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Special Article

My Wheels Are Spinning

Amy Skeans and Vern Minor

To cite this article: Skeans, A. and V. Minor. My Wheels Are Spinning. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #57. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

Editor's Note: Before Vern joined the Kagan team, he was a superintendent. Amy was a teacher in Vern's district. The following is an e-mail exchange of ideas relating to cooperative learning and special needs students. Vern shared Amy's insights and we thought you'd like to eavesdrop on their conversation, too (with their permission, of course).

Amy’s E-mail to Vern:

I have a new professional book about teaching a growth mindset to elementary kids. The author is quoting Lucy Calkins, who says this:

“The most creative environments in our society are not the kaleidoscopic environments in which everything is always changing and complex. They are, instead, the predictable and consistent ones—the scholar's library, the researcher's laboratory, the artist's studio. Each of these environments is deliberately predictable and simple because the work at hand and the changing interactions around that work are so unpredictable and complex.”

This made my Cooperative Learning (CL) lightbulb go off for several reasons. One is that my son has Asperger's, and when he was in Angela Jone’s class in second grade being immersed in CL, he was a changed child. Having that predictable structure in which he could not only safely share but get a good dose of positive social interaction completely altered him for the better. The predictability of structures removed the "I don't know what to say/initiating conversation is so scary/I don't know how to navigate social situations" feelings for him. 

And even for neurotypical kids, it removes all of those questions so they can concentrate on the content of the structure with all of the other benefits of engagement thrown in. I think predictability is sometimes a huge unrecognized benefit of CL.

And those are all my deep thoughts for the day. Love seeing pictures of sweet Harper and I'm glad you are settled with your family around you. Miss you though!


Vern’s Reply to Amy:

Yep… those are deep thoughts, indeed!!! :)

Spencer actually addresses this issue in his Brain-Friendly Teaching book. One of the tools he references to supply brain-friendly stimuli is predictability. Too much unexpected stimuli for children places them on guard (i.e., they do not feel safe) and causes the amygdalae to fire. When this happens, learning is seriously compromised. You are spot-on in your observation—the structure of structures coupled with sharing in smaller settings (i.e., with a partner or in groups) creates safety and predictability for the brain. There is no doubt in my mind—and I believe the research bears this out—that children will take more intellectual risks in these safe settings than they will in traditional, whole group situations.

Interestingly, the brain also needs novelty. Without novelty and variety, boredom sets in. This would seem to be in contradiction to the idea of predictability. So how does one balance both (i.e., make the setting novel but not unpredictable)? There are many ways to do this, but one method is certainly the use of structures. As you noted above, structures provide predictability in terms of how interaction will occur; this reduces anxiety. At the same time, because we never know how our peers will respond to a question or perhaps what praise they might choose, we get novelty. How cool is that! Novelty and predictability simultaneously!

I have said for a long time that cooperative learning is a robust, high leverage, multi-faceted intervention. The beauty of structures is that you are not doing a single initiative. By employing cooperative learning, a teacher is addressing many learning issues simultaneously (e.g., engagement, academic achievement, equity, social skills, classroom management, discipline, character education, social skills, communication skills, thinking skills, collaboration skills). Dialogue—human interaction—is powerful. When we harness dialogue and use it to our advantage in the classroom, amazing things happen for children (and teachers).

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am CCing Spencer on this e-mail. He will be intrigued (and impressed) by your observations. Hope all is going well in your neck of the woods. I, too, miss seeing you and your bright smiling face. Tell the team howdy for me.

Many blessings!

P.S. Be careful about having those wheels spin too often. Your little hamster needs to rest every once in a while. :)