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Research & Rationale

Cooperative Learning is a Brain Turn-On

Students respect each other
Quiz Show—Helping Students Grow More Brain Connections: Review, practice, and cognitive processing of learned information builds more connecting dendrites and strengthens the membranes surrounding these interneural connections resulting in faster information transport and more efficient memory retrieval.

Using a television quiz show format, students are divided into four teams. Each team works with the same information source, the class literature text from which they took notes for homework. In addition to the group task of creating quiz show questions for their opponents, there is a specific group job for each student. This question-making activity occurs several times a week, using the material from several chapters each time.

The final competition takes place on completion of the book and serves as a third review of the material before the formal individual comprehension assessments. The three reviews consist of the students’ first set of notes taken at home independently, the cooperative quiz-making sessions, and, finally, the quiz show itself.

The individual jobs rotate each time the group meets. They include scribe (writes down questions and answers that the group approves) and materials coordinator (makes sure all students bring their books and notes and get the clipboards with previous questions out of the bin). Other jobs are judge (when the group disagrees about whether a proposed question is satisfactory for the quiz show, the judge makes the final ruling, but must back up this opinion with reasons), cooperative overseer (takes notes on cooperative behavior to give the group feedback at the end of the session and reminds students to follow the cooperative rules already set and posted, such as not interrupting and all participate). The analyst keeps track of the group’s reasons for rejecting questions. These are also reviewed at the end of the session with the expectation that the metacognition will result in improvement.

Students and not the teacher are responsible for accomplishing their tasks in the way they think best, with accountability to each other and to the teacher’s standards.

Through this cooperative activity, neuronal network reinforcement of the reviewed is more engaging. The group processing of text material offers another modality of information input, thereby making the knowledge more accessible for students with varied learning style preferences: auditory, visual, kinesthetic (movement during the quiz show), and interpersonal. The group negotiates roles with teacher guidance.

Lincoln-Douglas Debate: Group work involving skits, demonstrations, debates, or other dramatizations appeals to the kinetic, verbal, and interpersonal strengths of many students, especially in middle school when energy levels run high and passive sitting in classrooms with directed lectures can be the best way to lose students’ attention. Academics are not usually the first priority during adolescence, and dramatizations as part of group work can bring variety and harness energy, and teacher supervised socializing activities in a safe classroom community can increase belonging and confidence. When students observe modeling and then practice the skills needed for successful group work, they are able to build their skills of self-control, managing their emotions, and cooperating and resolving conflicts with others while building executive function, all in a positive emotional state for building emotion links to academic learning. Dramatizations have the added benefit of activating regions of the brain where prior relational memories are stored. The personal meaning inherent in dramatization results in more opportunities for new information to be connected by the relational memory hook-ups that enhance patterning and retention.

Students work in groups, using their individual skills and interests, to put on a political campaign supporting Lincoln or Douglas through posters, political cartoons, oral debates, skits, and computer or video ads. This project requires students to work together to negotiate rules for campaigning, rules for debating, rules for scoring the debates. Students also need to negotiate with group members for who does which activity such as portraying Lincoln, making campaign posters, directing the campaign video.

If the initial presentation of a new unit incorporates sports, popular music, and audiovisual technology, at least one of these will resonate with most middle school students through their primary or secondary learning strengths or interests.

The teacher determines how many students can work together on some of these activities, but the students must first prepare a plan (prioritizing, organizing, and judgment skills) to show for which part of the poster or video each individual will be responsible. For the final debates (there can be several sets of debates, depending on size of the class and of the groups) other teachers can be brought in as judges, and the students give them the scoring criteria that were finally agreed upon by compromise and consensus.

Designated, rotating individual roles within the group can include recorder, participation monitor (someone who keeps track of who is participating such that if one member has already given three suggestions and others have not had a chance, the overly active participant is asked to give others time to present their views), creative director (if a physical product such as a poster or computer presentation is part of the project), materials director, accountant, and secretary as needed and with similar duties as described for the quiz show groups. There is more than one answer or way to solve the problem.

