Kagan Cooperative Learning Chapter 1

Possible Adverse Effects (Page 2)


Some educators equate constructivist education with unstructured group interaction. If that is your definition of constructivism, then Kagan Structures are not constructivist. We have a different definition of constructivism that aligns with the cognitive construction of knowledge. Construction is an active process of building in the mind new ideas and concepts. Simply spoon-feeding knowledge and giving answers is not construction. To the extent possible, we want students to discover principles themselves. We want them to argue, negotiate, debate—sometimes reaching consensus, and sometimes agreeing to disagree. But that is not to say we simply put a group together and say figure it out yourself. That predictably leads to lack of individual accountability, unequal participation, and less engagement by all students. When we fail to structure the interaction of our students, we violate the principles of effective cooperative learning critical for learning.

For example, let’s take a student discussion. Language is among the strongest tools we have for cognitive growth. We ask students the provocative question: “Why do you think the chemicals reacted the way they did?” For one class, we pick one student in the class to answer. For the second class we don’t structure the interaction. We simply say, “Discuss it in your team.” For the third class, we use RoundRobin so each teammate takes a turn talking. In class one, there is very little construction of knowledge. In the second class, we’re better off because now at least one student in the team is formulating and expressing ideas. However, since the discussion is unstructured, one student may choose to do most or even all the talking. In the third class, everyone must formulate their ideas and express them during the RoundRobin. Students listen to the responses of their teammates. Students may hear multiple perspectives and may be more open to alternative explanations than if they hear a single response. Structuring the discussion helps facilitate the construction of knowledge by every student.

Take another example with hands-on manipulatives, another powerful tool for understanding and growth. Through manipulation of concrete representations of the curriculum, students build an understanding of the nature of the content. But if only one student in class or one student on the team gets his or her hands on the manipulatives, then are we really successful helping all students construct meaning?

As teachers, we want to encourage students to build their own understanding of the curriculum. But that doesn’t mean we abdicate our role as facilitators of the construction of knowledge. We are the engineers of students’ learning experiences, and our use of structures and the basic principles of cooperative learning are powerful tools to ensure that all students engage in the process of constructing knowledge.

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Isn’t it wrong to teach using cooperative learning when we must prepare students for a competitive world?

If we were advocating exclusive use of cooperative learning, we would leave students very ill prepared. Students need to know how to work independently, and they need to know how to compete. We don’t, however, advocate cooperative learning as the only way to teach. We feel cooperative learning should be a big part of the instructional diet, not the whole diet. What we are doing with structures is making it easy to include cooperative learning.

Why is it important to include cooperative learning? Students in cooperative learning classrooms outperform those in individualistic and competitive classrooms. Including cooperative learning is preparation for the real world: Three out of four new jobs include working on a team at least part of the time. In the United States, the two largest studies of employability skills, one by the American Society of Training and Development20 and one by the Secretary’s commission on Achieving Necessary Sills (SCANS)21, both emphasize the importance of group effectiveness skills (teamwork skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills). For example, the SCANS report concluded:

“the emphasis on teamwork in more and more workplaces means that instructional approaches must also emphasize learning collaboratively not just individually. For all types and levels of schooling and training, the field’s emerging research findings challenge what we teach and how we teach it.”22

We live in an interdependent world in which, somewhat paradoxically, the ability to compete depends on the ability to cooperate. Take a look at today’s computer.

In different parts of the world, teams coordinate their efforts with other teams in their own plant to coordinate their efforts with teams in plants across the globe. As we move increasingly into a high-tech global economy, the workplace becomes more complex. No one working alone can compete. The ability to compete depends on the ability to cooperate—to communicate with others, coordinate efforts, resolve conflicts, and create a common vision. If students work only alone and/or only in competition with others, they will not acquire the cooperative skills that will allow them to participate well in the workplace of tomorrow. The traditional classroom in which sharing is defined as cheating is out of sync with the workplace our students will enter.

Employability surveys indicate employers seek one set of skills above all others: The ability to communicate well with and work well with others.23 See Chapter 2: Why Do We Need Cooperative Learning? Where will students get those skills if they do not regularly work with others?

Independant World

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What will happen to students who become dependent on cooperative learning when they enter higher education where cooperative learning is not used? Isn’t cooperative learning too childish for my high school students? Shouldn’t I prepare them for the rigors of the predominantly lecture-based university system?

For a number of reasons, students coming from classrooms that include cooperative learning are better prepared for higher education, even if the higher education system does not include cooperative learning. First, the research is clear: students taught with cooperative learning achieve more. See Chapter 3: What Does the Research Say? Students achieving at a higher level are better able enter and to thrive in the college or university of their choice. Additionally, students who have experienced cooperative learning on a regular basis are more likely to form study groups, and those college and university students who form study groups have a distinct advantage over those who try to go it on their own. Further, it is a fallacy that higher education is entirely lecture-based. Large lecture courses have regularly scheduled discussion sessions. Graduate courses are generally small with a high degree of interaction. Students experienced in cooperative learning are much more likely to participate and benefit from those discussion sessions and graduate courses.

Finally, regular use of cooperative learning creates adaptive habits of mind that better prepare students to excel in a lecture-based system. Let’s contrast two classrooms, one in which the teacher lectures without frequent use of cooperative learning and one in which the teacher uses structures to process the lecture. Let’s say each teacher will deliver a half-hour of lecture content. The first teacher does not know about the power of stop structures—quick interaction structures, such as Timed Pair Share and RallyRobin, to punctuate lectures. The teacher therefore delivers the half-hour straight. After about ten minutes the minds of some students begin to wander. They cannot hold more than about ten minutes of content in their minds, and the rest of the lecture is like pouring more water into a glass that is already full. Now let’s look at what happens in the classroom of the teacher who knows the power of stop structures. After about ten minutes the teacher stops and says to the students, “Do a RallyRobin with your face partner: What were the most important points I just covered?” A minute later the teacher continues the lecture. After another ten minutes the teacher stops and says, “Do a Timed Pair Share with your shoulder partner: To you, what is the most meaningful part of the lecture so far?” After another two minutes the teacher continues the lecture.

What has happened to the students in the two classrooms? In the traditional classroom, students have acquired the habit of tuning out during lectures. In the cooperative classroom, the students have acquired the habit of mind of actively reviewing, evaluating, and processing information as it is presented. This habit of ongoing active cognitive engagement serves students well when they enter a lecture-based university system.