I recently read Susan Cain’s life-changing book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. At least for me it was life-changing. In it, Cain talks about how our 21st-century American society with its history of salesmanship and make-money-fast-philosophies cultivates a bias in favor of extroverts. Such a bias results in an under-appreciation for contributions introverts make simply because they tend to be less gregarious and smooth/fast-talking. This happens not only in the corporate and social worlds, but also in the world of education, particularly in a classroom of ten or more students (i.e. every classroom).
One of Cain’s main points is that quietness and solitude are prerequisites for creativity. This means that Cain really isn’t a fan of things like open work space at the office or cooperative learning in the classroom. Of course, I’m not the biggest fan of cooperative learning either, especially when it’s actually dumb-downed group work in disguise. I once had to write a ten-page paper with three of my classmates for a freshman religion class in college. When one of my classmates failed to write his three-page section of the paper, I went to the professor and asked him what to do since my classmate’s section would affect 1/3 of the entire paper’s grade. He responded with the question, “What would Jesus do?” As I had absolutely nothing to say to that, I went home, wrote the whole paper myself, and successfully passed it off as my classmate’s work. We all got an A (of course). While I believe that Jesus always does more work than we do, I don’t necessarily believe that he makes it possible for us all to cheat the way I did…
So much for my experiences with cooperative learning and cheating as an undergraduate student. I wish that I could say that my experiences with cooperative learning as a teacher-in-training in graduate school have vastly improved since then, but unfortunately, that is simply not the case. There definitely seems to be a push for more cooperative learning in the field of education with numerous studies indicating that it leads to more academic success and improved social skills. However, in all the observations I’ve done for my M.Ed. program at MU, I have yet to see cooperative learning work in what I feel is a successful manner.
Why is this the case? If all learning is ultimately social (and I will argue that it is in a moment), why isn’t cooperative learning happening naturally all the time? Are teachers failing to grasp what cooperative learning actually is and therefore forcing all their students to do mere group work instead? (For those of you who would like a formal definition of cooperative learning, check out good old Wikipedia.) Or, does cooperative learning discriminate against more introverted students (said to be 1/3 to 1/2 of the population by Cain and other sociology researchers) and therefore fail in its implementation in the classroom?
According to Cain, some things like math, writing, music, and programming require exorbitant amounts of time alone to practice, and therefore, it is completely ineffective to try and learn them as a collaborative team. Of course, with each of these subjects, some basic concepts and skills need to be taught first, but proficiency, and certainly mastery, only come after long and focused hours of practice.
Is all learning social then? Don’t we learn and create more when we spend more time in solitude and quietness as Cain suggests? Well, despite her advocacy for quietness and introversion, Cain actually isn’t against teamwork or collaboration at all (nor is Jesus, for that matter). In fact, she’s completely for it, but only after sufficient time and space has been allotted for students to work and think independently. However, as I said earlier, I also think that it’s vital to have some sort of social interaction between a teacher and a student or a student and a fellow-student before any independent practice occurs so that such practice will be truly effective. I’m thinking about all the long hours of music lessons I had growing up and how I was able to interact with my teacher one-on-one once a week before going home and spending more hours practicing alone. Interacting with my teacher was crucial to my performance on my own. I was able to get direct and specific feedback, see and hear how it was supposed to be, and do some guided practice under my teacher’s tutelage.
Of course, this was how my entire pre-college education worked. I was homeschooled and was consequently tutored one-on-one by my father who has a PhD in Education and now works full-time as a private tutor. Thanks to his amazing teaching and mentoring, I got to learn everything, from math to writing, the way I got to learn music.
Can this kind of individualized instruction happen for all students? I think that it’s starting to happen for students in special education, but can it also happen for everyone else?
My technology in the classroom professor Steve Knight said that technology is the natural differentiator, and maybe he’s right. In “Giving Reluctant Students a Voice,” Reynold Redekopp and Elizabeth Bourbonniere discuss how technology can be used to encourage more “reluctant” or introverted students to participate in class discussions by having them do so anonymously online. This is something that Cain also suggests in her “Tips for Educators” at the end of Quiet, pointing out that “once they’ve participated online, they’re more likely to participate in class as well.” She also notes that the most effective collaborative work that is done in the real world is done online (e.g. Apple, Google, Wikipedia, etc).
As I understand it, cooperative learning is about students learning from each other, and not just from listening to the teacher or studying on their own. The moments when cooperative learning has actually worked for me have been when I’ve casually talked with a roommate or friend about a book I’m reading or an idea I’m researching. I recently joined a book-club, which, for me, is one of the best ways to learn collaboratively. However, online discussions really may be the best way to accomplish, or at least initiate, this formally in the traditional classroom, that is, if the student-teacher ratio can’t be lowered. As Cain suggests, online discussions may be a stepping-stone to helping students collaborate in the classroom. I mean, it’s certainly better than writing an entire paper as a threesome. But then again, so is just about anything.