Thursday, August 31, 2006

On Cooperation and Engagement

We've one more day of Kagan Cooperative Learning Train the Trainer training. During today's session, I began to think about cooperative learning and engagement in the modern classroom. Part of the Kagan premise is "Simultaneous Interaction" which asks the question, "What percent is overtly engaged at a given time?" It's a fantastic time and one teachers have been asking since they stepped in to the first schoolhouses. The trouble I see is prescriptive engagement. Jackie, our trainer, made sure to point out that engagement does not equal compliance. Doesn't it? Another piece of the Kagan premise is "Individual Accountability" which asks, "Is individual public performance required." It's that last word that runs up against the idea of compliance being separate from engagement. If I'm requiring my students to fulfill a certain role, am I not requiring them to engage in a compliant manner? If student A refuses to work because he wanted the role assigned to student C, then he is truly engaged, but not at all in compliance. Most teachers would give student A the choice of complying or choosing to work alone. I know many who choose the latter and even more teachers who expect the former.
This works away from 21st century literacy skills and problem-based learning. I would much rather my students were engaged due to authentic interest in content rather than contrived adherence to teacher prescription. In my doodling/notetaking today, I wrote down, "Cooperative learning does not fix bad teachers." You can take a horrendous teacher, train them in Kagan structures, have them buy in and own the structures and use them everyday in their classroom, but I would argue you haven't helped that teacher if the content the students are cooperating to learn has not changed. If this teacher is having students use the "Quiz-Quiz-Trade" structure to review important dates of battles of the American Civil War, then the students are still being done a disservice in their learning. Even if they were using the same structure to review the causes of the war, a disservice has been done if those causes came from the textbook or teacher. The teacher has simply found a new way to transfer old information.
Teachers must also be taught how to let students uncover and evaluate their own information. From there, quiz-quiz-trade is a great avenue of education. Kagan surely informs our practice, but not our pedagogy. Old dog, old tricks, new order.
I would be remiss if I did not clarify that I am a believer in the promise of Kagan. I've experienced the transfer of responsibility and increase in student accountability in my own classroom. My worry is that it is not requiring teachers look more critically at their practice, rather it is providing a more palatable (for teachers and students) method of delivery. Taking your cousin to the prom is taking your cousin to the prom whether he's the best looking person their or not.
One piece I thoroughly enjoy about Kagan is its focus on state change and its interest in brain chemistry. While teaching does have an artistic side, educators cannot afford to ignore the science of the brain and how best to activate it. Including the elements of "Silly Sports" and "Goofy Games" is something all structured events, from classes to faculty meetings would do well to include.
Miguel Guhlin had a fantastic post recently on "Whitelisting and Transparency" that has certainly informed my thoughts on covert and unintended hypocrisies in education. It's led to the consideration of how I can transform the way I do things in such a manner that it provides my students with authentic engagement in a safe (in many senses of the word) environment. Kagan is an undeniably useful tool, but it is the lens to examine the findings, not the hammer and pick to unearth the learning.
More later.

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