why group-work is essential for learning



These children are engaged in what developmental psychologist Barbara Rogoff calls “intent participation.” Each group is learning to perform an engineering task with no teacher. The girls at upper left are constructing a book support out of newspapers and masking tape. The other two groups are constructing parachutes out of coffee filters. None of them has been taught how to complete the product. They are learning what they are already doing.

The notion that a teacher, someone with knowledge, must tell learners what they should be thinking is the single most crippling unintended result of Modern European-American style education. Most Americans leave school feeling stupid, because they are unable to figure out what teachers are telling them to think. No wonder American students continue to perform so poorly on measures of problem-solving and critical thinking. If we want children to think for themselves they must have opportunities and encouragement to do so.

I am not, of course, talking about the elite children, those who are able to guess what the teacher is thinking and reproduce it. My experience is that most such children, who get good grades and score high on standardized tests, have a very difficult time performing unstructured tasks that have more than one solution. They wait to be told what to do.

Anyway, if we want self-reliant learners, who can figure things out for themselves, children must work in groups with peers with the guidance of an adult.

More tomorrow about learning in groups…

So many children…

I’m going to be a little poetic here. By which I mean turning my attention to that which is not tangible.

I have the opportunity right now to work one-on-one with several children. It’s a chance to go back to basics: children want love, acceptance, security. They want to find out about the world, while being respected as valuable. Cliches. And so easy to lose sight of when you are engaging with big issues of school reform, achievement gaps and standardized testing.

I live across the street from an elementary school. Every school day starting about 7:30 the cars start jamming the road. Right next door to our building is a large, usually empty parking lot with signs posted everywhere: No School Parking. People park there anyway, hurry their children out of the car, shepherd them through the tangle of behemoth SUV’s driven by people who patiently or impatiently seek to thread their way through the obstacles of cars and human bodies. By the time the school bell rings at 7:50, things have quieted down, a few stragglers, and by 8:00 all is quiet again until the loudspeaker starts blaring announcements.

I remember announcements; it was an unremarkable feature of school life, just like standing in lines. Socializing children to being managed, to take their places as bodies in the machine where everything is monetized.

What would it take, I wonder, to educate (in the original meaning of the word, “to draw out”) the mass of children? They are, in fact, not the mass, but individuals looking for love. Any good teacher knows this, which is why there is so much resistance to standardization of education. The goal of education is to engage with children in the kinds of relationships that will draw out the beauty of the human soul.

Place-based teacher education

Critical Place-Based Teacher Education

In the current climate of accountability and standardization in (teacher) education, the prospect of PBE taking root seems preposterous. And Dr. D. does not suggest that this particular foray into PBE is exemplary. The process of participating in the research, both by observing in classrooms in a focused and local way has been crucial, as was the literature we reviewed, and the teacher candidates’ reading of the various drafts of this paper.

We leave the reader with Jolynn’s reflections on PBE for her future students:

Given the rich history of the area, we are now left with what to do with it. We have made ourselves accountable by discovering such a rich history and now must attempt to use it to structure lessons. When beginning the process of creating a place-based lesson, we must do what has already been done in this instance, and find out the history of the place and the people. When considering a place’s history, we must also juxtapose that with the present. Each school year brings along with it changes in the type of learners, and as teachers, comfortable in the ways in which we were taught and how we learn, we must not forget this. Student surveys of their personal learning styles as well as their intelligences (Silver et al., 2000) help us to understand more about their “place.” When we begin to incorporate all of this, the term “place” begins to take on a new meaning. What is “place” to our students and how can we connect that with the environment around them and the history and culture of the territory they inhabit? For example, in a science lesson centered around the Jones County history, we would delve into the ecology of the county and how it was shaped by its history and agricultural practices that have left the area in its current state. When beginning a lesson such as this, we would need to get the students involved in the history by choosing a location that can share a story. This story will become the thread of the lesson and a historical timeline that the students will be able to reference with ease. This “story” also coincides with the culture of the area, as southern practices dictate history be passed down from person to person in a narrative format. Then we begin to involve scientific practices such as surveying the flora and fauna of the area as well as investigating areas of succession and human impact on the environment. Of course these scientific practices can be taught in other styles and formats, but by giving the students an anchor they can tie this information to, we are ensuring that the students are able to apply this information rather than simple memorization as well as instilling a sense of accountability to them for their environment and culture. This style of teaching requires that the educator go above and beyond the textbook, and certainly not be considered for those with concern for teaching to the test. But when enacted correctly, standards, evaluations, and course tests come simply and pleasantly as the teacher and student are both comfortable and confident with their knowledge of the material and their surroundings.

