Friday, September 4, 2015

Some Possibly Uncomfortable Truths About Cooperative Learning

Last week, I conferred with a new teacher who was struggling to manage the behavior of her class of fourth graders.  For a variety of reasons, these children have not yet developed the ability to self-regulate, so, when released from direct instruction, their immediate impulse is to flee from the assigned task to anything else.  This impulse was aided by the fact that the teacher had placed their desks in clusters of five.

When I suggested that cooperative groups might not be the most productive arrangement for her students, she looked shocked—for about a second—then audibly exhaled and said, “Thank you!”

For some time now, teachers have been served a pretty steady diet of cooperative learning Kool-aid, and I feel it necessary to clear up some misconceptions.  Lest anyone think I’m simply a curmudgeon with a fetish for desks in rows, let the record state that, for five years, I served as a trainer in Kagan-style cooperative learning for my school district.  I believe in the value of effective cooperative grouping.  The operative word being “effective.”

Truth #1: Sitting together does not necessarily lead to working together.   In my observations, the most common scenario I witness is the teacher’s request that students “work together to finish this problem/ worksheet/ paragraph/ etc.  In most classrooms, what happens next is that a high-achieving, grades-oriented student in each group takes over the task.  I was this child (I am this adult).  This student will not risk allowing others to contribute, and those others are more than happy to surrender to the grade-grubber’s superior will.  In the absence of a high-achieving, grades-oriented group member, students will engage in a dizzying number of stall tactics that may include but are not limited to sharpening pencils, flipping pages randomly and/or accidentally dropping the book several times, asking to go the bathroom, requesting clarification of the task (this after 10 or 15 minutes have elapsed), and conversing on topics of greater personal relevance, interest, and facility.

Truth #2: Just because students are engaged does not mean they are learning.  That said, it is important to recognize that when students are not engaged, they’re definitely not learning.  However, teachers must consider whether and how collaboration contributes to learning goals.  Often the answer is “not at all.”  Students may enjoy the opportunity to talk to each other while working, but unless this talk is focused on building content knowledge or skill it is not helping them academically.  Yes, yes! Some students need to build social skills, but simply placing four kids in a group will not make that happen any more than placing four cats in a bag will.  My experience is that the students who most need help with social skills either shut down or become hostile when forced to work together.  Most groups—whether children or adults—require a protocol of some kind to enable them to distribute responsibilities equally.

Truth #3: The “real world” analogy we keep using to justify group projects is completely specious.  My significant other is the director of a team of software engineers. 
  •  His team is made up of individuals hired specifically for their skill in writing code. 
  • The team knows he is in charge.  He has more experience and holds institutional authority over them.  As their director, he can request status reports to keep track of how the work is progressing, reprimand any team member whose work is lackluster, and recommend the firing of team members who consistently fail to perform. 
  •  Tasks are assigned to take advantage of team members’ strengths.  If they want to shore up their weaknesses, they do so on their own time.
  •  In the end, the only thing that matters is that the product is completed on time and according to client specifications.   
Contrast those givens with the typical school project group.

·         Because the material is new, by definition, no one is an expert. 
·         Likewise, no one in in charge.  Even groups that are assigned a team captain succumb to the realities of adolescent social dynamics.
·         The goal of school activities is to help students get better at what they do not already know how to do.  If the activities tap only students’ strengths, they will not lead to learning. 
·         The learning process should be more important than the product. 

Now, I realize it is a poor leader who tears ideas down without providing alternatives.  But it's Friday, and I'm tired.  I’ll get to that in my next post.

Remember to breathe in and out (repeat as necessary),

Dr. Deb  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

You are the Grown-up

During a recent classroom observation, I experience particular annoyance with a group of students who seemed ostentatiously inattentive during instruction.  At very long last, the teacher gently requested that they stop talking while she was talking.  Unsurprisingly, the request was not honored.
In our post-observation conference, I asked her, “Did you notice they were talking before you said anything to them?” 

“A little bit.”

“Why didn’t you say something the first time?”

“I don’t want to be mean!”

I asked her, “If you were a parent, and your three-year old wanted to switch to an all-candy diet, would it be mean to refuse?”


“Why not?”

“Because it’s not good for them.”

“Right.  And it’s not good for your kids if they don’t listen while you teach.”

She thought about it, nodded, and then admitted, “I guess I’m just afraid of what they might do if I try to make them behave.”

In an attempt to establish some common ground, I shared with her that in the early years of my teaching career, I was often intimidated by the more confident students.  They triggered a lot of old anxieties from my own high school career.  I confessed to Kiley, “I wasn’t very popular in high school.”

“I was bullied in high school.”

And there it was, the source of the problem.  Kiley was regressing in her own classroom, turning back into the shy, frightened 14-year old who was taunted by her classmates. 

Many of us go into the profession without realizing how much adolescent baggage we carry with us.  And if we don’t make ourselves aware of how our past impinges on our present, we can buy ourselves all manner of trouble.   

For myself, teaching was a way to rewrite my teenage experience and cast myself as one of the popular kids.  The high-water mark of my career had to be the day I walked past a few members of the men’s chorus, and they spontaneously broke into a four-part harmony rendition of Oh, Teitelbaum!  If forced to choose, I suppose I’d rather be respected than liked, but I liked being liked.  And that led me to make choices that were very much not in my students’ best interests.

When working with beginning teachers, I counsel that most behavioral problems stem from a single issue: the students' lack of respect for them.  “You are the grown-up now!” I explain.  “Even if you don’t feel like a grown-up—especially if you don’t feel like a grown-up—you need to fake it until you do.  Put your hair in a bun, slip on a pair of high heels, and stand in front of the mirror saying ‘I am the grown-up.  I am the grown-up.  This is what I look like when I say, “I am the grown-up,!”’” Of course, it is difficult to be a successful grown-up if you’re still fighting adolescent wars. 

The first step in any recovery program is to acknowledge you have a problem.  To do that, you have to become aware of the problem. I think it would be good practice for every young middle and high school teacher to write their autobiographies, giving particular attention to those aspects of their educational experiences that were not pleasant, not successful.  In this way, we can begin to identify hot buttons and subjectivities that might otherwise remain shadowed, subverting our best efforts to make school better for those we teach than it was for us.

Remember to breathe in and out, (repeat as necessary)--

Dr. Deb