Kagan Cooperative Learning Chapter 1

Possible Adverse Effects (Page 1)


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If I call on a student, I hear that student’s answer. I can check for understanding and offer correction if necessary. If students are all talking in pairs or teams at once, how can I check for understanding and offer corrective feedback? Won’t wrong answers be shared?

In the traditional classroom, the teacher calls on students one at a time and has the luxury of hearing everything students say; the teacher can respond to or correct every misconception that is verbalized. In the cooperative learning classroom, the teacher gives up that luxury. It turns out, however, that by giving up the ability to hear everything, we can offer more rather than less corrective feedback, and we can offer it where it is most needed!

How? In the traditional classroom, the students most likely to have misconceptions are most likely to leave class with their misconceptions uncorrected! Let’s take two examples:

Example 1: The teacher asks a question. Students who think they know the answer raise their hands to be called on. They answer and the teacher offers correction if necessary. In this common scenario, who do not raise their hands and do not receive correction? It is the students who are most likely to need help, who are least likely to verbalize their thinking. Thus, those who most need it are least likely to receive corrective feedback!

Example 2: A teacher presents a skill or information, then asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” For fear of embarrassment or for lack of engagement, the students who most need to ask questions are those least likely to ask. Those without understanding or with misconceptions leave class without receiving clarification and without having their misconceptions corrected.

If instead, we have students interacting in pairs and give each partner a minute to verbalize, we can walk around and listen in to a number of pairs, hearing the ideas of a much more representative sample of our class. We hear misconceptions that would never be verbalized in the traditional classroom. We may choose to give corrective feedback in the moment or to the whole class after the pair interaction. In either case, we have a more realistic assessment of the understanding level of our students. Because all students are verbalizing their thinking, not just the high achievers, those most in need of a correction opportunity are most likely to receive the help, either from their partner or from
the teacher.

Wrong answers will be shared in teams. Because the answers are verbalized in the cooperative learning classroom, there is a much greater probability of correction, either by a teammate or by the teacher. To increase the probability of correction, we set up a norm within teams: If you ever hear an answer you are not sure is correct, everything stops and you check a resource: another pair, the book, the Internet, and/or the teacher. In cooperative learning, we actually want wrong answers to be shared—only if they are shared can they be corrected!

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Are high achievers slowed down because they are stuck working with low achievers? Aren’t we just using high achievers to help the low achievers?

This question has been around as long as cooperative learning. The answer is no. The empirical evidence offers a clear, unambiguous answer: High achievers do as well or better in cooperative learning classrooms as they do in traditional classrooms. This is counter-intuitive. The high achievers do in fact spend time tutoring lower-achieving students. Why then would they not achieve less? It turns out that doing one more worksheet problem will make little difference in the achievement level of high achievers, but they do benefit from explaining to others. Every teacher knows: as we teach we learn. Further, the high achievers experience heightened motivation to achieve because being a high achiever in a cooperative learning classroom is associated with high status (“He helps our team.” “We want her on our team.”) rather than the low status and social ostracism that often accompanies high achievement in the traditional classroom (“He is a geek.” “She is a brown-noser.”)

When we ask, “What do students gain from cooperative learning?” suddenly the benefits for high achievers come into sharp focus. Cooperative learning offers our high achievers the opportunity to develop important social skills, and the full spectrum of their intelligences. As they work in cooperative teams, they learn social skills such as leadership skills, teamwork skills, listening, validating others, respecting points of view different from their own, and conflict resolution skills. As they experience a range of structures that integrate higher-level thinking and activate the full spectrum of intelligences, students acquire skills they wouldn’t otherwise. Cooperative learning is enrichment for all students.

When the parent of a high achieving student raises the issue of whether cooperative learning is appropriate for their student, I like to ask, “What would you like your student to do when they grow up?” Almost invariably the response is doctor, lawyer, corporate president, or some other high-paying, high-status job. My follow-up question is, “What do you think is the single best predictor of success in that position?” After they give their answer, I refer to the seminal books, Emotional Intelligence18 and Social Intelligence19 by Daniel Goleman. Goleman has synthesized an enormous amount of data demonstrating that success in the job world, as well as life success, depends more on emotional and social intelligence than on IQ or academic success. Social skills acquired via cooperative learning will determine the job and life success of many of our highest achieving students.

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Don’t group projects really mean extra work for some and a free ride for others?

Group projects are a prescription for an inequitable distribution of the workload. Cooperative projects are not. With group projects, the teacher assigns a task to a group and leaves it to the group to determine how to structure how they will work together. In many groups, some take over, and others contribute little or even nothing. In contrast, cooperative projects are carefully structured. Cooperative projects limit the resources, assign roles, and distribute jobs so everyone is held responsible and accountable for their own contribution. See Chapter 13: Cooperative Projects & Presentations.

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Students don’t know the curriculum nearly as well as the teacher. Isn’t cooperative learning the blind leading the blind?

If cooperative learning were students working together with no input or direction from the teacher, it would be the blind leading the blind. But that is not cooperative learning; that is unstructured group work coupled with an abdication of responsibility on the part of the teacher. We are very careful to distinguish group work from cooperative learning. Telling students to work together without structuring how they work together almost invariably leads to some students doing the work while others take a free ride. It also leads to off-task behavior, poor production of and dissemination of information, management, and discipline problems. We are very careful to structure how students work together so they remain focused and equitably share the work. Further, we do not leave to chance the presentation of key concepts and information. We strongly believe in the importance of teacher input and modeling. Most often the cooperative learning structures are designed to process and practice information and skills presented and modeled by the teacher.

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If a group has to make a decision or one presentation, doesn’t that mean students have to become conformist or give up their individuality?

Cooperative learning in important ways parallels real life. There are times the family has to decide on a single vacation destination, even if some members prefer different locations. There are times a workplace team has to decide on one method to make a product or one set of office procedures, even if some members prefer different methods or different procedures. Through cooperative learning, students learn conflict resolution skills and acquire a give-and-take orientation that is essential for harmonious and productive relations.

This does not mean, however, that students work only in teams. Just as students need to learn to work well with others, they need to learn to work well on their own. Thus, to prepare students fully, the classroom needs a healthy mix of teamwork and independent work. Students need room to fully express their individuality and to create products for which they alone are responsible. Cooperative learning corrects the imbalance present in schooling today by adding collaborative skills to the curriculum.

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Aren’t cooperative learning structures too rigid? Are they behaviorist manipulations? What about the need for students to construct knowledge?

Cooperative learning structures are highly structured: they are step-by-step sequences designed to structure the interaction of students with each other and with the curriculum. It is not, however, easy to apply one label to the cooperative learning structures; they encompass a wide range of ways for students to interact. At the behaviorist end of the spectrum are structures like the Flashcard Game—students receive peer praise after each correct answer and the game is structured so students have repeated trials on missed items. At the constructionist end of the spectrum are structures like Team Statements. Through Team Statements, students construct knowledge: First they generate and share their individual definitions of a concept, explore the differences among their concepts, and finally construct one definition that they can all endorse more strongly than their original individual definition. Notice, although Team Statements is highly structured, through the structure students construct their own meaning. Thus it is not possible to lump all cooperative learning structures into one group and apply one label to the group. Some structures help students master high-consensus, right-wrong content; others are designed to promote divergent thinking, encouraging each student to express her/his unique point of view. Some structures are designed to have students acquire knowledge or skills; other structures are designed to have students construct knowledge. Some structures are designed to promote very specific communication skills; other structures are designed to promote positive interaction among teammates across a very wide range of content areas.