Monday, May 24, 2010

Neurologists argue for expanding classroom group work

An article in this month's Harvard Education Letter, just referenced by Catherine Johnson at kitchentablemath, argues for further expanding classroom group work. The article opens with the group-centered classroom of Rachel Otty, a 10th grade social studies teacher in Boston.

“I remember history in high school as just lecturing, and I didn’t enjoy it much,” recalls Otty, who has garnered a reputation at the school for her skillful use of group work. “In graduate school, we learned about differentiated instruction, and group work is a way to do that. It’s tough work and it requires a lot of brain power.”
True to its genre as an education article, the article then moves on to what "research shows":
Research by educators, psychologists, and, increasingly, neuroscientists supports Otty’s personal experience. Done right, group work can harness the natural propensity of humans to interact, and—most important—make learning for a wide variety of students more engaging, memorable, and equitable. While it is more difficult to do than traditional lecturing, teachers say, most of the hard work is in the preparation, and the payoffs make the time invested well worth it.
The article proceeds to invoke neurology, citing in particular a neurologist names Chris Frith:
Recent research by neuroscientists points to the existence of a “social brain” that enables humans to interact with each other. Summarizing the evidence gathered so far, Chris Frith, professor in neuropsychology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for NeuroImaging at University College London, has identified four regions of the brain associated with functions that allow humans to “read” others’ states of mind and predict what they will do (see sidebar “The Brain and Collaboration”).
Chris Frith is the husband of renowned autism expert Uta Frith, who has conducted experiments showing that the "social brain" is highly impaired in autism. So I'm wondering if Chris has consulted Uta on how expanding group learning might affect autistic spectrum students who are mainstreamed into regular classrooms.  Here's Frith's take on neurologists and group learning:
...Frith said there was “consensus that work on the social brain does argue for expanding the group learning and cooperative learning projects” in schools. “I certainly believe that the special feature of humans is that we can work together to achieve more than the sum of the individuals in the group. This is because we can share experiences,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding, “But we do have to learn how best to do this.”
Well, yes, if a group consensus is so powerful that it can substitute for scientific evidence, than certainly we should worship the power of the group wherever possible.

But what about the many humans in whom this "special feature" is impaired--and whom Frith's wife has so thoughtfully written about?

Not to mention the many others who are hesitant about groups and their consensuses?

I suggest that Chris Frith get into a group with his wife and have a conversation with her about this.

The article moves on to another neurologist--one who's now become a classroom teacher who devotes 50% of her class time to group work:
Group work can also work against factors known to inhibit learning, such as the fear of making mistakes or becoming discouraged, says Judy Willis, a neurologist who has taught elementary and middle school in Santa Barbara for 10 years and often writes and speaks about how findings about the brain can inform teaching.


Group work can also increase engagement because individuals can be assigned roles that allow them to be “experts in something,” so that they can be challenged at a level appropriate to their understanding, she says. To discuss and present various theories for why the Jamestown settlement failed or why the dinosaurs became extinct, for example, more advanced students may be “producers” charged with stopping their group periodically to summarize what is being said; those with attention deficits might be assigned to be “prop directors” to keep track of supplies needed to make a chart for the final presentation. 
And the shy, socially awkward child could play the part of the quiet guy who keeps to himself and is shunned by the rest of the community.

And the child with Asperger's could play the role of "little professor", who spends the entire time lecturing his group mates. Unless that's somehow contrary to group-centered discovery learning...


Independent George said...

more advanced students may be “producers” charged with stopping their group periodically to summarize what is being said

1. What happens if those "producers" are wrong?
2. Is it healthy for those advanced students to exert that level of authority over the others?
3. How far advanced do those students need to be in order to perform effectively?
4. What percentage of students meet the standard from #3?

Moira said...

Group work is awful. My kids hate it and with good reason. Most of the other kids want them to do all the work since they are the 'smart' ones. The teachers could care less what is going on, they just grade the end result. I've had my kids get D's on projects rather than make them carry the whole thing. Most of the projects are such garbage anyway. Group work sucks!

Kate Coe said...

"those with attention deficits might be assigned to be “prop directors” to keep track of supplies needed to make a chart for the final presentation.

I can't think of a worse task for someone with ADD. Keeping track of markers and whiteboards? That's just nuts. I'm as ADD as they come, and I'm great at brainstorming, blue-skying, getting others to participate, but I'm not the person to count the widgets.

Barry Garelick said...

There is a presumption in ed school that students have a natural inclination to collaborate. I had the opportunity to teach a lesson in an algebra class at a local high school--this was part of an ed school class I was taking. As an experiment, when I assigned a problem, I told the students they could work in groups, or not, it was up to them. Only one group formed; the rest were content to work by themselves.

I had to report on my experience teaching the lesson in my ed school class, and actually have the class do one of the problems I had assigned. I gave the same instruction. Again, only one group formed: the teacher and the student sitting next to her.

When I reported that the same thing happened in the class where I taught the lesson, the teacher remarked "Interesting!"

LT said...

“I remember history in high school as just lecturing, and I didn’t enjoy it much”

This is throwing out the baby with the bath water. Because some teachers are poor lecturers we shouldn't simply eliminate a very effective teaching method and replace it with group work, which has huge downsides (such as the smart kids doing all the work).

Sure if a teacher drones on in a monotone voice the students won't learn much. But instead of switching to group work and other poor learning methods, it would make far more sense to improve the lecturing skills of teachers. Teachers need to be trained in how to engage their students. They need to learn how to involve them in the lesson. It's time for education schools to teach some useful skills.