each of these interactions and none can be said to either cause or preclude the exercise of hesed. However, the most common models, individualistic and competitive, set a greater challenge to the exercise of hesed. It is ironic that lessons are often structured individualistically or competitively while the students clearly do not yet have the skills to be promotive within them.

Individualistic Learning

The most common mode of instruction in Jewish schools is individualistic. Even group work frequently consists of either individuals sitting together each doing his/her own assignment, or one student working and others “signing on.” Not only is there no sense that one student’s success is hinged upon another’s, the students are frequently unaware of the learning status of the others. They do not “need” each other and are not dependent upon each other. The dependence in the room is solely upon the self or the teacher.
The fostering of hesed awareness means, however, that there can be no activity worthy of human endeavor in which there is no room to wish someone else well at the same time. In other words, there should not be any classroom structure that is so individualistic that there is no room for a promotive component. A teacher should look at the lesson and ask: How can this activity be structured so that it can be carried out while wishing another person well?

Competitive Learning

In the competitive model, one’s success depends upon another’s failure. We might find awareness of other in this model, but the awareness often exists only in a comparative/demotive sense. 1 This contrasts dramatically with the hesed model in which the awareness is accepting/promotive.
These models of instruction create the maximal challenge to hesed. The ability to wish another well in an individualistic or competitive context takes an enormous investment of energy and time in its development and execution.

Cooperative Learning

The Cooperative Learning model fosters positive interdependence in which students share a common goal. Cooperative Learning has been shown to increase academic achievement, enthusiasm for the subject, appreciation for the teacher, and, most importantly for our discussion, promotive awareness among the students. It is a powerful strategy which can be employed to ensure that the structure of the lesson will not impede the modeling of caring, nurturance and support.
Cooperative Learning requires considerable training for its implementation. There are several excellent models of cooperative learning. While any cooperation in the classroom is better than none and should be celebrated, not all models place the same emphasis on the teaching and processing of social skills. I therefore recommend the Johnsons’ model. The Johnsons have explored the implications and effects of cooperation and compared them with the competitive and individualistic modes. The results of some 600 studies compiled into a recently released meta-analysis, conclude that cooperation is positively correlated with, among other outcomes, higher achievement, better retention, and higher self-esteem.2
The Johnsons suggest that successful group members need to be developed. Learning how to interact positively with peers is the result of careful instruction in the skills of encouraging, praising, summarizing and conflicting creatively, to name a few. Their research has shown that there are five key components to a cooperative lesson: a) positive interdependence linking students in a common goal, reward, resources, etc; b) face to face interaction – opportunities for interaction patterns and verbal interchange among students; c) individual accountability – cooperative interaction today must enable individual achievement tomorrow; d) interpersonal and small group skills – teaching the social skills necessary for maintaining the group; and e) processing – analyzing how well the groups are achieving their goals, employing their social skills and maintaining effective working relationships within the group.3


The objective of training in Cooperative Learning is to give the teacher the ability to translate any lesson plan into a Cooperative Lesson. This training takes time arid support. Even though the formal training in Cooperative Learning is extensive, components of this model can be employed without significant alteration in the actual lesson. In fact, just thinking about and sharing ideas with one another regarding the issues of cooperation and interdependence can spawn ideas for the classroom. The following are some suggestions for initial implementation.

