Jul 24 2008

Common teacher mistake #3

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.

4 Responses

  1. I don’t think you sound particularly grumpy at all. I’ve read every single one of your posts and watched all of the videos and you have a lot to say that rings true for me. I’m now going into my third year of teaching at a brand new school and your posts are invaluable to me as I plan for the next school year and reflect on what worked over the past two years, what didn’t work, and what kind of teacher I really want to be. Keep ‘em coming!

  2. No, Gary, you don’t come off as grumpy. You come off as realistic, and that’s very good. More than that, you are being analytic, and that’s also very good. Now if I were to write about group work, then I would be grumpy.

    And I will write about group work, one of these days. And when I do I will emphasize the negatives. I will feel fully justified in emphasizing the negatives because I feel the negatives. Call me a grinch, but I am an individualist. I don’t like group work. I am not a team player.

    That is a gross oversimplification, of course. But it is true that a certain percentage of the general population has a negative reaction to group work. Suppose we divide a typical class of thirty students into three groups, those who like group work, those who are neutral to group work, and those who dislike group work. How would the percentages come out? I don’t know, of course, but that third group does exist. I would be in it, and I have known others who would be in it. If we’re going to analyze group work in teaching, it seems to me that we ought to think about those percentages. Ed school ideology, if I may call it that, just assumes everyone is in the first group, and that is not the case. My own estimate of the group percentages would be 45-35-20, more or less, depending on just how the groups are defined.

    A thorough investigation in to the dynamics of group work would have to ask why group work is disliked by some. One answer is this: Group work dilutes individual effort, and that is frustrating. When I do get around to writing about group work I will give examples of this frustration, and those examples will not be hard to come by. I will also attempt to show that dilution of individual effort by group work is a logical and inevitable consequence of human nature. And I will argue that therefore it is the less capable individuals who favor group work, on average, and the more capable who dislike group work. The more capable feel the frustration because they can envision alternatives.

    A thorough investigation in to the dynamics of group work would also have to ask why group work is favored by many people. My answer, in short, is that we are a sociable species. It’s in our genes. But, like many other things in our genes, we have to learn to manage it. Group work presents problems. We can’t maximize the potential of group work if we are ignorant of those problems.

    A thorough investigation in to the dynamics of group work would also have to ask about different forms that groups can take. There can be a “division of labor” group. I do very well in that type of group. Example: I teach math. You teach history. I don’t mess with your class and you don’t mess with mine. But we do enjoy gossip over the lunch table. We’re a team! See, I am a team player after all.

    I would also argue that there can be “additive teams” and “subtractive teams”. The additive team is the ideal visualized by advocates of group work. In an additive team the strengths of the members combine. In a subtractive team the weaknesses and limitations of the members combine. One type of additive team would be the division-of-labor team (which is not to say that every division of labor scheme is successful). But the idealists envision more than that. They envision the team that can actually “brainstorm” productively. I have no doubt that such teams do exist, but I think they would be very rare. Perhaps the top leadership of the Manhattan project would be a good example.

    And probably there are other types of teams or groups that could be described and analyzed.

    Actually I have written on some of these ideas and concerns. Here’s a link http://www.brianrude.com/let's-do.htm

  3. I love: “Haven’t you ever been put in a group (maybe during the TFA institute) where you were off-task? And you’re an adult.” UM YES!

  4. Seating « The Anxious Educator linked to this post.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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