Sunday, July 25, 2010

Preventing bullying: yet more justifications for cooperative learning

In her latest New York Times Op-Ed piece, Susan Engel and co-author Marlene Sandstrom, both of Williams College, discuss ways to reduce bullying in schools. Claiming that

a growing emphasis on standardized test scores as the primary measure of “successful” schools has crowded out what should be an essential criterion for well-educated students: a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others
Engel and Sandstrom argue that "educators need to make a profound commitment to turn schools into genuine communities." Besides ensuring that they and their students have "conversations about relationships every day," and that students know that "kindness and collaboration to be every bit as important as algebra and reading," teachers should
structure learning activities in which children are interdependent and can learn to view individual differences as unique sources of strength. It’s vital that every student, not just the few who sign up for special projects or afterschool activities, be involved in endeavors that draw them together.
In other words, besides having students get together to talk about relationships, teachers should also have students get together for academic tasks.

As justification for this, the authors tell us to
look at Norway, where the prevention of such incidents became a major emphasis of the school system after three teenage victims of bullying committed suicide in 1983. There, everyone gets involved — teachers, janitors and bus drivers are all trained to identify instances of bullying, and taught how to intervene. Teachers regularly talk to one another about how their students interact. Children in every grade participate in weekly classroom discussions about friendship and conflict. Parents are involved in the process from the beginning.
But what's egregiously missing from this Norwegian comparison is any mention of Norwegian school children working cooperatively on academic assignments.

The anecdotes I collected for my book strongly suggest that group learning environments, rather than preventing bullying, are often arenas for it. Bullying can be quite subtle and difficult to detect; teachers cannot supervise multiple groups simultaneously; unsocial and socially awkward children regularly report being teased and ignored as the social hierarchy of the playground creeps into the classroom's "cooperative groups"--whenever the teacher is out of earshot.

Meanwhile, those who never stray within earshot of children who are supposed to be working together, and who never try their own hands at creating cooperative learning groups within k12 classrooms, can happily write Op-Ed pieces about how wonderfully these groups promote social harmony so long as they are "properly implemented."


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I agree with you that anti-bullying education and group work are totally separate issues. I've not discussed bullying on my blog (it has never been a problem for us), but I have talked about group work at

Nancy Bea Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Bea Miller said...

One of my sons was bullied in middle school when he was assigned to be lab partner with two classic "mean girls": popular and cruel. How the teacher thought putting a shy, smart, softspoken boy into a threesome with two "heathers" would ever work I simply can't fathom. My son finally told me what was going on, after a miserable week or so and I got onto that teacher as fast as fast could be. To give the teacher credit, he responded immediately, but how about trying to avoid such situations in the first place? Kids are powerless in the hands of thoughtless adults. This educator must have thought all was well with the group he'd assigned...till I clued him in. How many other kids don't speak up?

FedUpMom said...

Nancy, teachers try to include one smart kid per group, to insure good-looking projects. Your son was the smart kid for that group. It's that simple.

FedUpMom said...

I hasten to add that I don't think it's OK that your son was bullied, nor do I think it's OK that schools are always putting together work groups with one smart kid each. I'm just answering your question, "What was the teacher thinking?"