Yesterday, my daughter, a high school junior, came home from her second day of school disappointed and upset because she had just learned that all of her projects in the history class that she had been looking forward to were going to be group projects. Her feelings on the subject of cooperative learning were so strong that I asked her to write a guest post for Minds in Bloom.
Cooperative “Learning” by Lucy Lynette
I don’t remember any of the content from my 9th grade history class. I couldn’t tell you a single thing we were taught or put my finger on any of the events, dates, or people we studied; what I can remember, though, is the educational horror that was “cooperative learning.” I’m aware that most educators these days are familiar with this teaching method, but for those of you outside the educational world, let me give you a little overview: the concept is to get kids to interact with their peers and think outside the box by giving them countless group activities and constantly putting them in front of the class to do “creative presentations.” Sounds great, right? Wrong. Let me give you a student perspective.
Public school is a mash-up of kids from all different backgrounds and values. Now, personally, education is very important to me, and my schooling means a lot. Not everyone feels that way, and before, that was all fine and dandy. They did their thing, and I did mine. But then they started this cooperative learning stuff, and suddenly my grade depends on the people that sit next to me – A.K.A a bleach blonde vanity queen and a clueless stoner that probably can’t find the right side of his marijuana pipe half the time.
Furthermore, even if you do have a good group, not all people work well with other people, because they have a specific learning style that works for them. As for me, I have ADHD and am attempting to attend school unmedicated [Mom’s note: this is being done for very good reasons and with a plan in place]. This is not easy and takes a large amount of structure and self-analysis. I have a specific way I need to operate to learn, or I get distracted and cannot finish my work. This strategy does not, in fact, include scrambling to organize a last-minute “creative presentation” we have to do in front of the class at the end of the period. It’s horrible and stressful and humiliating and distracting and altogether terrible for anyone actually trying to learn something. Also, because of my ADHD, I sometimes cannot gain focus on a class activity, and I have to step back, slow down, and carefully think everything through. This is not an option while in the cooperative learning program, because everything is in a group and must be completed by the end of the period so that your teacher can shove you in front of the class to present it.
I like history. I love to learn about past events and people and all that jazz, but I hated that class. I struggled through it and dreaded it every day. The cooperative system ruined the content and distracted from my learning.
P.S. Please do not pass this off as a kid with a learning disability struggling with the content. I got straight As that year and am NOT the only one who feels this way.
I know this is a hot-button topic for many. Your thoughtful comments on this would be very much appreciated by both myself and my daughter. Also, she did tell me this morning that she is planning to talk to the teacher about her concerns.
Holly Murphy says
I have to first commend this student on her very articulate and heartfelt point of view. It is important for educators to hear this kind of feedback. As an ex-social worker who is trying to complete her certification, it is especially important to hear. Since I have begun teacher training I have been thrilled
by the new cooperative learning and student led instruction. Also, it is how the workplace is evolving and I was thrilled to see it had moved into our school system. However, had some fears based on knowledge of child behavior. Especially younger children. Any type of cooperative learning must take place in an environment where the child feels safe or it is doomed to fail. I see this with my daughter, who is a senior, and has struggled with cooperative learning. Teachers need to plan groups carefully and monitor them. Children are not capable of policing themselves if there is not a very safe environment and also, some students will take advantage of conscientious students who work hard.
thanks for sharing…
A very eloquent young lady! I appreciate Lucy sharing her point of view. In all honesty, I agree. There are so many of us that this style of learning just doesn't work. Sure: You learn how to work together (which is the point), but I find, as Lucy stated, that I don't remember the content when I "learn" in this situation myself.
This goes against many research findings, which state that this is a much better way to learn. I guess then we can throw in the argument that it is the process of learning that is more important than the content.
And in all honesty: We tell students that this will get them ready for the real world, but not all jobs require working together on projects (although many do). There are many jobs where people are expected to be independent and work independently. Is cooperative learning going to help our students prepare for these situations?
As an introvert and a teacher I hate cooperative learning. I also need time to process and think things through. I hate the distraction of all the chatter. I like listening to the teacher and not trying to come up with silly ways to present things that don't always represent my style or my thoughts. I don't like working in groups at all. I like to think first before I work with a group. It's too much pressure to think through my ideas in front of the group. I usually end of thinking of my best ideas once I go home and the group work is over. I never force my students to work in groups. I have them work together on activities and games that are very structured, but not creative projects. Our culture values the extroverted spontaneous personality more than the introverted, reflective one.
Even though I'm retired and have taught Elementary age students I tried to create lessons that addressed all learning styles. My son loved working in groups but my daughter also got distracted easily cooperative learning wasn't her cup of tea. I have seen teachers who do 1 group project a quarter or semester but not every project. Thanks for sharing your heartfelt story which many teachers need to hear.
Laura Candler says
I'm a firm believer in cooperative learning, but I do think Lucy has some very valid points. However, it seems to me that her bad experiences have more to do with the manner in which the teacher is implementing CL in the classroom than CL just being bad for students in general. I've always said that cooperative learning can be disastrous or wonderful depending on how it's implemented. One of my daughters felt the same way as Lucy, but from what I could tell, her problems had to do with the way the teacher was implementing the cooperative learning techniques. In fact, she's in college now and has some great teachers who are using cooperative learning appropriately to generate discussion and help kids see other perspectives. My daughter is really enjoying this side of cooperative learning which she has never before experienced. Most of the problems with CL seem to come in when teachers assign group projects and grade everyone the same way rather than using it to stimulate discussion and interaction. I was trained by Dr. Spencer Kagan, and he was very firm on the distinction between "group work" and cooperative learning. I would say that Lucy is experiencing a classic example of poorly-implemented group work rather than masterfully-implemented cooperative learning. Most careers do require people to work together, and it's my belief that if we let kids sit in rows all day without interacting, we are doing them a great disservice. I can only hope that Lucy will one day have a teacher who is more sensitive to her needs while still being able to encourage interaction in the classroom, and even more, I hope that she will find pleasure in those interactions. It must be very discouraging to be in a classroom where you have so little control over the learning experience.
I completely understand that you are a huge fan of CL. However, I’m not sure that you are aware that your comment sounds really biased. I also get that CL can be a great tool, but I would rather have a mixture of both student and teacher led activities in the classroom. Half the time I’ve noticed how students more than not are really over stimulated and getting them to work independently is a great way to show them how to calm down and reflect on what’s being taught in the lesson. CL is great but let’s not forget that some activities and lessons do go awry when students prefer to goof off and play around rather than work no matter how structured the activity is. They’re kids and they will act like kids. CL will teach them to work together but we also need to appreciate the fact that they are I individuals and should also be taught to think independently as well. There should be a balance in using teacher and student led instruction. We shouldn’t use one completely over the other.
Alana Gilliam says
As a special education teacher, I hear your daughter's point of view from several of my students. I was actually thinking about writing a post on why we try to place student in the same square when some of the them are triangles and circles. I'm going to share this with teachers at my school because our school has been pushing us to incorporate cooperative learning activities.
Special Teaching in the Middle
Does anyone have any links to good practise of CL ? I suspect I am not covering this as well as I could, although I do give children the choice of individual or group work…
And you go, Lucy !! I am impressed you are taking your concerns to your teacher – that's what she/he is there for !!
Peace - Full - Life says
Hi Anonymous. Our district brought Dr. Kagan's group in for a week during the summer. It was fantastic. They teach you how to build a community of learners first and give many models on how to do that, then teach many different ways to have students work cooperatively. Check out their website.
Thank you, Lucy, for your candid reflections on this experience. I agree with what Laura Candler said in that if it's handled correctly, CL can be quite effective in student learning. My daughter was a bit like you in that she didn't gain much from the experience except to learn that she would pretty much find herself carrying the bulk of the experience on her shoulder if she were to get the grade that she'd personally strive for.
To throw in some voice and choice, it'd be great if teachers were able to give students a choice about whether or not they want to work solo or in a group on certain projects, too.
Kudos for going to talk with your teacher about your concerns!!
The Corner On Character
Ashleigh S says
I definitely understand where you are coming from! As a student, from elementary school through college I hated group work. I get so frustrated at the thought of my grade depending on the work ethic and ability of my group members. I'm one of those people who cannot stand doing anything less than my absolute best, and I would always end up doing all the work myself, or I'd have to get a low grade. I'm also one of those people who needs lots of time to plan, organize, and has to have everything ready way before the deadline.
However, as a teacher I do see some of the merits of cooperative learning. I personally never give grades from any group work, and I also like to give my students choices. If someone would rather just work alone, I let them. I also think it's extremely important to look at students' personalities before assigning groups.
Thank you for sharing this! I think that it's important for teachers to look at things through a students' eyes.
Ashleigh's Education Journey
Her post was so eloquent, heartfelt, and authentic. I also loved reading other people's comments.
As a teacher we "work in groups" or partner up quite often. However, grades are not earned as a group. I use it just as a chance to hear others' points of view and thinking.
I like what one person said about giving the students a choice to work alone or in a group.
I think with careful "planning" cooperative learning is a great thing. It all needs to be balanced though-too much of anything is not a good thing. 🙂
This has the makings of growing into a sad situation: just help her find how to get what she needs independently from them, yet work in class with a group. It's never been easy thinking on your own, but that's what leaders are made of. Just understand that things do not HAVE to conform to yourself, for you to succeed. As a matter of fact, one gets stronger pushing against a rock to build a muscle. She can do it; she’ll grow stronger figuring another way. I’m rooting for her. A retired gifted teacher.
Let me first say that I really appreciate Lucy's point of view. I'm sure that there are in every classroom around the world who feel the same way. As a teacher, I feel like we are responsible for meeting the needs of all of our students which means in this case, there should be a combination of group and individual projects/assignments. In my classroom I try to vary the teaching methods because I know that all of my students learn in different ways. In fact, I sometimes allow my students the option to either work in groups or individually depending on the activity.
When I was in school I hated group projects because not everyone was willing to put as much effort into the work as me. I often ended up doing everything myself because I wanted to make sure I was getting a good grade. This is different than Lucy's situation, but I completely understand where she is coming from.
I know that some people may say that cooperative learning projects prepare our students for the 21st century, and I completely agree. However, not all occupations require group projects all the time. It is important that we teach students how to work in groups as well as individually.
I'd like to wish Lucy a good school year. I'd also like to know how her teacher responds.
Amy (aka Science Stuff) says
Hi Lucy! What a well written article this is! I have two daughters about your age. One is 19 and the other is 16. Both feel exactly the way you do. When group project are announced by the teacher, both of daughters immediately raise their hand and ask if they can work alone.
Hang in there!
Mrs. K. says
First, I'd like to commend Lucy on a well-written and heartfelt article. I always appreciate hearing a student's point of view!
Lucy makes some very valid points. While I don't have ADHD, I am a perfectionist, and cooperative learning groups were difficult on me as a student, as well. The other students in my group never seemed to set the bar as high as I wanted it, and I was always a nervous wreck that our project wouldn't get my precious "A."
While I do think there are some positive aspects about cooperative learning groups, I also think it's important that all things be in moderation. This article was definitely a reminder that, even though group activities are rare in my class, I still need to go to greater lengths to make sure all students are comfortable and can learn from the project.
Thanks for writing this!
~Mrs. K. from The Teacher Garden Blog
Patti - Teacher for 26 years says
Why I use Cooperative Learning…it develops problem solving, it creates tolerance for others who may not think like you do, and it broadens your knowledge, and shows you are able to APPLY what you have learned.The world is not set up where we are all an island unto ourselves, but rather it is a sharing of ideas and exploring information to find the best possible solution for the situation. Doctors consult with other doctors, teachers consult with other teachers, parents with parents, world leaders with other leaders, et cetera. It sounds as if your teacher has not made clear objectives or concessions for differentiated learning. Keep an open mind, share your concerns,and don't be afraid to ask questions like, "Is there a rubric we can follow for how we are graded?" ADHD is not an excuse…50% of my students are dignosed ADHD, and I find they are some of my most creative, and intuitive students! I wish you the best in discovering your hidden talents :).
I have a high school daughter who is a high-achiever and she feels the same way as this young girl. She hates cooperative learning groups because she knows she will be the one to have to do all the work. The others in her groups usually don't care about their grade or have any ideas as my daughter does. She would much rather work alone than have to try to motivate the others in the group to do their share and do a good job.
Therapy Sites says
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What a great post that will stir up many feelings and make teachers think (rethink) about their goals.
My daughter is 15. She hates them as well. She is the one that gets "stuck" doing 95% of the work. She feels a tremendous amount of pressure when she has to get graded on a project if in a cooperative group. I get annoyed because I see her going above and beyond and putting way too much time picking up the slack for others. If she didn't, it would refelct her garde as well.
While I think cooperative group work, when implemented correctly, is a good thing, I wonder why it has to be for grading purposes.
Sure, let kids work together, plan, discuss, create IN SCHOOL. Let the teacher see what's going on.
But for a major graded assignment? No thanks to that!
Also: it is a nightmare for the kids to try to schedule time to meet out of class. Team sports and activities as well as family obligations alone make it difficult.
Edited to add: I don't know if this will ever post because I keep failing the "Prove your not a robot" thing!
I hated group projects as a student and found them NOTHING like work. If people don't want to do their share of the project at work THEY ARE FIRED. Since everyone is being paid, and more or less wants to be there, ostensibly because its the career they have chosen, it is easier to work with those people. Lucy is correct that the high school population is too diverse for cooperative learning to happen. It leaves bright students frustrated (as does much of school under the college level).
I think independent learning should be the norm until people have stratified into their possible career field.
I can still remember Sophomore year getting an A-/F — the A- was my individual contribution, and the F was our group grade. For a straight A student, this grade was humiliating and not fair. And 32 years later it still makes me mad.
Why torture kids in high school with theoretical teaching methods that leaves the students frustrated?
Lindsay Hart says
I enjoyed reading your very articulate comment and must say that I shared your point-of-view as a student and continue to share it now as a teacher.
However, I am required to ensure that co-operative learning happens as a teacher and have had to think very carefully about how to get it to happen while still accommodating the various needs of many different students.
1. Giving the students different groups each time they do work.
2. Sometimes using mixed ability groups and sometimes grouping according to ability and making myself a member of the lower ability group.
3. If research is involved, I insist on all research being completed individually and handed in to be be marked before the groups are named and given the presentation aspects to work on. This prevents lazier students from coasting along and relying on harder-working students to bring their marks up.
4. At present, my English students are in mixed-ability groups of 6, each producing a newspapers in which each student has to have two pieces of written work – a news article and either a letter to the editor or a column or an editorial. Additionally, each student needs to contribute one other aspect to their group newspaper – a self-created comic strip, photographs and captions, headlines, crossword puzzle or the newspaper layout and headlines. I have been delighted and intrigued by the way in which ALL of the children have loved this project – I have had no arguments, no unhappy children and everyone has worked hard – perhaps because they can flexibly work sometimes with the group and sometimes on their own individual articles.
5. In history, I encourage the children to really use their groups to help them develop an awareness of bias and different sides to arguments.
As a teacher, I prefer to work on my own and it has taken years for me to learn to share my own experiences, lessons, ideas with others. I have always believed I can "do it better" than anyone else! How arrogant that sounds, but learning to trust others didn't come easily to me. By now, I get as much joy from mentoring younger teachers as I do in learning from them too! But it took time.
I think the mere fact that you wrote for this blog suggests you are a person who is able and willing to engage with other and to work collaborately. I hope your teacher may try to vary the approaches to the co-operative learning so that you may find some tasks with some groups a worthwhile experience.
Kimberli Maultsby says
Thank you for your post, Lucy! It really made me think. I do think there is a time and place for CL in our schools, but it needs to be done well and it should not be every assignment. It sounds like the problem really is the way your teachers have been implementing the strategy. I think that has to do with a lack of professional development. As teachers, we are told to incorporate "new" and "effective" teaching techniques without the proper training on how do implement the techniques and what they are really supposed to look like. Before your post, I hadn't really thought about the difference between CL and group work, but there really is a difference. Thank you!
Your daughter is right and should be speaking to her teacher – with Momma in the wings waiting if necessary. I was that child…I fly alone very well with my own set of guidelines and rules. I honestly think I probably helped the blonde and the stoner pass college – is that right? I was the workhorse and they were pretty and lame. In my class, I try not to force group work on kids who don't like it – it's usually the superior brains by the way! :O) I still prefer to work on my own since I feel my work is "superior" also. Tell her she is not alone – I know others feel the same way. The workplace may require group work but that is usally short-term meetings or long-distance research – not an in-your-face group day to day. I feel for her – tell her to hang in there! :O)
Well said, and I hope your teacher listens to your concerns and adjusts their plan accordingly. There certainly should be a balance between team and independent work. I remember those type of projects in Graduate School and scrambling for a like-partner, to not be left doing the entire project. Let us know what your teacher says! 🙂
Joy of Kindergarten
Lisa Liddiard says
I completely agree with you. As an educator I realize the importance of children learning to work with others. It is an important skill. However as someone who also has ADHD I simply cannot function well in a group situation. My brain gets too distracted. Back in college when cooperative learning became the big thing I too was the victim of the non contributing group member who let everyone do the work and takes part of the credit. Furthernore my professor's resonse to this was "Work it out with your group!" You cant guilt or browbeat someone into contributing. I would definitely talk to my teacher. We often hear in education the term "best fit." Cooperative learning doesn't seem to be that for you. Good luck.
There is a difference between group work and cooperative learning. I think a lot of these comments are confusing one for the other.
