Cooperative learning is more than an orchestrated system of integrated teams playing for points. According to University of Maryland educator Neil Davidson, the content of cooperative learning -- depending on the particular program -- fosters either basic skills or critical learning, or problem solving or creativity. No matter what the emphasis, all methods of cooperative learning intrinsically teach a student social skills.

Jean Reid, a reading specialist at Mount Vernon Elementary School in Alexandria gives the example of a reading lesson for a third grader. In the traditional method, a child reads a story at her level and then answers a list of questions at the end of the story, such as, "How many cats did the farmer's wife own?"

In the cooperative method the story assigned is the same, but the question may read: "Think back through the story again. How would you tell it through the view of the farmer's neighbor?" After discussing the various answers with her teammates, the student writes her answer or she and her teammates share it with the class. The answer is corrected by the teacher and she is given points for her team.

Depending on the teacher's guidance, the team also may make a project of the story, such as a team booklet in which everyone participates and critiques each other's work.

This same critical learning is applied in vocabulary lessons: Instead of a student individually learning one meaning for one word, she cooperatively learns the only meaning that can fit a word. For example: Use "extinct" in a sentence where it can be the only meaning. With her teammates, the fifth grader first tries a sentence, "Dinosaurs are extinct." She learns through participation with the other students and the teacher's input that such a sentence also could be "Dinosaurs are big" or "Dinosaurs are dangerous." Thus, her sentence did not critically define the word. After discussion with her team she decides on the sentence: "We can no longer observe dinosaurs because they are extinct."