Discussion Starter: Does Anyone Like Cooperative Learning?

I’ve begun to wonder if anyone likes cooperative learning. I certainly don’t. In high school, few activities bothered me more than having to work in groups. I felt the same way in college and eventually graduate school, cringing whenever a professor assigned any kind of group work. Annoyance turned to resentment if this group work represented even a small portion of my grade. Have I been alone in this?

Recently, my curiosity prompted me to ask the undergraduates I was teaching. My polling methods weren’t exactly scientific. I simply asked, by show of hands, how many students enjoyed cooperative learning, either in high school or college. Out of the six sections I asked across two semesters—over 200 students—almost none raised their hands. During the first semester, not a single hand went up.

When I pressed, they offered a long list of grievances. Many disliked having to work with less capable or motivated students. A few added to this, saying they felt absences and aptitudes made group work feel imbalanced. Several complained about having their grades tied to the performance of others. As many as half of them indicated a preference for working independently, which might be surprising considering these students were preparing to be teachers. Some rather candid students mentioned specifically disliking having to interact at all.

This sampling isn’t enough to damn cooperative learning. Remember, I only spoke with around 200 students. Peer pressure might have dissuaded some from raising their hands. Furthermore, students dislike all sorts of otherwise effective methodology and programming. Working in teams has some merit and shouldn’t be tossed out because a few dozen undergraduates take exception with it. Justifications for its use include fostering inclusion (one of the original motivations for it), modeling 21st Century work environments (although this alignment might be shifting), and promoting engagement through active learning (which works so long as all members truly are active; it might backfire for students who struggle with interaction).

What do you think of it? I’m mostly interested in your perspective as a student. If you have thoughts on using cooperative learning as a teacher, share those instead. As a teacher, I used cooperative learning models because such strategies were expected to be present in lesson plans. I’m guessing other teachers use it at least in some part to secure positive ratings from administrators. No, I don’t think this is the only reason teachers use it. Plenty of teachers are skilled at doing so, choosing arrangements that atone for potential inequities while fostering effective learning. Students can benefit when it’s wisely implemented. Some students might even enjoy it. These students must be out there somewhere. Share your thoughts in the comments, whether or not you’re one of them, or ever were one of them.

Discussion Starter: Does Anyone Like Cooperative Learning?

5 Tips for Approaching a College Office of Disability (Repost from iAchieveLearning.com)

Below is an article I wrote for iAchieveLearning.com about how to start the conversation about accommodations with a college office of disability.


5 Tips for Approaching a College Office of Disability (Repost from iAchieveLearning.com)

Starting A Campus Disability Support Group (Repost From IAcheiveLearning.com)

Here is an article I wrote for iAchieveLearning.com about the necessary steps for starting a disability support group on a college campus. Visit iAchieveLearning.com for a variety of educational resources.


Starting A Campus Disability Support Group (Repost From IAcheiveLearning.com)

The Advantages of 504 Plans for Incoming Freshmen with Disabilities (Repost from iAchievelearning.com)

Below is an article I wrote for iAchievelearning.com about the benefits of securing 504 plans for a college-bound students with disabilities. Visit iAchievelearning.com for tutoring, test preparation, and other resources.


The Advantages of 504 Plans for Incoming Freshmen with Disabilities (Repost from iAchievelearning.com)

My Uninvolved Parents

I’ve seen the gamut of parental involvement during my career. Some parents couldn’t have been bothered to answer their phones. Others would lose their composure if they didn’t get daily phone calls from their children’s teachers. The range I’ve seen has made me reflect on how my parents handled my school experience, or perhaps how they didn’t handle it.

I can’t quite compare my education with that of the students I taught. I can’t compare their parent’s reactions with those of my parents. Having exclusively taught students with disabilities, I worked with parents who had legitimate reasons to be extra vigilant regarding their children’s education. My parents didn’t have such motivation.

While I was in elementary school, their involvement was at its highest. This is true with most parents. I recall my mother helping me with projects. She seemed to fret over my work more than I did. She had always been a very nervous person. For a few brief years, my schooling contributed to her nervousness. I think she might have been as concerned with what others would think of her as a mother as she was with my actual performance. My father was detached from the whole affair. He only became involved if I got into trouble. I always had the sense that he didn’t care what I did so long as the school left him alone about it.

Their involvement decreased as I got older. My mother became consumed by a job she hated and didn’t seem to have much attention to spare. My father grew more distant with each year. By high school, I no longer showed them my report cards. They didn’t think to ask, so I got away with it. Eventually, they stopped asking me much of anything about school. On the rare occasion they asked me about homework, I simply said I didn’t have any. That was good enough.

