Memorial Resolution: Elizabeth G. Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen


(1932 - 2005)Elizabeth G. Cohen, Professor Emerita of Education, died of cancer on March 12, 2005 at her campus home. Born in 1932 in Worcester, Massachusetts, she attended Clark University and obtained her doctorate from Harvard University. Cohen joined the Stanford faculty in 1966 and became a full professor in 1975. She held a joint appointment in Sociology. In 1979, she became the founding director of the Program for Complex Instruction, a groundbreaking pedagogy that applies sociological theory to promote racial, ethnic, and gender equity in the classroom. She directed the program until her retirement in 1999.

From the start of her career, Cohen had the conviction that theories of sociology have meaning for education. One of her most important professional contributions has been the application of sociological theories—expectation states theory and organizational theory—to the social organization of classrooms and schools. At a time when few sociologists (unlike psychologists) actively applied their theories, Cohen believed strongly that theories carry implications for action and that interventions are stronger when they are based on theoretical foundations.

Cohen used sociological theories to champion academic success for all children. Her view was that success for all learners can be achieved only by teachers who maintain an academically rigorous, grade-appropriate curriculum, and know how to work in ethnically, racially, and socially diverse classrooms. Throughout her career, Cohen worked with teachers to devise interventions to create equitable instruction in heterogeneous classrooms by having children work cooperatively in small groups and by teaching teachers to recognize and to value the different intellectual contributions that different children make as they complete learning tasks.

Cohen was an uncontested leader in the field of cooperative learning. Her book, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (1994), as well as her numerous articles and reviews have defined and directed the field of cooperative learning from its earliest days to the present. The impact of her work is well-known and highly respected not only in the United States, but internationally as well.

Cohen was an untiring mentor and greatly beloved by her graduate students, whom she advised, supported, and cared for deeply. She actively recruited doctoral students, particularly students of color and students who were first generation college graduates, and encouraged them to pursue academic careers. During her years at Stanford, she supervised about 80 doctoral dissertations. After Cohen's death, at a gathering to honor her life and work, many of her former students read loving testimonials and numerous others sent letters to be read on their behalf. All acknowledged their professional and personal debt to Cohen, and spoke about her unwavering support and solid guidance, not only during their student years, but also thereafter.

Two of the authors of this resolution (Tyack and Strober), team-taught a course on Gender and Education with Cohen. They had the opportunity to observe her rigorous teaching methods first-hand. In the classroom she insisted that students be grounded both in data and theory. She helped them interrogate easy generalizations and demonstrated the value of the scientific method in researching controversial and politically sensitive matters. Lotan, one of Cohen's former doctoral students, collaborated with her for over 20 years in the research, development, and dissemination of complex instruction in the US and in many other countries.

Cohen cared deeply about gender equity. She faced discrimination when she sought to enter Harvard for a doctoral degree and again when she applied for a faculty position at Stanford. But she prevailed at both institutions. Cohen was one of the first women to become a full professor at the School of Education. As she herself put it in a 1977 interview, "I had to prove a woman could raise kids and do a full share."

Cohen was a tough-minded, liberal activist. She was generous in sharing her knowledge about what it takes for women to succeed in academia. She was an active member of the Center for Research on Women (now the Institute for Research on Women and Gender) from its inception and taught numerous women students and faculty how to build support for ideas that run against the "business as usual" grain—how to be patient when patience is needed, scrappy when agitation is needed, and above all, how to persistently and consistently work for change. She was a powerful role model.

Although Cohen's work was internationally known and she traveled widely, she always made time for family, students, colleagues, yoga, and her garden. At a time when few women had succeeded in academia, the way she lived her life demonstrated clearly that a woman could thrive in a high-powered job and simultaneously retain her humanity and generosity.

In addition to her 1994 book, Cohen edited Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms: Sociological Theory in Practice (1997) with Rachel Lotan. In 1998, she received a Presidential Citation of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and in 2003, the Award for a Distinguished Career in Applied Sociology of Education from the Sociology of Education Special Interest Group of AERA.

At Stanford, Cohen served for more than 20 years as the Chair of Social Sciences in Education at the School of Education and also served as Chair of the Faculty Senate Committee on Research. In addition, she was vice president of the Sociology of Education Association, and a trustee of Clark University, her undergraduate alma mater.

Cohen is survived by her husband, Bernard Cohen, Stanford Professor of Sociology, Emeritus; her daughter, Anita Cohen-Williams, of San Diego; her son, Lewis Cohen, of Oakland; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Chairman, it is an honor, on behalf of a committee consisting of Rachel Lotan, David B. Tyack, and myself, to lay before the Senate of the Academic Council a Resolution in memory of the late Elizabeth G. Cohen, Professor of Education, in the School of Education.


Rachel Lotan

Myra H. Strober, Chair

David B. Tyack