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57: Cooperative Learning...Another Gimmick?
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Cooperative Learning
 
ANOTHER TAWDRY GIMMICK 

 
introduction
A member of the local school board told me, “In the 21st century they’ll have to be able to work in groups, so we may as well teach them how to do it.”

He was so confident in his pronouncement, and seemed to think there was nothing else to say. His confidence had the opposite effect on me. I heard nothing but sophistry in that little comment; and I realized, with some regret, I had to write an article explaining why Cooperative Learning is just another tawdry gimmick.
 
the big picture
First, let’s stand back and ask: did something happen in the universe, or in the United States, when we entered the year 2001? Was there a rupture with the past, and the nature of work changed? The whole premise for Cooperative Learning seems to be that once upon a time people worked only alone but now everyone would be part of a group. Obviously, neither of these things is true. Already we see the set-up is a phony.

People were miners in mines. Workers on a farm. Sailors on a ship. Secretaries in an office. Executives at a meeting. Everybody was part of a team. Think back in history. Everybody had their place in society and in various smaller groups that made up the society: family, clan, religion, business, farm, military unit, guild, store, or manufacturing facility. Who was actually working alone? On the contrary, people were always working cooperatively with others, first within the family and community, later in whatever job one had.

Particularly savor the official’s phrase “teach them how to do it,” as if all the real groups one will be part of outside the classroom don’t teach anything. And the pretend groups in the classroom are the only way to learn how to work cooperatively! 
 
a little history
To understand the obsession with Cooperative Learning, we need to look at the history of education. A century ago John Dewey and his colleagues declared war on individualism. In the land of rugged individuals, some of history’s bigger wimps declared, no, you must be like us. Dewey wanted schools where all the children made clothes, cooked meals, built houses, or engaged in other manual labor together. Everything now contained in the phrase Cooperative Learning was there a century ago as a commonplace part of Progressive Education. See how dishonest this thing is? All the chatter about 21st-Century skills is mere propaganda. 

What the Education Establishment really wanted then, and now, is leveling. They didn’t want some students rushing way ahead, while some students fall back. Dewey was constantly agitated about this possibility. So what’s the answer? You put six kids at a table together and make them do everything at the same pace. In order to sell this enforced leveling to the community, you come up with all kinds of fluff about the 21st Century and now everybody must work as a team.
 
McDermott's testimony
M. J. McDermott has a somewhat famous video on YouTube dealing with how math should be taught ("An Inconvenient Truth"). Teaching math has been corrupted by, among other things, the requirement that children learn cooperatively. McDermott went back to college when she was almost 40 and the change that really surprised her was that the younger students coming directly to college were not very good at math. They were “unable to work alone, to solve problems without checking in with other people all the time.” So if you’re trying to make people who are dependent, conformist, unable to think originally or independently,  then Cooperative Learning is exactly the way you want to go.
 
teams in the real world
Now let’s consider what actually happens in these cooperative classrooms. The children are grouped randomly together. The smarter kids carry the team, presumably. That might even be good for them. The slower kids can tag along. That’s not good for them. But the whole notion that Cooperative Learning is somehow a simulation of adult activity is dishonest. They already had the real thing in the school play, the band, the football team, the yearbook. Schools always had projects where people brought individual skills to a larger project. If the kids weren’t on one of those teams, they were surely part of a family. They had to interact with other people all day long. They often had a job after school. But in John Dewey’s world, if kids don’t learn 1) a certain skill 2) at school 3) the way the school specifies, it’s as if nothing at all happened. In fact, it’s the school’s scheme that is the bogus one.

Consider for a moment how teams work in the real world. Look at a movie company, ad agency or game company. Yes, six people meet around the table. But each of them has a title and a distinct skill. Each makes a unique contribution. In an ad agency for example you might have an art director,  copywriter, photographer, creative director, account executive, and production guy. Each one is expected to bring a special talent to this meeting. That’s the way it works in the real world.

(As on a football team, people have specialties and play positions. Some players are on the line, some in the backfield; some carry the ball, some tackle. In fact, if you want Cooperative Learning to be the least bit realistic, you would force the kids to role-play. Assign each student a title and tell them they must fulfill the responsibilities of that particular job as well as possible. That is, they must display initiative and leadership, versus Cooperative Learning, which typically encourages passivity.)

Consider again a real Art Director in a real meeting. When he leaves that room, he is alone with his talents and his responsibilities. He has to go back to his desk and sit alone at a computer. He has to start creating along certain lines that have been agreed on in that meeting. He will have to come back to a meeting the next day and present the results of his creativity. The other people will be waiting and depending on him. That’s completely different from a team composed of interchangeable members who hardly leave each other’s presence. 
 
more big picture
Here is my depressing take on this whole thing. The Education Establishment wants kids working in touchy-feely little groups. They want collectivism in embryo. They want soft testing or no testing. So, they roll all this into a ball and call it Cooperative Learning or, more recently, Project-Based Learning. I recently got an e-mail from a site touting PBL and it specifically said that PBL was a wonderful thing because it teaches 21st-Century Skills, that is, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Digital Technology (which can mean using Google to do research). 

