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Cooperative Learning:

'No Child Gets Ahead'


Q. I totally get it why we need to have group projects in schools today. It's to get kids ready for collaborative teamwork in their jobs someday. I'm for that. But there's just something dead wrong about putting kids in group learning situations all the time, instead of individual learning situations, and forcing them to cooperate for the same grade. It's so obvious that the strong students are going to do all the work and be responsible, and the slackers are just going to slack. And what are we paying teachers for, if not to teach? Obviously, this isn't working, especially for low-achieving students, whose test scores are getting worse and worse. So, come on . . . is the experimentation phase over with this controversial teaching style? Can we go back to individual learning, individual study and earn-your-own grades for the most part now?


As K-12 education has become more and more politicized, radical educators have pushed the notion that we can group children into diverse learning collectives and mimic a utopian society in which the brightest work happily alongside the dullest, and everybody comes out all right.


It definitely has a Marxist, collectivist tinge to it, that seeks to minimize or eradicate individual effort and achievement in favor of group dynamics and collective undertakings. Cooperative learning techniques can be traced to educational activists who arose out of the social justice movement of the 1960s and decided that it wasn't fair for some kids to "get ahead" of others. They knew that group structures would keep that from happening.


They declared that letting kids "construct" their own "learnings" in groups was better and more fun than having a teacher directly teach them. Sounds reasonable in theory. In practice, cooperative learning has dumbed everybody down, from the top students to the ones who really need the help.


The problem is that cooperative group learning that combines students with academic skills all along the continuum has been shown to be counter-productive, for both the top and the bottom students, and most of all for minority gifted students. That's ironic, since it is helping nontraditional students like the minority gifted that prompted activists to push for cooperative learning over direct instruction in the first place.


Unfortunately, educators have been taught that it is elitist to group students by ability, denying students a chance to work within a comfort zone with other students of their approximate abilities and value systems regarding schoolwork.


Especially when the assignment is to collect and disseminate facts, gifted students are largely constrained by the smaller vocabularies and slower, narrower analysis of their less-gifted peers, and so the educational outcome is of much less quality for the gifted than if they were not working in a group. It can cause the gifted student undue anxiety and stress, and they are often bullied and ridiculed for their diligence and initiative by weaker students who do not have those qualities and may be envious.


Minority gifted students are battling certain attitudes among their racial peers that, when working in mixed groups, can put enormous pressure on them NOT to mimic the college-bound, white culture, and to sink into the academically underachieving, noncompliant counterculture to be considered "cool" and one of the gang. That's ironic, since minority gifted students have more in common with, and need to interact with, gifted students of all skin colors and ethnic backgrounds, but are denied this interaction by the prejudices of educators who don't believe in grouping by ability.


Meanwhile, those on the lower end of the ability spectrum are often intimidated and put off by the abilities of their "star" peers, and often cynically shut down or even sabotage the project, which of course cripples their learning outcomes, too.


On a more positive note, research does suggest that it is good for moderate-ability students to be grouped with high achievers, and it is good for low achievers to be grouped with those of moderate ability. Teachers who use that common-sense approach, and limit group work to a modest amount, will do their students well. Also, if the assignment calls for less fact-oriented, objective type investigation and analysis, but more for an artistic and expressive outcome, then mixed-ability cooperative group learning can work well, especially with a skilled teacher who can set the students up for success with smart structuring.


How did cooperative learning get to be so popular, when research shows so clearly that it's not good all the time, nor for every student? It could be that because few educators have ever held jobs in the private sector, they can only guess at what a normal work group is. When inservice consultants tell them that the workforce uses cooperative groups, so they should, too, they assume that those groups are made up of divergent ability levels.


But they're not: workers may meet to discuss their work periodically and cooperate on projects, but they don't actually do the work together - they do it individually. And so should students. In the work world, of course, someone who is a high school dropout and is working in a blue-collar position has little, if any, contact with the highly-educated chairman of the board who is responsible for multi-million dollar decisions and hundreds of people's jobs. They can say hi in the elevator and be cordial, but it is highly unlikely that they will need to work together as a team on anything.


But that's what students are forced to pretend in the surreal world of cooperative learning in schools. Fortunately, many educators are recognizing that it is only useful in limited circumstances, part of the time, and certainly not in every class for every assignment all the time.


It's pretty obvious why many educators like cooperative learning: if you have a classroom of 20 students, and you have to read 20 long term papers at night, that's a big job. But if you group those students into five groups of four, and assign them to do a skit together on the same topic, then you can sit in class and enjoy five skits - and though the actual learning and effort of each student is reduced drastically, at least the teacher doesn't have to work long hours into the night reading and grading 20 papers.


Of course, educators made a good case for cooperative group learning in the 1990s as K-12 schools became more and more racially and ethnically diverse. They thought group interaction would help make nontraditional students (translation: minority, poor and immigrant students) feel more a part of the learning, while presenting traditional students (translation: whites) with more opportunities to shed any prejudices and biases against kids who look and study and learn differently than they do.


These educators called group learning "equity pedagogy," since the kids would be more or less teaching other kids with a lot of "peer tutoring" within the cooperative groups, sort of like using good students as unpaid teacher's aides. Cooperative groups fit the faddish disdain for "top-down," teacher-driven content delivery, and was seen as "empowering" students.


All that sounds well and good, but the problem is that cooperative group learning was instituted in all kinds of schools, even those with tiny percentages of diverse students, so it was basically pointless, and in practice it dumbed down curricula and subsequent knowledge gain considerably.


Bottom line: there are few, if any, empirical studies that show that cooperative groups either improve student achievement or intergroup relations.


So if you're a parent and you want to minimize endless group projects of minimal learning value, you'd be smart to get with other parents, get the data, and get educators to . . . cooperate.



Homework: Here's a good article on how cooperative learning can work well for all ability levels, especially gifted students.

By Susan Darst Williams Controversies 07 2008





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