“What is Life?”—Group Problem Analysis:
Bringing in all students from the beginning of a unit of study increases relational memory. By presenting the big picture through a comprehensive experience that links with some area of student interest, past experience, or real-world connections, relational memories are triggered and the hippocampus is activated on brain scan as the site where connections are made with the new information that allow it to be coded into recognizable and storable patterns. For example, if the initial presentation of a new unit incorporates sports, popular music, and audiovisual technology, at least one of these will resonate with most middle school students through their primary or secondary learning strengths or interests. This initial exposure to the topic will stimulate their connection to the lessons that follow, because they were engaged early by linking the unit to their interests or personal experiences.

Starting with an innovative presentation such as a recent newspaper report, guest speaker, or by posing a thought provoking question through a demonstration, teachers can all engage students. An example is the engaging and personally relevant introduction to a biology unit, prompting students to define what it means to be alive. I ask students in cooperative groups to define what constitutes a living organism and to record their responses. They then practice prioritizing and ordering executive function skills as well as the social skill of reaching a consensus as they decide as a group what characteristics of being “alive” are most significant in defining life. I then give each group a candle that I light and ask them to see if the flame fits the list of functions that define living things. They then refer to their lists, which usually include: consume oxygen or carbon dioxide, reproduce, react, and has a beginning and a termination. The next question for them to debate as a group usually presents a curious problem. If the flame fits with the generated list of characteristics for living things, does that mean the flame is alive? Why or why not? Students are authentically engaged when they start making personal connections and asking questions that relate the initial experience to concrete references or abstract connections. Students will have valid responses that they will be motivated to share because they are personally touched in some way. Once students are connected to the topic through their discussions, they are ready to be engaged in the study of single cell organisms because they are in a low stress, high interest state with unrestricted affective filters and increased release of dopamine.

The activity should be intrinsically interesting, challenging, and rewarding

Early engagement of attention through multisensory experiences and high personal interest is well suited to the multisensory, fast-paced world of adolescents who have grown up in the personal technology age. This middle school American history activity coincides with the study of lifestyles of early settlers in the Colonies and works especially well if done near Thanksgiving.

Classroom visitors, costumes, and food are of high interest to students in any grade, and this activity always resonates with one or more interests the middle school students who have participated in it. For the big picture or global introduction to the unit, we start with a guest speaker from the community. One year we invited the director of the local farmers markets and food stylist. Without any advance notice (to incorporate surprise and novelty) she entered the class in colonial attire with a large basket of produce indigenous to the early New England Colonies. First, she gave the students several unfamiliar vegetables to taste. Distributing this food let the students know it would be an interactive experience and kept them “fed” so that they would not focus on any hunger prompted by looking at the food. Next, she said, “You have been told not to play with your food, but today we will playing with food.” Using humor and, again, surprise she won their trust and kept their attention. The promise of playing with food also alerted the interest of the tactile-kinesthetic learners and AD/HD students.

Her presentation continued with demonstrations of how to cut and display foods to make them look more appealing. She explained which foods were the first ones available for either gathering or planting by the colonists, and she finished by demonstrating the construction of a cornucopia. She preceded this demonstration with the assurance that the students would have an opportunity to make their own cornucopias as soon as she finished. This confirmation of a desirable activity before a passive demonstration is an important strategy to keep the focus of high-energy adolescents because they know that the attention they give at the start will help them be successful in a connected activity that will immediately follow. Increased brain activation takes place when subjects are told they will be asked to repeat or immediately use the information or activity they are about to learn (Sousa, 2000).

When the food designer left, all the students were engaged, enthusiastic, and ready to start building their cornucopias. She left them with fruits and vegetables to make cornucopias using rolled tagboard and extra carrots, radishes, and potatoes for food design carving.

Before making the cornucopias, we had a brainstorm session to connect the morning’s speaker and group cornucopia activity to the colonial unit that would follow. The experience had generated interest in the colonial period, and students prepared a list of some of the questions they would still like to ask the speaker. Their questions were compiled on a chart, and questions were added based on their suggestions about other facets of colonial life they believed might be interesting to investigate.

