Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — July 22, 2010 2 min read
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Very interesting and complex piece by Marion Brady in yesterday’s Answer Sheet. Whether you agree or disagree with his observations and prescriptions, Brady is a master at cutting through policy-speak and illuminating what happens in the classroom, between teachers and students. Unfortunately, many Talking Ed-Heads find the discourse on pedagogy dull and squishy.

This sentence jumped out at me:

[Students] learn more in small groups working together on a challenge than they do competing one-on-one.

I agree with that, supported by lots of observed and evaluated evidence from 30 years’ worth of student work in my own classroom. Not all group work is good, of course--too much of it is poorly conceived and designed--but a lot of traditional pedagogical methods and strategies, from the lecture to “seat work,” end up being intellectually unproductive, too. You can’t group kids for every concept or skill taught--but when groups are cooking, hooked on an interesting idea or goal, there’s a certain synergy at work.

Over at The Core Knowledge Blog, Diana Senechal takes deadly aim at a group-work template for brainstorming that she found at the Pennsylvania Department of Education website. The piece is masterfully wicked satire, an entertaining description of the familiar process-heavy, content-free lesson plan. Some of her commenters, however, are ready to trash group work, especially brainstorming, on principle.

One displeased-with-all-this-nonsense commenter provides research on the relative merit of individually brainstormed ideas over the products of group brainstorming. Since brainstorming was developed to generate multiple, divergent ideas and increase buy-in by groups doing project work, this assertion seemed a little ego-bound, if not churlish, to me: My ideas are better than the groups’ ideas, so why brainstorm? Go ahead and brainstorm, but I still win.

What the research actually endorses as optimum is “hybrid” brainstorming, where people generate ideas on their own, then bring them to a group for sorting, selecting and possible combination. The study comes out of the field of management science--R & D for product development--so I’m not entirely sure that it’s applicable to evaluating the learning of a bunch of 7th graders sitting in a circle, coming up with pre-writing topics for essays.

Senechal’s point about not being able to generate ideas until one has mastered sufficient content knowledge is a good one--but that doesn’t mean group work doesn’t benefit its members. In a doctoral class, I was assigned a partner-written paper on educational equity policy. My collaborator was a Chinese woman. We split the writing duties--I’d analyze current policy and she would research the background of equity issues in America. When we met to combine our work, she was excited about what she’d learned, asking “Have you ever heard of the Civil War?”

I guess it’s possible to see that conversation as a waste of my time as a serious scholar, but in truth, I learned a great deal about my own nation and its formalized positions on equity through her eyes. I believe that the core issue here relates to Brady’s point: the worry is not shoddy work product from groups, but a fear that competition will take a back seat to equitable access.

Who stands to lose when kids are heterogeneously grouped for graded projects? The student who’s always been the shining star, ahead of the pack. When children are taught that grades are a competition, the perennial winners are loath to relinquish their status.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.