“Every time you call on one, you can call on everyone.” Dr. Spencer Kagan, February 2013
So, what did you learn today over the past 30 years?
In 1978, Vygotsky’s research suggested that “learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and other experts. Consequently, teachers can create a learning environment that maximizes the learner’s ability to learn through discussion, collaboration, and feedback.” Learning Theories Website
It may have been Vygotsky’s research, or the misrepresentation of it, that lead to the group work bandwagon in the mid 80’s. This prompted many of us (including me) to change our classrooms from rows of isolated students, to clusters of desks where students worked together in groups. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out for me as intended. It lead to… a student or two in the group dominating the task while others sat back and let the learning take place around them ; some students finding more engaging tasks to occupy their time; a lot of noise that wasn’t always productive. Because “group work” didn’t produce the results I had expected, I decided that pairs would be the extent of my students’ group work experience, where they could work with their assigned partner some of the time. Unfortunately, my classroom was a “learn by yourself most of the time; work with your partner when I say it’s okay” environment. Boy, did I have a lot to learn!
At the time, I didn’t understand Vygotsky’s research AT ALL and I didn’t know about the brain research that helps explain why cooperative learning helps students process their learning. These 2 quotes in Eric Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, have helped clarify this research for me:
- “Either you can have your learners’ attention OR they can be making meaning, but never both at the same time.” p 36
- “What doesn’t make sense is constant one-way learning.” p 55
I also didn’t know about the teachings of Dr. Spencer Kagan or The Critical Thinking Consortium, but now I do…
Cooperative learning moved to the forefront of my professional growth in February of 2012, when a colleague and I attended the 4 day Kagan Cooperative Learning Institute. Spencer Kagan and his wife Laurie, a former school teacher, have developed a multitude of Cooperative Learning Structures that can be used to support student conversation that enables them to process their learning and articulate their thinking. Kagan’s research suggests that in order for cooperative learning to truly be occurring, 4 basic principles must be in place.
The 4 principles of cooperative learning, also known as PIES, are:
- Positive= one doing well helps others
- Interdependence= task completion depends on everyone doing their part
Individual Accountability- Students can’t hide; your success influences the success of others; everyone must perform the task
Equal Participation- Participation is approximately equal
Simultaneous Interaction- Highest percentage of students as possible are performing at any given time
The Critical Thinking Model also embraces cooperative learning. When we began our work with the Critical Thinking Consortium in 2009, I hadn’t realized that cooperative learning would be playing a role. I did know that when critical thinking is embedded into teaching and learning, students are engaged in solving a problem and as a result, they learn the content in a much deeper way. I also now know that one of the strengths of the model is that many of the Thinking Strategies that support critical thinking have students learning cooperatively. This can happen through students justifying their decisions to their peers in light of pre-established criteria. It can happen through peer coaching, where students provide specific feedback to each other in light of the criteria. It can also occur through Thinking Strategies that provide structures where students each express their own ideas, and then listen to the ideas of others in order to re-evaluate and expand their thinking.
What I love about the Thinking Strategies is that they are structured to push the thinking further; they go beyond just having students articulate their thinking, but are encouraged to allow the thinking of others to push their own thinking as well. Some powerful Thinking Strategies on the LearnAlberta.ca website that align with the principles of cooperative learning are: Four Corners Discussion , Placemat Activity and U-shaped Discussion .
A current approach to teaching that many teachers are embracing is “collaborative inquiry”. How can we ensure the PIES principles are in place as students learn “collaboratively” through inquiry? Perhaps we could explicitly teach the PIES principles while providing students with experience in Critical Thinking Strategies or Kagan Structures that embed the principles. Through a scaffolded approach, eventually students would have the skills to determine themselves ways of ensuring the principles are in place in any collaborative inquiry projects in which they engage.
I have come to realize the reasons why cooperative learning wasn’t successful in the way I had attempted to implement it. In my classroom, group work was about demonstration of learning in the form of a summative group project after independent learning; it wasn’t about learning together. In my classroom, group work was unstructured; I expected the students to know how to work together cooperatively when I hadn’t actually set them up for success in doing so. In my classroom, class discussion involved asking one student at a time to share their thinking. I now understand what Dr. Kagan means when he says, “Every time you call on one, you can call on everyone.” Class discussions take on a different meaning when they are treated as cooperative learning opportunities and structured accordingly.
Ultimately, it has taken me the better part of my career to fully appreciate Vygotsky’s research. It has taken much continued professional learning and deliberate reflection to develop my current understanding that “learning is a social process”. I am now able to articulate ways that we can build classroom environments and implement teaching pedagogies to capitalize on this foundational knowledge. And my learning is not over yet! I continue to learn from the teachers with whom I have the opportunity to work. Several teachers in Parkland School Division have recently participated in Cooperative Learning PD opportunities, and have shared some of the impacts they have noticed. I have documented their responses in this google doc.
So what have I learned over the past 30 years? Cooperative learning is NOT about putting students into groups to create a product to demonstrate their learning after the teaching and learning. It IS about putting students together to LEARN TOGETHER, and having structures and thinking strategies in place to facilitate the learning. Cooperative learning stimulates thinking; it is the means through which the learning takes place, and when cooperative learning is combined with critical thinking, oh… it makes my heart sing!!