True, their lapse in attention wasn’t necessarily their choice. They were distracted. Also, I purposely obfuscated by withholding information. I could tell their attitudes and priorities regarding me had changed, though. My mother’s preoccupation when I was in high school was with my circle of friends and my dating life. She disapproved of all of my friends. Although I really didn’t get into much trouble, she was convinced my friend base was guiding me towards prison. My father viewed my education as an inconvenience. He ran his own business and would sometimes ask if I planned to go to school on a given day. He’d offer me the opportunity to skip if I could help him with his job. I don’t think this was about bonding. I think he legitimately felt that me helping him was more important than me going to school.

They did lean on me about college. Part of why my mom worked was so she could save for me to go to school. My father wasn’t going to contribute. He spent what would’ve been my tuition on his auto-racing hobby. My mother resented having to work because of this. She must have fumed when I ended up getting a grant that covered everything.

Other than urging me to enroll and helping me by filling out their portion of the FAFSA form, my parents really had no part in my college life. I lived at home to reduce costs, but they rarely asked me anything about school. When grant money dried up, my mother kicked in, though she didn’t need to kick in much. I paid for a portion of each semester. I also paid outright for summer and winter classes, books, transportation, and my share of the utilities. My total undergrad bill was barely more than $4000. Let me emphasize this was for the entire program, not just one or two semesters.

I graduated. I got a job. I started a lucrative career. I out-earned my parents and have long since paid back what would’ve been the cost of my board during college. I’ve paid back the entire amount my mother paid towards my tuition. Meanwhile, I’ve managed to function as a self-sustaining adult. I think I turned out okay despite their lack of involvement.

Was I able to do this because there is something special about me? I don’t think I’m particularly capable or talented, so probably not. Were the times just different when I was a student? They were, but not by much. Is this evidence that so-called helicopter parenting isn’t necessary? Maybe. I’m just one example. I can think of examples from my personal life of adults who can’t function without help from their parents, so this is case-by-case. I think my parent’s lack of involvement helped me develop independence, which makes me think the helicopter parents could be failing to foster this and thereby might be doing a disservice to their kids. I can’t say any of this with certainty.

How would’ve any of this been different had I been born with some kind of disability? I can’t predict how differently I would’ve developed. My guess is my mother would’ve become much more involved, but probably not in a helpful way. She wouldn’t have had the nerve to challenge the school about anything, but she would’ve been a pest with constant redundant questions. My father would’ve been every bit as detached—maybe more so. I figure the added strain would’ve been for the worse for all involved. I suppose this strain has been there for the parents of students I’ve taught, rendering comparisons moot.

My Uninvolved Parents

My Detached College Experience

Twenty years ago this week, I started my undergraduate program. At the time, I would’ve just called it college. In a word, I’d say my college experience was detached. I’m not certain anything that could be called a typical college experience exists any longer. I know mine wasn’t typical.

I enrolled reluctantly. All through high school, I had vowed I wouldn’t go to college. I had all sorts of impractical ideas about what to do instead. None were anything close to tangible by the time graduation arrived. I ended up enrolling, largely because I was in a band and had a girlfriend. These were anchors that kept me from doing something like hitchhiking around the country or joining the Peace Corps. Also, college was going to be free thanks to a grant and a scholarship. This made me feel an obligation to go.

My choice of school was based on its proximity to my parent’s home. I knew I wanted to commute, partly to cut costs, but also because I figured I’d hate living in a dorm. I tried to skip orientation because I assumed campus life would be irrelevant for me. Wow, did I resent having to actually attend orientation. It convinced me I wanted to stay far away from campus.

I had no idea what I would study. I entered undeclared. My plan (if one could call it a plan) was to take classes until I had enough credits to apply for a supervisory position with the agency that employed me part time. At no point during my first or even during most of my second year did I think, “Hey, I’ll become a teacher.” I wasn’t even taking the idea of finishing seriously.

I didn’t really go to college. I took classes during the day. I drove from home every day, took my classes, and then went to my part time job. I spent little time on campus. I met few people. To my annoyance, I had to linger around campus on days when I had large gaps between my classes. Some days I passed this time sleeping in my car rather than engaging anything or anyone. It was a lonely time, by my design.

The detached feeling lasted throughout my time in college. I only continued attending because classes continued to be free (or at least cheap). I thought I should take advantage of that. Eventually, I reached a crossroads at which I had to select a major. This seemed like a juncture at which I could quit, but I figured I had invested enough time that I might as well finish. My choice of education as a major reflected my desire to pick something marketable that would validate the time I’d spent. I ended up strongly disliking my coursework. I wandered through the program, but felt tempted to quit even as I approached graduation. I didn’t bother attending the ceremony, choosing to work that day instead.

I guess my poor attitude shaped my experience. At no point was I working towards something I felt driven to do. If I exerted an effort, it was because the free money I received made me feel obligated to try. My parents were never particularly interested. I slept in their house during college, but I didn’t see them often. They were distracted with their lives and paid little mind to mine. Throughout my experience, college remained this intrusive chore I dealt with during the day.

This attitude continued in my Master’s program. I resented having to do it. I only went through with it because of the state requirement for certification (and the pay bump). Going to school while working full time wore at my patience. Sometime midway through the program, I began calculating the most minimal amount of work I needed to do to maintain a high enough GPA to get the degree and certification.

