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?

Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

You might suspect this is a loaded question, setting up an attempt to challenge the value of your K through 12 education. That isn’t exactly my intention. I realize you learned much through your formal schooling. So did I. For this Discussion Starter, I’m asking you to consider what you learned in school versus what you learned independently. I’m discounting skills or knowledge acquired in post-secondary education specific to your profession or trade. Instead, think about the general education obtained in your youth. How did you acquire most of this?

Determining this isn’t easy. I’ve had difficulty parsing it out. I did learn the foundations of literacy in school. Maybe my parents could have taught me how to read and write, but my elementary school certainly managed this more efficiently. I learned basic mathematics, although my school was up against a barrier here. I don’t think anyone could have taught me how to do math beyond simple algebra. People have limits. I know mine well. Outside skill instruction, I got exposure to the basics of history and the basics of science. Other than that, I only remember a handful of disconnected facts.

My school district wasn’t bad. It was and continues to be about average in all measures for schools in my state. I recall having some okay, even enthusiastic teachers. I remember more about the lackluster ones, like those who fell asleep in class. Some of those who stayed awake were worse. Despite them, this district gave me the foundational skills needed for everything else I’d learn through reading. That is really important. Most schools manage this. Those that don’t tend to be under-resourced schools serving exceptionally needy populations.

However, I wanted to be somewhere else each day of high school. I’ll admit having a bad attitude. Perhaps no school would have motivated me. Mine definitely didn’t. I’ve heard similar tales from friends my age regardless of where they went to school. Is it just the types of friends I’ve chosen? No, because I’ve also heard it from recent undergraduates who really want to become teachers and are much more optimistic than I’ve ever been.

I’ve thought about the specifics of what I didn’t like. Just being in the building all day grated me. Reviewing for the first few months of each year was another problem. In the mid-1990s, I endured the emerging trend of cooperative learning. Little turned me off as much as working in groups. One thing school taught me: I really dislike having to work with other people. Recently, I got some feedback that hinted at such sentiment being more common than I’d thought. I’ll write about this in the coming weeks.

In my last post, I asked for thoughts about potentially changing roles for teachers. Personalized learning came up. I’m not convinced personalized learning will work, partly because I’ve watched how schools muddle implementation of other programs. Additional factors weigh against it, enough for another article. It might work for skill instruction for some students, maybe even for content. The push behind it does seem to be part of an agenda, but regardless, what if it improbably ends up working? Research might never tell us convincingly one way or another. Even if research points to effectiveness, teachers aren’t likely to accept it.

I’ll tell you this: I wish something loosely akin to personalized learning or some other system of highly individualized modules would have have been available for me from elementary school onward. I can’t emphasize enough how much I would have preferred being able to move on when I was ready, being able to take more time as needed, not falling behind after absences, not having to talk with other students, and not having to sit and listen to a teacher. I’ve always preferred reading about how to do something to having someone tell me or show me. This might not work for some students (and the commercial versions of it on the horizon might not work at all), but I’ll say with confidence it would have worked for me.

As I’ve thought about it, I feel the bulk of what I’ve retained and been able to use has come from studying on my own. I can thank my school for some of the skills needed for this (and for having a functional library), but I really think the preponderance of my general education happened outside a classroom. And I didn’t even have internet access back then. Maybe my sense of this is wildly distorted and I’m wrong about the balance. I think otherwise.

But what about you? Do you feel content with what you learned in K through 12? What about your thoughts on how you learned, such as the methodology used? Would you have preferred working at your own pace (if you didn’t)? Do you feel you learned better in classrooms than through your own efforts? Did you learn more through your parents, or even through incidental learning across settings? Share in the comments.


Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?