Why do we teach? To what extent does our work influence the lives of others, even when we’re not doing so intentionally?
I was inspired to write this post by an email message I received last week from my niece. The subject of her email was, “Why I teach…” and her message read:
“I received this email from a former student today. It was a much needed and infinitely appreciated reminder after a really tough first week back… xx”
And the forwarded email from her student read:
“Hello Mrs. ______!
I’m not sure if you will remember me or not, but this is ______ from the 2010 grad class. I just wanted to send you a quick message telling you how much I appreciated you as a teacher. Now that I am a full time University student, I can see how much I really learned in your English classes. I am so thankful that you pushed us to do the best we could and did not settle for average. I most likely did enjoy it at the time, and I am also sure thankful for it now! I feel I will do so much better in my English classes because I had you as a teacher. Your classes were definitely a highlight for me in High School and the class I always looked forward to.
I would also like to thank you for being a caring teacher. When my mom was sick, you were the only teacher who ever asked me how I was doing. That meant a lot to me, and made coming to school a little more bearable.
Thank you for all the hard work you do, and for being an amazing teacher!”
And the “disclaimer” that the student added to the bottom of the email said it all! “Please do not look at this email as an example of my writing ability. I just got out of class and am super tired.”
The letter from this student brought tears to my eyes; tears of pride at what an inspirational and caring teacher my niece is. Although I’ve never had the opportunity to teach with her, the passion and dedication she demonstrates for education tells me that she is, indeed, an amazing teacher.
So, as a proud aunt, I responded to my niece’s email, telling her, “This letter is a keeper! You definitely made a difference in her life, and I’m sure in the lives of many others who haven’t taken the time to express their feelings to you- so proud to call you my niece! xo”
The response I received back was a heartwarming surprise, and definitely made me realize why I teach:
“Thank you, Auntie Diane. Her email sure was a beautiful reminder. If only all the students whose lives we’ve touched could articulate it this well. And I’m sure glad that I had such a wonderful role model growing up that helped me decide to become a teacher. (Yes, I mean you!!) xoxo”
And now I’ll go get my Kleenex … and take some time to touch base with two other nieces who are also amazing teachers!
Why do you teach?
Math Minds is a project committed to enhancing the development of numeracy skills in early years’ students. This post reveals some of the components of the Math Minds project, which I’m certain we’ll be hearing more about as the project progresses.
Canadian Oilsands Limited has invested $3 million as part of a 5 year commitment in this initiative to enhance numeracy competencies in young students, and to build teachers’ capacity to do so. Much of the $ is being used to fund teachers’ professional growth. The participating school(s) will use Jump Math as the lens for instructional practice and programming. Jump Math is also learning along the way, and will work to enhance their program based on the findings.
The goal is for Calgary to become an “excellence in math centre”, and if successful, Canadian Oilsands hopes to be able to replicate this model in other areas of the country. The project is working to create a model school(s) where guests will be able to visit to see promising math practices in action. They also hope that the model school(s) can be place(s) where teachers can participate in a possible residency program for a year to build their capacity, after which time they would go back to their own school and be a lead math teacher.
In addition to providing the model school(s) with the Jump Math training and other professional development, part of Math Minds initiative also trains volunteers (pre-service teachers from the University of Calgary as well as members of the community) to tutor students after school using the Jump Math Tutor program, through the Boys and Girls Club. During the conference, I was sitting with 2 people who are math tutors at the Boys and Girls Club. They shared some of the successes they are seeing through the use of Jump Math.
Jump Math is a not for profit organization that has developed grades 1 – 8 math programs, for classroom teachers, tutors and parents.
Several speakers at the MathConnect Conference spoke about their work with Jump Math.
The University of Calgary is endorsing Jump Math, saying it is a good blend of discovery learning and explicit instruction. It breaks down the concepts and teaches the teachers themselves the concepts, so they can understand them in a deeper way, and in turn, teach them in a better way. It helps teachers determine what early skills the students are missing, so those skills can be developed to enable students to learn skills further along the developmental continuum. It supports the research that shows that early deficits have a cumulative effect, and that success in early math skills are a better predictor of success in later years, than success in early literacy skills.
Elisha Bonnis, an elementary school teacher with Vancouver Board of Education shared how Jump Math helped her overcome feelings of inadequacy in math. It helped her learn the basic skills and knowledge she was missing, and helped her to realize she CAN indeed DO and TEACH math. The philosophy behind Jump Math reflects Dr. Dweck’s Mindset research. Elisha offered the advice that if teachers do decide to use the program, to follow the teacher’s guide, as its explicit teaching method helps uncover the skills that students are missing, and helps them develop those skills so they can be successful in learning and growing from the discovery activities.
If you’re interested, all the teacher, tutor and parent Jump Math lessons are available, for free, on their website. The student consumable books are available for purchase. http://jumpmath.org/cms/
All in all, Math Minds sounds like a very worthwhile project! I know I’m going to be keeping tabs on its progress. What do you think?
My blog will provide a glimpse into some of the work I do, some of my educational beliefs, and a reflection of my ongoing learning.
I’ve titled my blog “Curriculum Candy” because discussion of curriculum sometimes leaves people with a bad taste in their mouths; it is my intention to share its sweet side.