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.
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.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.
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 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...