reflection on today’s science and math pedagogy class

For the last 6 weeks I’ve been teaching a 6-hour face to face class on Saturdays to a group of pre-service teachers in an MAT program and in-service teachers getting advanced degrees. This has been brutal for everyone concerned, to say the least. I’ve had to pare down my expectations because after about 4 hours nobody can absorb much, no matter how many times I asked them to get out of their seats and try something different.

I decided to focus on Stigler & Hiebert’s The Teaching Gap, which is old news, but not to the students, so that they would be open to questioning their cultural assumptions about what it means to teach science and mathematics. My plan was this would allow them to be open to reform ideas, such as those embodied in the Tools 4 Teaching Science out of the University of Washington.

I think this pretty much worked. In our last class today I asked the students to make concept maps. I gave each person a page of stickers with 60 nouns culled from a variety of class readings:

  • The biology people read The Beak of the Finch, which most hated because it is tedious in spots. The math people read either Jacqueline Leonard’s book on multicultural mathematics education or the Joy of X. The purpose was to increase content knowledge, which I think was modestly successful.
  • Magdalene Lampert, “When the Problem is not the Question and the Solution is not the answer.” We used the theoretical framework of this article to think about what it means to do mathematics (and science).
  • Hand et al., Negotiating Science. We used this to provide a framework for inquiry activities in science.
  • 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions.

That was actually quite a lot of reading for 6 weeks. We only got through Chapter 7 of The Teaching Gap, since that is the point after which the authors mostly  just repeat themselves.

I gave each student a giant Post-It and asked him or her to do a concept map using Novak and Gowin’s 1984 procedure and using their scoring scheme. http://www.flaguide.org/cat/conmap/conmapfig5.php

Several students struggled mightily with this format. More about struggling later.

Thinking about the maps in public

I wanted the maps to be public records of thinking, but  didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. Therefore each map was displayed on the wall and was only identified with a number. We did a gallery walk during lunch; I asked students to record on index cards what they thought was interesting or new about each map, and what was similar to what they put.

I collected those cards, and a first glance through them shows they didn’t write much. However I still think it was an important focus to help them look at other people’s maps, since they were all quite different.

We then went around to each map and talked about what the students saw in it. The easiest entry point for the students was surface features, how it was organized. Several remarked on people having chosen different starting points for the map.

About halfway through, I started pointing out things that I saw, going back to the earlier maps and comparing. Students stopped contributing much, once they realized I was going to tell them “the right answer.” Of course it wasn’t, but I was trying to get certain ways of thinking on the table. I think they also were at a loss as to what to say. The holistic approach, looking at where the maps went, what concepts had lots of links and what seemed isolated, was new to them. In making a quick instructional decision, I considered briefly that going with a cognitive apprenticeship model, in which I shared my thinking with them, was probably going to be most productive.

This was such a rich discussion, I want to get down as much as I remember and it might be an overly long and boring blog post. But I do want to capture what happened while it is still fresh in my mind.

I was aware that a person got very upset when I pointed out how a particular map showed that this set of ideas was not integrated with the rest of the map. (Someone appearing to get upset or embarrassed actually happened more than once.) I infer that the persons who seemed upset were the authors of the map in question. I was very careful to say, “This person did…” In truth, I knew who authored only 3 of the 13 maps. Because we were pretty much anonymous, so they were not singled out in public. It is interesting to me that several students seemed to feel that their maps were private performances that should not be critiqued in public. I’m an artist accustomed to having my drawings and paintings critiqued by art professors. Critiques are always scary, but they are also very powerful because they give the entire group the benefit of the instructor’s thinking.

I think of Fred Erickson repeating several times in my own grad school classes, “School is the only place where people must publicly display incompetence.” In spite of my repeating often to my own students that the right answer is how you’re thinking, not the content of what you say, the social practices surrounding school being about the right answers is still the dominant cultural model. In spite of my never saying that one of the maps was wrong, some students still interpreted my remarks as showing them up as incompetent.

I ended class saying the maps made me feel really good, that it was formative assessment for me, I can see what people got out of the class, and I’m pleased. I was. Of course the students wanted to know how I was going to grade them. I said, I’m going to write each of you a letter about your map, and I want you to write me back. (Even though class meetings are over, there is still an assignment out there to do a unit plan. Class is officially over in May.)

specific items that interested me

One of the maps had a strand that included “disciplinary language,” that was cross-linked to “writing,” which was also cross-linked to disciplinary practices. There was another independent strand that included  “discussion,” that was linked to “teacher,” and not linked to disciplinary language or practice. I didn’t say anything public about this observation; I thought it might seem too critical. I will write to the author about it. I also note that our pre-service teachers have the most difficulty with the section of EdTPA having to do with academic language. That this shows up in at least one map is confirmation to me of the power of concept mapping.

One of the students who was having a really hard time, had chosen “knowledge” for her topic and “teacher” and “student” for the next level. As I walked around, she asked me for help. She couldn’t figure out to where put any of the other  labels, and she couldn’t think of what to write as links.  I asked her to clarify, what did she define the link between teacher and knowledge to be, and what was the link between student and knowledge. She replied, The teacher has knowledge, and the student has some knowledge. Without saying anything, I thought, This is the traditional  transmission model of teaching, slightly updated to include students’ prior knowledge. I replied to her that she might try different concepts instead of student and teacher, maybe that was the problem. She was able to successfully complete the map.

to be continued…

learning through discussion. what does it mean?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a week or so. I had occasion recently to visit a student teacher in a 7th grade life science class. The topic for the day was sexual and asexual reproduction. The lesson started out with a Brain Pop video. The plan was for a “class discussion” and then the students would take the Brain Pop quiz.

On the previous day, the students had each been given a handout on a plant or animal that reproduces asexually. I’m not quite sure what was done with the information, although I suspect groups made presentations to the class. At various points in the lesson the teacher asked them to refer back to “their” organism from yesterday.

The participation structure for the discussion followed the recitation script (IRE). The teacher asked questions about what was in the video and asked students to connect that information to the organisms they had researched. She affirmed whether or not the responses were accurate. Actually, not one student was able provide much in the way of a response, in fact, I’m pretty sure that any student who was called on, said, something like, “Um, I, I can’t remember the name of my animal.” The student were directed to look in their “interactive notebooks,” and after several seconds of silence, would say, “Oh yeah, yeast,” or “I can’t pronounce it.”

The students were genuinely trying. It appeared to me that they were not making the connections that were the intention of the lesson plans. The “discussion” involved quite a bit of silence. At this point I decided to step in. The rationale was that students seemed not to have incorporated the research on asexually-reproducing organisms into their watching of the Brain Pop video.

I hope the student teachers I “supervise” are used to me stepping in and modeling when I think it will do some good. I interrupted and asked the students, well a week later I can’t quite remember what I said. But the purpose was for students to provide their personal experiences with observing asexual reproduction. The discussion was lively and covered much ground. As I said to Betsy (pseudonym), the student teacher, afterwards, everyone is interested in sex and reproduction. It isn’t difficult to get a discussion going. Several of the ideas matched concepts from the Brain Pop video, although they were not referred to explicitly.

After 10 minutes, Betsy resumed her lesson plan and the students took the Brain Pop quiz. An overwhelming majority of the students got most of the answers wrong, in spite of the fact that they were designed to assess the very concepts students had volunteered during the class discussion.