What I see now is lots of students have detached experiences like mine. I think these experiences result in part from the proliferation of online course, satellite campuses, and non-traditional graduation paths. With decentralized experiences, I wonder how connected students feel and how this affects the value they get from their education. They might feel their education is a service for which they’re paying rather than an opportunity to be part of a school community. What will this mean for those seeking professional licensure of some kind?

I might be overthinking the matter. My lousy attitude didn’t stop me. Maybe their detachment won’t be a problem for them. Twenty years from now, they might be just fine (or in debt with nothing to show for their educational odyssey).

My Detached College Experience

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

Some reasonable predictions can be made about outcomes for students. In special education, children with the most severe disabilities might have clear destinies before they start school. For higher functioning children, estimations remain possible, but they can be more difficult and thereby are dangerously suspect. Where students are at the end of high school might not be a good indication of where they have the potential to go. Just because they don’t appear prepared for adult life doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out. I should know.

Throughout high school, I slacked with the worst of them. Sometime during tenth grade, I decided I was only going to do as much work as I could get done during the school day (and only if I felt like it). I ignored major assignments. I drew during class instead of taking notes. I sat quietly, sometimes just staring back at teachers who had the nerve to call on me.

I wasn’t remarkable for anything positive in high school. If teachers noticed me, they noticed an unmotivated kid who wore the same clothing every day. Some would know me as that kid who got caught stealing art supplies (I almost got away with it, too). Others might know me as that kid who asked other kids for the food they were going to throw away at lunch (I didn’t like to see food get wasted). Still others might know me as that kid who penned an essay about shooting a president to get in an encyclopedia (my parents got a call over that one). None of these were good reasons to be noticed or remembered.

I can imagine what my teachers might have said about me, had they noticed me enough to comment. I’m guessing they would’ve described me a waste of potential. They might have remarked about me being dirty and gross. My guess is they didn’t look at me as someone who would someday teach for a living. I wouldn’t have guessed this, either.

Teachers get the opportunity to either relive or correct the mistakes their teachers made. Often, they don’t realize they’re reliving these mistakes until they’ve made a few. I hoped I’d be able to avoid this trap, but I fell for it. Presented with the chance to pass judgment about student potential, I did so repeatedly. I’ll defend myself somewhat. Most of the students I taught had disabilities that would act as definite limitations. I based my predictions on statistical likelihoods. This had some practical merit, but also it was cold and foreclosing.

Experience shaped my perspective, but it had a nasty hand in shaping expectations. Years of watching students flounder after graduation undermined my ability to have hope for more positive outcomes. I worked to prepare students as much as possible for outcomes that seemed appropriate. My sin was letting preconceptions dictate what these outcomes would be. In doing this, I might have had the exact wrong kind of influence.

True, many of these students did have genuine limitations that set what outcomes would be available. I’ve mentioned on this blog the importance channeling transition efforts towards realistic outcomes. I did this. I stand by the decision to work with families to find the best possible transition plan within a student’s reach. I still have to wonder if I might have aimed too low with some students. Instinct tells me I more frequently aimed too high. My instincts might have been warped by cynicism.

I was looking at where students were as they were ready to exit. What isn’t certain when a student is graduating is what that student will be capable of doing three, five, or even ten years later. Many people aren’t ready for adulthood in their late teens or early twenties. Some don’t hit their stride until their late twenties or early thirties. Late blooming has become somewhat of a function of economic circumstances. Even two decades ago, I was scarcely ready for adulthood. I fumbled through college and didn’t establish anything solid for myself until my mid twenties. Any snapshot of me along the way would have revealed a guy who appeared to be somewhat of a mess (and I didn’t have a disability).

My concept of success might have been too narrow as well. Many people in the education business have an unfair tendency to think of post-secondary education and eventual degree attainment as the threshold of success. Having a job that allows for financial independence becomes synonymous with having “made it.” For many students with disabilities, getting any kind of job might be the pinnacle of success. While this might seem a bit detached and impractical, relative contentment probably should be the ultimate benchmark. If a person with a disability works ten hours per week at minimum wage but feels good about the work and about life in general, perhaps that should be enough.

Benefit of the doubt is crucial. Yes, students with disabilities need to work towards practical outcomes and teachers will have an important role in determining what these will be. However, harboring cynicism about student prospects could subtly influence a teacher’s efforts. Even if it doesn’t affect practice, a preconception that students in special education have no chance at any echelon of success can make the day-to-day of the job more grueling than it needs to be. Students might seem unready for adult life when teachers finish with them. That doesn’t mean these students will never figure out a way to thrive that works for their lives. The path to adulthood has become longer and more convoluted. Throwing a disability into this path compounds the complexity. Special educators need to apply their differenciated thinking to expectations. I had trouble with this, but I came around. Many of us need some time to come around.

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations