Common teacher mistake #3. Overusing cooperative learning.
Cooperative learning is a great tool when used properly and when used in moderation. Unfortunately some schools have ‘bought in’ to this method so much that teachers are actually mandated to seat their students in groups at all times. As a teacher, I’d like to be trusted to decide when I want my students in groups and when I want them in rows. This kind of inflexible rule by an administration takes away the underrated ‘independent work.’
The most common way teachers claim to use group work, all they are really doing is having students work on an individual activity, but to do it ‘in groups.’ This is better than the students doing it individually because of ‘peer tutoring.’ Since the teacher can’t be in more than one place at a time, this enables students who are following to explain to the students who aren’t. The argument goes that if at least one student in each group gets it, that student can teach it to the others.
Well, that might sound good, but if you’re teaching a lesson and you’re hoping that 25% of the students understand, you’re not doing a very good job. When I give an activity, I hope that I’ve explained it well enough that nearly everyone has no trouble completing it.
And you can have peer tutoring without seating the students in groups. If you have good enough classroom management, you can establish a dynamic where students, while they are trying to work independently, are permitted to ask a neighbor for help. That’s the dynamic in my class and it works great.
The ‘real’ way to make a cooperative learning activity is to make a task that really requires a group to accomplish. These activities take a very long time to create. When you make a good one, though, it’s a great feeling. Usually something goes wrong when you make an ‘ambitious’ lesson like this and then you’ve got to make notes so that when it comes time to do that lesson again next year, you’ll have improved it.
The two problems with cooperative learning are assessment and management.
When students work in groups it is very difficult to determine if everyone in the group is learning. Often the weaker students just ‘ride the coat tails’ of the stronger ones. And it’s not because those weaker student are lazy and don’t want to work. It’s just that the stronger ones answer the questions before they get a chance to process them.
Later on, when it’s time to test them, individually, you realize that the group work interfered with your ability to assess.
The oversimplified answer is, “Tell each group that you’re going to pick one student to explain an answer and then the whole group will get that grade. Now you’ve got peer pressure to work for you.”
I’d never do that. It’s really unfair to punish a student who understands the work just because he wasn’t able to successfully teach his group mate the material.
I have used incentives like, “The group that gets the best average on the test will get some extra credit points,” but I try not to punish groups that aren’t working well together.
If you’re teaching a skill and you really want to be sure that everyone learned it, you have to move them back into rows at the end and have each student do some individual work that you can collect and grade.
The other problem is management. The oversimplified response is, “Kids will be less likely to be off-task when they work in groups. You see, they want to talk. So you give them permission to do what they want, but now they’ll be talking in a productive way.”
Sounds good, but it’s a lot harder than that. They want to talk about the party they went to over the weekend. And by permitting them to talk, they have trouble resisting the temptation. It becomes a managment issue that takes an expert to prevent and handle. Haven’t you ever been put in a group (maybe during the TFA institute) where you were off-task? And you’re an adult.
I know I come off as grumpy in these posts. Remember: I like a good group activity. Some of the best lessons I’ve ever done have had group work in them. I’m just aware of how difficult it is to manage and to ensure that all the students really learned. It’s so important that all the students leave class thinking, “I learned something today,” and with group work, if you’re not an expert manager, it’s hard to ensure that.