After a brief reminder about cooperative group behavior, fair division of activities, and decision by consensus, students were divided into small groups where they constructed and filled cornucopias. I assigned the students to groups based on their interests, compatibility, and learning strengths. The latter consideration enabled students with limited academic or social skills to participate in groups where their creative or intellectual strengths would be acknowledged as valued contributions to the group project. Depending upon student interest and group consensus, one or two students per group drew a picture of their cornucopia, one student photographed it and posted it on the class Web site, and another student or two researched the origin of the horn of plenty and its relation to Greek mythology.

That initial day’s group activity was low stress and planned for fun, positive emotional connections, flashbulb-connecting memories, and to promote curiosity and interest in the unit to come. It was not, in itself, high in academics and may not have added many facts to students’ rote memory file with which they could answer questions on a standardized test, but the entire class, from the entrance of the guest speaker to the construction of the cornucopias and the starting of the Web pages, was engaged and actively participating in a history class activity that was fun. It is not often enough that middle school students are provided the opportunity to associate academics with fun. When they are able to make this association, it helps relieve frustration and revitalize their connection with school.

The next time class met, students were still in their cooperative groups, but now each student in the group did Internet research about one of the 20 questions they selected from the list we brainstormed regarding colonial lifestyle, agriculture, foods, Thanksgiving, cornucopias, food styling, other food careers. Their homework from the previous class was to copy from the brainstorm list the five or six topics they thought they might want to research and to use books or the Internet to see which one or two topics were still interesting and had accessible information.

The process of collaborative work is associated with increased neural activity in relational and emotional memory connections and long-term memory storage.

Before the next class, I added five questions (one per person in each group). The questions added were incorporated to avoid missing any of the curriculum standards for the unit. Each student, therefore, had his or her own high interest, personal choice question plus one of the five I added. The formalized list of questions was then projected on the overhead, and students wrote on note cards their first and second choices of which topics they would most like to further investigate.

To refresh students’ memories of the information they had already learned and to share new information they discovered doing their homework research, we did a roll call topic for taking attendance. When their names were called for roll, students were to respond with one thing they remembered from the cornucopia presentation the previous day. This strategy increases focus and recall.

Cooperation with group members was necessary to assure all jobs needed to create the Web page would be done and research was not duplicated. The final project of each group was a Web page within the class Web page folder titled Cornucopia. Students were able to work through their learning style strengths and interests. They conferenced with me individually to determine if their topic of research was at their appropriate level of challenge.

Students received feedback from parents and other classes who visited the Web site where there was a place to write compliments, ask questions of the Web page creators, or add related information. By starting the colonial social studies topic with the experiential, artifact-centered, novel, and motivating guest speaker cornucopia experience, the students became curious, intrinsically motivated to ask questions, and they were willing to do the research. In addition, they were motivated to inquire further to satisfy their curiosity about the questions that they, as a class, had created, and the topics they individually selected. Instead of being passive recipients of the unit of study, they were co-creators of an investigation that was developed from their own interests and goals.

As the groups are working, teachers can promote the desired cooperative behavior by modeling how students can periodically check in with each other to answer these questions during the activity:

  1. Is everyone talking?
  2. Are you listening to each other?
  3. Are you asking questions of fellow groupmembers? What could you ask to find out someone’s ideas?
  4. Are you giving reasons for ideas and expressing different opinions?
  5. What could you ask if you wanted to find out someone’s reason for a suggestion?

At the conclusion of each day’s group time, group members assigned to record feedback for the group reveal their observation data in their small groups. This is followed by teacher feedback to the whole class, including public praise to students who have done well in the context of group work, particularly those who are not usually high academic achievers or who tend to be classroom management challenges. Successful compromise and inclusiveness, rather than speed at solving the problem or completing the project, is acknowledged.

Classrooms where students are engaged in well-planned cooperative work are more joyful places in which management issues diminish and students develop social and learning skills. Now we know that the process of collaborative work is associated with increased neural activity in relational and emotional memory connections and long-term memory storage. It is reassuring in times of rigid curriculum requirements to have not only the academic and social evidence of the benefit of cooperative activities, but to also have the objective neuroscientific data to support what teachers, and for that matter, the ants and the bees, have known all along.

Editor’s Note
Dr. Willis’s book, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher, was published in August 2006, by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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This article was originally published by National Middle School Association
Middle School Journal, March 2007, p4-13. visit www.nmsa.org.