Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Promise of Cooperative Learning

One of my students wrote a semi-scathing piece about her teachers starting cooperative learning in their classes this past week. While she read it aloud, she kept looking at me sheepishly, unsure if she was going to get in trouble for chastising her teachers' new approach to learning and how much she despised this new found "cooperative learning." At first her peers acted the same way--looking at me unafraid to show their emotions on the subject, but by the time she finished her satirical piece and showed the drawing that accompanied her writing (administration and faculty with angel wings hovering over the entire school of students leading a Kagan-inspired Rally Robin) the entire class erupted in laughter losing their fear of any repercussion.

I laughed my way through this, too, mostly because I understand this students point of view. (Not to mention she has every right to her own opinion and expression of what's happening in her own learning life.) All of a sudden she's forced to partner and share her work in classes where she was largely doing her work individually. While I'm a big believer in cooperative learning and utilize it in my classroom daily, I realized long ago that 12th graders appreciate guiding words such as "find your partner" and "let's take 15-seconds to think first" over "Stand up, Hand up, Pair up" and "We're going to do a 'Think, Pair, Share' now."

In a strange sort of way, all of a sudden my class has lost validity in the eyes of my 12th graders. It kind of hurts. We read aloud our first poetry this week and afterwards I asked the students to offer up *snaps* to the poet. Where did I first learn this informal way to show quick, unobtrusive appreciation and feedback? The Greater Kansas City Writing Project-2002. Instead though, I was accused of being Kagan-crazed and brainwashed. "What?" I thought to myself,"Does he even have the copyright on "snaps after poetry readings?" Suddenly, my normal routines of collaborative and cooperative learning have been demeaned by the entire school going through Kagan training. "Oh no, don't hit me with another cooperative learning technique" the kids think to themselves. This new student perspective has thrown a kink into my once authentic and honest approaches to collaboration. Now, partnering up to share our work feels forced and not genuine, whereas before the students just thought my class was "different" than others and were inclined to open and share and learn from each other. I was intentionally cultivating a group of learners who were just beginning to learn that we do not learn in isolation.

Incorporating this Kaganesque CL into my classroom is not hard. I am 100% for cooperative learning. In fact, it's only a simple change in the way I word directions to the students. I was explicitly informed there's a "right" way to do things and that "we all need to be on the same page." I really didn't think this would be such a big deal. But to my kids right now, it seems to be. At the beginning of the school year, they felt like I was treating them as adults and with respect, but now, many feel like their knowledge and expertise as learners has been demoted by several grades. Where we once simply found a partner, we now "Stand up, Hand up, Pair Up." Where once we decided our own roles in our learning groups and defined them together, we now have "Sultan of Silly" and "Synergy Guru." Where we once had Gallery Walks (or sometimes Gallery Passes) that began with student-led discussion of what it means to walk through a gallery observing, thinking, reflecting, and responding, we now have "Carousel Feedback." I can't say I like the name changes either. It makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong if I don't say it the Kagan way. But for the sake of my job and for being part of and supporting the community of teachers in my school, I will do what's expected as we dive into learning what Kagan CL brings to the classroom.

The bottom line, I guess, is that Kagan provides answers. Answers for teachers who are demoralized and deflated from media and political ridicule. There's so much pressure on teachers for their students to perform well on standardized tests that teachers will largely follow any for-profit company who guarantees lowering the achievement gap and raising standardized test scores. Being told what to do and how to do it to get certain results is so much easier than questioning, learning, exploring, discovering, and reflecting on process. Kagan, in a nicely organized binder and a guidebook to accompany it, provides answers.

I guess this is why I love working with the writing project so much. I'm never given answers. And I never give them. I'm never given lectures on "what the research says." And again, I never give them. Instead, I'm valued as a professional educator and expected to be a curious learner. I'm encouraged to question and research my classroom practices, and then share my expertise and knowledge in conversation with other professionals. It is this tapping into each other's faucets that leads to greater teaching and learning. My biggest breakthrough in learning cooperative learning and collaboration came this summer at NWP's Recruiting for Diversity Institute. I realized that in order to build trust and community, it doesn't really take a coordinated effort in the balloon bounce or the untwisting of the human pretzel. Instead, it's the reading together, the writing together, the working together, and the sharing together that fully engages us as learners and motivates us to invest in each other.

(Author's note: Do I need to add that I think Kagan structures are solid and do provide opportunity for classroom conversation and learning? I hope not. If you got from this post that I do not believe in cooperative learning structures, then you're taking away the wrong thing. This post is not about belittling Dr. Kagan's years of research and expertise. I believe in them and have used them for years. But through the years, I've simply adapted versions that work well with my students. I don't believe Kagan structures are the "end-all-be-all" of education. There is never one right way to teach and learn. This post was simply inspired by a students reaction to her first experiences as a learner in many Kagan-inspired classrooms this past week.)