Amen sister, you are one smart girl! I hate group projects. I just finished my teaching course work (now I'm student teaching), and the one group project we had to do in each eight week class drove me nuts. I am very type A need an A perfectionist, and I always got the slackers in my group who were fine with a C so I did most of the work to ensure an A. One teacher had a great way of picking groups that I loved. She had us post the type of group we would like to be in by picking from a color list. Red- For type A want an A (like me), Yellow- For mellow okay with a C, and various colors in between. LOVED it!!! I collaborate daily in my student teaching and I do fine, it is nothing like a group project… everyone does their part and we get along fine. Two of us (my mentor teacher and I) are very type A, and our teammate is more mellow, but we don't have any problems.
Ivy Hendrix says
As Laura Candler and Peace-Full-Life commented, Kagan Cooperative Learning teaches a much different use of CL than what Lucy described. They strongly discourage giving any grades based on work done with a partner or team. There are also many different structures that can be implemented rather than doing projects with a group. This sort of group work labeled as CL has given a great strategy a bad connotation for many.
It is interesting in reading all the comments that there is quite a mix with those that fully agree with CL, those that are completely against CL, those that see and use both sides and those that ride the fence. As a teacher (29 years) in the primary grades, I have felt the angst that Lucy feels. Our large district jumped on board the Kagan bus (structured CL)about 5 years ago and it has totally changed the dynamics of our students. My school has a large turnover of students each year (transfers of kids within the district) and we have felt the effects of Kagan immensely! Most of our teachers are veterans in teaching like me. We have seen the pendulum swing wide! When I first started teaching in the 80's, CL was all the rage. I hated it! Then we swung the opposite direction. Now as the pendulum swings again, CL has made it's comeback in full force and I am teaching the children of my former students in the 80's. I feel that it is a mess. Either the teachers are not incorporating the structures correctly, or the students are not assimilating to the structures due to their non-cooperative attitudes and training (cell phones, texting language, video games, etc.). I believe it is a mixture of both. While I believe that some CL is valuable (because our kids need to learn how to work together), I can't help but wonder if our students have become guinnea pigs in this pendulum mess. I have a very high tolerance to controlled noise, but it is very difficult for me to "reign them in" once they get into their groups. They get so agitated at each other and it is still the same story (No matter which structure I am using)…the controlling kids are always going to dominate and the quiet kids are always going to hide. No amount of CL training in teachers will change personality traits. I agree with Lucy wholeheartedly…let the kids do their own work/projects and leave the social groups to other times.
I completely understand that you are a huge fan of CL. However, I’m not sure that you are aware that your comment sounds really biased. I also get that CL can be a great tool, but I would rather have a mixture of both student and teacher led activities in the classroom. Half the time I’ve noticed how students more than not are really over stimulated and getting them to work independently is a great way to show them how to calm down and reflect on what’s being taught in the lesson. CL is great but let’s not forget that some activities and lessons do go awry when students prefer to goof off and play around rather than work no matter how structured the activity is. They’re kids and they will act like kids. CL will teach them to work together but we also need to appreciate the fact that they are individuals and should also be taught to think independently as well. There should be a balance in using teacher and student led instruction. We shouldn’t use one completely over the other.
Thank you so much for your comment. I'm in college and struggling with the exact same issues! I have an anxiety disorder that makes collaborative learning a nightmare. I've tried expressing my concerns to the professor but have been shut down. I've even been blamed for my poor performance as a result of the less than optimal learning environment I've had thrust upon me. They should be made to disclose in the course schedule that a course will be a nontraditional collaborative style course. I would gladly have not enrolled and sincerely wish I had dropped when I had the chance.
Lena Sandoval says
I loved this post. I am a 16-years-old Spanish student (I apologize for any grammar mistakes) and I feel the same way as Lucy.
Cooperative learning seems like a waste of time to me. Why don’t they put both independent and cooperative learning? This way, both extroverts and introverts would be happy, right? And bright students’ grades won’t depend on the people that sit next to them.
They are always saying that they want each student to learn, but all they have been doing is ruining the school with their ”new way of learning”. I am an introverted person and I would like to, at least, learn something, because as Lucy says, I couldn’t tell you a single thing we were taught!
The worse thing is that they only put cooperative learning in subjects like History of Geography but they don’t touch Maths or Science at all! As a girl that wants to be an archaeologist, I feel abandoned by the education system. This may only be an Spanish issue, though.
Since they are selling this as the best way of teaching, I thought that I was too much of an introvert and that everyone else loved cooperative learning. But this proves otherwise. Thank you.