Cooperative Learning and Hesed in the Classroom

Picture a classroom scenario, and describe the nature of the interactions in that scenario (use terms such as promotive/demotive, cooperative, individualistic, competitive). Then, suggest ways in which the interaction might be modified to promote a greater awareness of interdependence. Let us take a look at a common example: whole class discussion (questions/answers).
Jacob is a “question answerer” in the classroom. He has his hand up at all times to respond to a teacher-directed question and often dominates those questions. As Jacob raises his hand in class, there is an interaction between Jacob and his classmates, and it may not be promotive. Jacob may be hoping that another student is not called on, or, if called on, does not have the correct answer; others may, in turn, hope that Jacob is found to have the wrong answer, etc. This is contrary to the first principle of hesed: there is no activity in which there is not room for wishing another person well. The activity as structured is challenging since it has potentially de motive implications. It might be modified by having the students check in with one another for the answer and then quoting each other (perhaps even by name) when answering a question. Thus, when Jacob raises his hand, he will be indicating his preparedness to promote another student since he will be quoting another student, by name. This increases the trustworthiness and safety of the classroom and the hesed climate. There are other techniques as well – perhaps requiring that all hands be raised before accepting an answer so that the students need to share the available information. Many more such possibilities could be explored with colleagues.
For hesed to be present in the classroom, the room needs to be a safe place. Generally speaking, safety in any context can be recognized when the sense of support/nurturance approximates the stress. The support/nurturance can come in many forms, both verbal and non-verbal. (Note however, that the non-verbal support and encouragement does not produce significant results if the participants are not skilled, able or comfortable with providing verbal support.) A critical component of that support comes from the structure of the lesson and the degree of interdependence that the students feel. A student who is called upon to respond in class (a significant stressor, since the student must trust the others for their acceptance) should be able to feel a concomitant sense of trustworthiness in the room (the others are “rooting” for his/her success).
The teacher can and must read the hesed pulse of the class and take pains not to violate the correlation of support to stress. The efforts expended in maintaining this awareness will contribute to the trustworthiness of the context. Awareness of the implications of any given interaction is a major step towards alleviating the emotional pain which would be associated with an error of balance (where trust exceeded trustworthiness or stress exceeded support). Restructuring the lesson for interdependence, then, would validate the feelings of the students as well as erihance the future climate of the classroom.


It would appear that test-taking is a natural challenge to the hesed climate of the classroom. This need not be the case. While it is true that the test should serve to provide individual accountability for the material learned, there is no reason that it should be missing the critical component of promotive awareness. The teacher must be aware of that truism when he/she schedules a test.
As a practical recommendation, I would suggest a cooperative strategy: Have the students review the material with a study partner in class. Then, award bonus points to any student whose partner meets particular criteria (or whose combined scores add up to some criteria, or some other clever strategy). I like to begin (for the first few months of implementation) by having the students predict whether their partner will get each answer right or wrong. The student gets the bonus point for each correct prediction. In this early stage, we need not impose upon the students to help each other, or need each other (thus avoiding the early concerns over group grades). They simply need to check in with one another. The conversation might sound like this:

“Please tell me what you think the answer is to number 7.”
“I think the answer is 27+9=46.”
“OK, then, your answer is wrong. We can go on to the next one now, since I will write that you will get the wrong answer for number 7 .”

Then, on the quiz, the student can indicate that his/her partner will get number 7 wrong, and receive a bonus point for being aware of his/her partner. Now, there is a certain risk here, since the student who discovers that his/her answer is incorrect may go over to another student and find out how to correctly add the numbers 27 and 9. Given this risk, it may be easier for student A to explain to student B how to arrive at the correct answer for this addition problem. Thus, with an awareness of another’s need, the process of cooperation begins and eventually leads to a desire to help that need. The first step in promotive awareness is to heighten awareness. It may be a critical step in reversing traces of non-supportive (demotive) interactions or rank competitiveness which have been observed in some classrooms.
Eventually, the conversation will sound like this:

“Please tell me what you think the answer is to number 7.”
“I think the answer is 27+9=46.”
“Well, I think the answer is 36. Tell me how you get 46?”
“I set it up like this, and…”
“Well, if you set it up like this…”
“Oh, now I’ve got it, thank you! You explained that well. I don’t even feel dumb for missing that!”
“Great. If we both get this right, we can get bonus points. I think we can do it. Good luck on the quiz!”

Hesed begins in the Staff Room

Just as the classroom must be perceived by students as a safe place, so must the general professional atmosphere of the school be seen by teachers as one that positively encourages the experimentation with new approaches, methodologies, etc., and as a place where one can make mistakes, share them and learn from them.
Have you ever experienced any of these stresses?

  • You walk into a classroom with the sense that nobody really cares if your lesson goes well or poorly.
  • You would never feel comfortable sharing something that went wrong in a lesson unless there was a student to blame for the failure.
  • Only a few people speak up at staff meetings and they generally regret it afterwards.
  • The principal is isolated from the teaching staff.

If any of these experiences are familiar to you, then in all probability your school is lacking a collegial support group. These are nurturing, small groups (2-4 people) whose members are committed to each other’s success in the classroom. These are groups that identify a shared goal (positive interdependence) which will lead to more effective instruction for each of its members (individual accountability). They work on maintaining the social support necessary to keep the group functioning well (social skills) and they talk about their success and challenges in both achieving their academic goals as well as their interactions (processing). They meet fairly regularly, in a face to face format, and they look forward to being there. It is a safe place to make mistakes, to share them and to grow from them. It is a place where honest, thoughtful praise always comes first. It is also a safe place for the principal to participate. In the absence of a safe haven for the teacher, the classroom will not be a safe place for the students.


In summary, then, the following steps should be considered:

  1. Increase our awareness of the interactions in our lives and the lives of our students.
  2. Accept upon ourselves the responsibility for structuring the interactions in the classroom in a way that fosters a promotive outcome.
  3. Brainstorm with other faculty members for ways of fostering promotive awareness.
  4. Consider implementing Cooperative Learning in the classroom, first, through the use of cooperative “starters” such as “Turn to your neighbor,” etc., and, after training, the formal use of Cooperative Learning in the lessons.
  5. Be aware of the interactions throughout the school.
  6. Discuss these areas within a supportive circle. Share each other’s successes (first!) and talk about the challenges.

The warmth that another feels is directly related to the energy expended in trying to get into that person’s corner. Success is measured not by what was said or done, but by the sense of effort in the direction of hesed. There is one good litmus test for success: Do the people involved in the setting feel nurtured, supported and encouraged in their striving towards success? Do the students feel it in the classroom, lunchroom and playground? Do the teachers feel it in their classrooms, in the faculty lounge, or in staff meetings? Do administrators sense that the school is a trustworthy place to grow, and to make mistakes?
If we mean hesed, we will have something to smile about. If we are thinking about hesed, let us get together and celebrate!


1.A number of educators have raised the issue of the apparent value which our Rabbis place upon competition. They speak, generally, of two sources. The first introduces shelo lishma ba lishma (Berakhot 17a: pro-forma behaviors leading to sincere ones). The second is the rabbinic dictum that kin’at soferim tarbeh hokhmah(Bava Batra 21a: the jealousy of scholars increases knowledge). While this is not the place for a lengthy exposition of either of these dicta, I would like to direct the reader’s attention to the comments of both Rashi and Tosefot (Berakhot 17a, Taanit 7a). They both make the point, repeatedly, that a promotive desire (even if it is promotive only of the self, such as a desire for honor, etc.) is the shelo lishma which will lead, eventually, to lishma. Ademotive desire (e.g. that the other should be less successful than the self) is dealt with by the phrase, mutav shelo nivrah (better that he not be created). Such a demotive desire is so contrary to the very essence of God’s creation, olam hesed yibaneh, that it is irretrievably useless. No benefit will ever derive from a rank competitiveness which puts a student in the ghastly position of hoping that another student errs. The jealousy among scholars, which, as explained by the Maharsha, is, at best, a b’di’eved, is only referring to the desire to be as strong in learning or as knowledgeable as the other. The presence of a structure which fosters the desire that the self succeed at the expense of the other has no place in a school which holds out the hope of fostering the development of a mentsch.
2.Cooperation and Competition, Theory and Research, by David and Roger Johnson, Interaction Books, MN, 1989.
3.From Circles of Learning, by David Johnson, Roger Johnson and Edyth Holubec, (1986) p.8. This wonderful overview of Cooperative Learning may be acquired from the Interaction Book Co., 7208 Cornelia Drive, Edina MN 55435 (612-831-9500).

RABBI BECKER is an educational consultant and counselor and is Director of the Seminar “Sensitivity: The Jewish Way.” He will be assuming the post of Mashgiah Ruhani at Darchei Noam / Shapell College, Jerusalem.