In years past, schools would say that they were teaching History, Science, Chemistry, Archaeology, Music--a subject, a body of knowledge. Forget about that today. What the school teaches now is a set of approaches, tendencies, and alleged problem-solving skills. Note that you can be a big talent at all this stuff and still be as ignorant as a brick. Which appears to be the real point. The Education Establishment seems to want to strip out all facts, content and knowledge, and then have education consist of ATTITUDES and PROCEDURES. 
 
and in conclusion...
Let’s think of a real, factual subject, such as French. We want to teach kids to read, write and speak French. Can you do this cooperatively, with kids sitting at a table memorizing verbs together? Probably not. It’s only when you have subject matter that is very nebulous and not all that significant, that Cooperative Learning seems to make sense.
 
In devoutly seeking Cooperative Learning, the Education Establishment is letting the ideological tail wag the educational dog. Sure, you might use cooperative projects for a change of pace. It’s fun to break up the routine. But the idea of kids always working together at a table is clearly socialist prep--isn’t it? Then the educators have to embellish this watered-down education with pushy marketing copy. That tells a lot. Cooperative Learning is said to make educational magic in a uniquely 21st century way. All hail.

The Education Establishment does not seem focused on creating independent, strong willed, knowledgeable citizens. The real focus appears to be on creating the appearance of education taking place, so the schools can say, oh, we're doing a great job. We're teaching 21st Century Skills!!! Such as Cooperative Learning!!!...But at the end of the day nobody knows much.

 So you see we have a tangled weave of false premises and promises. I suspect that the more you reflect on this tangle, the more you will start to feel that somebody sold you the Brooklyn Bridge. 
 

FOUR ADDENDA


Here is some exotic Ph.D. prose, from the Internet,

that purports to explain Cooperative Learning:


"1. Cooperative efforts are based on intrinsic motivation generated by interpersonal factors in working together and joint aspirations to achieve a significant goal

2. Focus on relational concepts dealing with what happens among individuals

Cognitive Developmental Theory

The cognitive developmental perspective is grounded in the work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piagetian perspectives suggest that when individuals work together, sociocognitive conflict occurs and creates cognitive disequlibrium that stimulates perspective-taking ability and reasoning. Vygotsky’s theories present knowledge as a societal product. 

  

History of Theory and Research: Cognitive Development Theory (adapted from Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1998, p.3:18)

Premise: When individuals cooperate on the environment, sociocognitive conflict occurs, thus creating cognitive disequilibrium, which in turn stimulates perspective-taking ability and cognitive development.

Contributors: Piaget, Vygotsky, Kohlberg, Murray, controversy theorists (Johnsons & Tjosvold), cognitive restructuring theorists

Assumptions: Focus on what happens within a single person (e.g., disequilibrium, cognitive reorganization)

 Behavioral Learning Theory

 The behavioral-social perspective presupposes that cooperative efforts are fueled by extrinsic motivation to achieve group rewards (academic and/or nonacademic)...." 


 

 

Surprise:

one website provided reasons why

Cooperative Learning might NOT work:


“Moving towards the disadvantages of cooperative learning, the first thing we come across is the student having a lack of social skills would not know how to work in groups and this could result in task or social conflicts. 


Another disadvantage is the group grades, what if only one student is working in a group and all the others are just enjoying the grades due to his hard work. 


Another disadvantage is the fear of failure; a student who might want to avoid failure might not participate in the group task to by expressing his or her worries by blaming the task being stupid or his or her group members being dumb.


Moving further, competitions will start between teams and the team not winning will stop trying. This will not only lower their grades but also their self-esteem. 


Another disadvantage which occurs due to cooperative learning is the dependency on the group members which make some student not able to work alone. Moreover, when controlling many groups you never know when a single group goes off-track from the task and till you find out a lot of time has been wasted.


 The worst disadvantage of cooperative learning is the parents of high achievers complaining that their son or daughter is being used in spending their precious time in teaching the dummies of the class.


It is truly visible that cooperative learning is not for those who are shy. There are many problems and to avoid these problems, it is necessary that the students sit in rows, do not talk with each other, and quietly follow the teacher's worksheet....”

 

 
 
"COOPERATIVE LEARNING"--WHAT DOES THE PHRASE ACTUALLY MEAN??
 
Most of us hear it to mean "learning through cooperating" or "learning by cooperation."
These are the meanings that the Education Establishment wants us to hear.
At least there is still academic activity.  
But remember that for John Dewey individualism was bad;
the cooperative child was the ideal.
 
I suspect that for him the phrase meant "learning to be cooperative."
Note that in this translation, academic activity is not necessarily involved. 
 
Actually, there's a further ambiguity.
Whom are the kids learning to cooperate with?
Each other or the people in charge? 
 
 
 

 April 23, 2012: UPDATE: Isn't This Scary?

"A doctor I know spoke of younger med students, raised on group learning, who now have to be told what to do, as they do not think for themselves anymore, even as interns/residents."

COMMENT LEFT ON FORUM.

The commenter is talking about our best and brightest. You can easily imagine the damage inflicted on the less capable, less confident students.

 

For commentary on other gimmicks, see
"56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education" 

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011