Now I’m still thinking about this event. Clearly the students understood the concepts in the discussion and clearly they did not connect them with the formal instruction of the Brain Pop video. I remarked to Betsy that it appeared the students did not understand that the discussion was actually learning.

This has pretty profound implications. I will be writing more about this.

What is teaching? What is online teaching?

The other day someone asked me to provide an example of my “online teaching.” I explained some of the online assignments I’ve given, but the person continued, “No, I mean teaching.” It took me a few seconds to comprehend the question, that she was asking if I put my lectures online, or annotated videos. I still probably had a deer in the headlights look. You see, I don’t lecture. I consider that I’m engaging with students in instructional conversations.

Please see my earlier posts about learning through discussion, and also the rest of the category College teaching.

This past semester I have had conversations with students about their experiences with online courses. I was surprised to hear that they thought the discussion board assignments were busywork. Since I have used discussion boards quite extensively in the past, I was intrigued by this comment. When I pressed a little more, they said they did not write what they really think, but what they thought the instructor was looking for.

This has caused me to pause before such an assignment. This semester I asked students to upload concept maps to the discussion boards, but I must say it has not been as productive as I hoped.

In the past, I assigned discussion board postings, and students would always want to know how long it had to be. I settled on 300 words. Then I noticed that students were copying lengthy quotes into their postings. I had to forbid quotes longer than 10 words, and no more than one quote per posting. However, it seems to me I have to find a better way to design discussion boards so that students understand them as learning conversations.

I think the deeper issue is that students don’t understand discussion as being a way to learn. I just had an experience of this last week when I visited a student teacher in a 7th grade classroom, which will be the subject of my next post. I again refer you to the blog of December 2010, when I started writing about learning through discussion.

Teaching about classroom management

This has always been puzzling to me. There are many “systems” and methods, but I’ve never been able to get to the heart of the matter in a way that satisfied me and helped my students.

Then this semester I was observing a student teacher in his first placement. I’ll call him Mike. Mike had been a successful math tutor, and the experience made him want to be a professional educator and high school math teacher. Mike was well connected within the community and obtained a job at a local high school while he is enrolled in a teacher education program.

The lesson was okay, not great, but then completely fell apart when Mike spent 4 minutes working one-on-one with a student at the whiteboard. By the time the 4 minutes was up, no student was doing any math. Wadded up papers were being thrown across the room, calculators slid off desks and  littered the floor. I tried to get Mike’s attention but he was focusing on helping the single student.

When the lesson was over, we debriefed. “You have to teach the whole class,” I said. I thought a little more. “You have to teach the whole class all the time. Even when you’re teaching one student you’re still teaching the whole class.”

I’ve been considering this idea ever since. I think I’m beginning to formulate for myself the nature of the difficulties pre-service teachers have with classroom management. They usually think of teaching as standing up in front of the class explaining things. But everything a teacher does within the four walls and in preparing for the students to be studying within the four walls is teaching. In fact, the parts that are not explaining things to the whole class are much more important and much more work.

I started thinking of the chapter titles of my favorite book about teaching, Magdalene Lampert’s Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching: “Teaching while Preparing for a Lesson,” Teaching while Students work Independently,” “Teaching Students to be People Who Study in School.” I’ve always been drawn to these words, but in the last month the insight they contain has begun to grow in my mind.

Before Christmas I assigned the student teaching seminar to watch the entire five tedious hours of YouTube videos of Mr. Hester’s first three days of school. We had a discussion about the importance of establishing procedures. I asked my students what we can take home from the videos. There were a number of good ideas, then somebody said, “Consistency.” A little switch went off in my brain. “Why does consistency matter?” I said. The students didn’t really know. It’s what they heard. It’s what I have heard many times. I hadn’t really thought about it, other than that’s what the research says, and it’s obviously what Mr. Hester did in his videos.

An idea was growing, a connection being made. “It’s because you’re teaching the whole class. If one student acts out and you ignore it, for that one student maybe it’s not a big deal. But if you ignore it, then you’re teaching the rest of the class they can do it too. Teaching is carried out in public. You’re always teaching the whole class.”

I feel like we’re all, the teacher candidates and me, understanding the classroom management thing better now. Being consistent isn’t being mean and picky—it’s teaching. And we had a slightly magical moment when something shared fell into place.

Mr. Hester’s videos are on YouTube. We watched Day 1 first, then days 2 and 3, and then Meet Mr. Hester last. Okay, it wasn’t 5 hours. Just seemed like it. Worth it.


The curriculum of race in a nominally desegregated school

by Clara Burch

This essay by Clara was based on observations in classrooms in a public school in Middle Georgia.

I learned a lot from these assigned classroom observations. I learned that it is not difficult to become invisible in a classroom. I learned that observing with a focus is different from a general observation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised at the information I gathered.

I was surprised to see how easily one can become invisible in a classroom. Even I, obviously much older than nearly everyone else, quickly disappeared. All I had to do was sit very quietly and not draw attention to myself. At first the students were curious, perhaps nervous, (the teachers too) about my presence, but like little birds, their short attention spans soon moved on to something else, something more exciting than a middle age woman in the back of the room. In all three classrooms I saw the students segregate themselves by interest and peer groups, but mostly race. Perhaps there is a correlation. I saw the “jocks” sit together, and the theatre people banded together, black girls tended to sit with other black girls in close proximity to the black males, but white girls were divided up into subsets, attractive (as defined by current teenage standards) and/or popular white girls, and the rest. Even though this assignment was to observe interaction between teachers and minority, gender, class subsets, it was the invisible children who caught my attention. I watched as they silently glided into their classrooms avoiding eye contact. Several immediately opened novels and lost themselves in the pages; others put their heads down and tuned out the world. Some just sat silently watching without being obvious they were watching. They all had the same modus operando, the one I adopted, be quiet, keep a low profile, and don’t attract attention. In each class there were at least two of these students. Some male, some female, some black, some white, some brown, but all invisible.

It seemed as if no one noticed them, none of the other students spoke to them, the teachers didn’t call on them; they weren’t there. I watched them. The readers hid their books and continued reading, the sleepers sat up, but didn’t engage, and the watchers kept watching. When it was time to work, they worked, or at least looked like they worked. They handed in papers. They did not interact with each other. They were invisible. Why?

Did they prefer to be unnoticed? Had the others given up on trying to include them? Did they interact in other classes? With other groups? Was this behavior chosen or forced upon them? The teachers in all three classes seemed to have their hands full with the more demanding students. Evidently if one is well behaved one can easily avoid the teachers’ attention. Did I do this? Were there invisible students in my classes? I mentally went through my seating charts and they were there. Ghosts sitting silently, invisible, waiting on the bell. When as the last time I called their names? When did I last ask them to respond? When did I let them go invisible?

I suppose it is not uncommon to stumble upon an unexpected or interesting “phenomenon” while observing for another. Becoming invisible in the back of the room opened a new window. I was used to being in the front, standing, directing (dictating?) being the center of attention. This new window gave me a whole new view.

My observations on race were predictable. All three teachers were white, there aren’t many black teachers at my school, and middle class. Obviously they were all educated. It appeared that they also were all more comfortable with white students. I do not have any data to back up that statement, what I have is a feeling. It just appeared and felt as if the teachers were more relaxed when they interacted with white students before class. They were perhaps more assured about how to talk with white students. In the class I observed focusing on race, at first glance it may have appeared that the teacher was harsher and more demanding of white students, particularly male white students, but after reviewing the small amount of data collected, and observing firsthand in the classroom (albeit for only 50 minutes) I think the reverse may actually be true. Comments such as “you know better,” followed up reprimands or redirections from the teacher almost always with white students, but not with African American (AA) students. White students (particularly males) kept her attention. They were not allowed to rest their heads, or shout out in class while similar behavior in AA students was ignored or received a cursory reprimand. Was she perhaps subconsciously giving the message that she did not believe AA students understood the proper behavior in a classroom? Or were unable to follow proper classroom conduct? Was she unintentionally showing bias? Did the students pick up on this? As Dr. Deneroff said, “Teenagers are great observers, but terrible interpreters.” Could it be the students were actually interpreting that Ms. B. was favoring AA students by not adding the subtle admonishments? Was Ms. B. just reluctant to engage AA students in a negative manner? One short observation could not possibly do more than raise questions.

My observation concerning gender indicated that at least on that day, the teacher favored the girls. It was not recorded, but she interacted most readily and easily with white girls. I think this may be expected as she is a white female in her first teaching assignment and likely identifies most closely with those students. The teacher did call on girls more often than boys, and did reprimand boys more often than girls. It appeared as if there were a power struggle between the teacher and a group of AA boys. The teacher reprimanded these boys for behaviors she ignored in girls, i.e. coming in late, talking in class. It may have been that the girls were much quieter when they “misbehaved” and so did not draw the attention of the teacher. I don’t think this teacher had much experience with interacting with AA males. I got the feeling that she was perhaps a bit intimidated by the group I mentioned earlier. Which is understandable, their behavior was loud and boisterous and their attitude appeared defiant. The teacher seemed a little unsure about her position (understandably) and a bit frustrated with the behavior of those students. But the boys were just as frustrated. They seemed to struggle with having such a young woman in charge.

My observation in this class made me wonder what type of training is provided for teacher candidates in behavior management and cultural awareness. Too often I have seen first year teachers simply thrown in the public education pool to sink or swim. (I include myself in that analogy). With our society becoming increasingly multi-cultural it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable of and sensitive to, the norms of the predominant cultures in their rooms. One of the best seminars I ever attended was a no nonsense approach to African American culture. I learned a great deal and have found the information invaluable over the years. I also appreciated an extremely short in service about the culture of poverty. I was lucky, but more than luck, I listened.

I understand there is a language of power and a set of social rules that are observed in the “real world,” and I try to teach those so my students will be successful when they get out there, but my students don’t always appreciate what I am doing. They often feel as if they are betraying their true natures or cultures if they practice the behavior and language of white middle class America. Knowing something of their cultures, “where they are coming from,” if you will, has helped sensitize me and perhaps that helps in reaching them. It is sad how often I have heard teachers dismiss other cultures, particularly those of students with low socioeconomic status, AA, or EOSL. In my experience there is a definite elitist attitude in schools. This was illustrated when I attempted to observe interactions between teacher and lower socioeconomic students.

In my school there appears to be a “school within a school.” The AP/Honors kids, and then everyone else. Many awards and honors are not opened up to “regular” students. Awards night is an exclusive event for AP/Honors kids. Even with a multimillion dollar grant to bring AP instruction to more students, our low status students are being left out. Nearly every AP/Honors class is entirely populated with middle/upper middle class students, and the elitism doesn’t end there. Somehow it has become accepted that AP teachers are the gifted and talented elite on every high school staff. Apparently AP/Honors is the nirvana of the teaching profession. I have taught nearly every English class at every level and it is true that those upper levels come with very few behavior problems and instruction/planning challenges. The real teaching is in the lower levels where motivation, appropriate behavior, and confidence are all but nonexistent.

This assignment took me to some surprising places. I learned just how easily a student can disappear in class if he/she chooses. I also learned that the optimum position to be in is white, middle class, male, and athlete or white, middle class, pretty, popular, and female. The status quo of the fifties is still intact, regardless of the huge influx of multiple cultures, the shrinking of our world through technology, and the best attempts at school reform. To be a minority and/or have very little social status or collateral is to doom one to a mediocrity and perhaps invisibility.

Another thing I learned is that research takes time. To really understand the dynamics of a classroom or school requires hundreds of hours, if not years, of observation. I would like to believe that the time I spent observing in other classes has made me re-examine my own attitudes and actions towards race, gender, and socioeconomic status.