The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Players win games, teams win championships."...  ...Bill Taylor.

Commentary of the Day - March 19, 2010:  Reinventing the Lead Balloon - Team-Based Learning.   Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Ben Franklin and Frank Zappa often get the credit, but it was actually Plato who first called necessity "the mother of invention."  In the world of education, though, we're far too twenty-first century to concern ourselves with the wisdom of ancient Greeks, especially anybody who hung around with Socrates.  We're more preoccupied with reinvention, assuming you're willing to define reinvention as the act of giving a new name to something that hasn't worked at least once before.

Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes education experts attempt to reinvent good ideas, like when they boldly emerge from their conclaves to endorse "safe schools" or "academic excellence."  But more often than not, when they introduce a breakthrough education reform for twenty-first century classrooms, they're peddling a resuscitated pet idea that already failed in twentieth century classrooms.

Today, for example, in place of the 1990s campaign touting vague, counterproductive "skills for the twenty-first century," reformers are promoting equally vague, counterproductive "twenty-first century skills."  It's impossible to count how many times unsound mathematics instruction has debuted as the latest incarnation of "New Math."  Even portfolios, education's most exquisitely unreliable assessment tools, are being resurrected as "multiple measures of mastery."

Then there's "cooperative learning."  Cooperative learning was a late twentieth century variation on having students work in groups, a cutting-edge 1957 technique my second grade teacher Mrs. Evans used to call "working in groups."  Unfortunately, cooperative learning took classroom groups several giant leaps beyond common sense during its ballyhooed heyday as the latest bandwagon secret to "success for all students."  Now it's back from bankruptcy, spotlighted in NEAToday under the alias "team-based learning," or TBL.

Don't misunderstand. I know good teachers who put their students in groups.  It gives kids a chance to work together, to delegate and accept responsibilities.  It's also easier for five groups to share five microscopes than for twenty kids to mill around and fight over them.

But over the last few decades there's been another reason.  In the past when middle and high school students were typically grouped in classes according to ability, teachers could adapt material and work at different rates toward appropriately different objectives.  When ability grouping fell from fashion in the 1970s, teachers were confronted with classrooms inhabited by gifted and remedial students, with the full spectrum in between.

Despite what theorists tell you, teaching a class isn't the same as teaching twenty individuals.  Good teachers strive to meet each student's academic needs, but it should be obvious that the broader the range of abilities in a class, the more likely you are to either go too fast or too slowly for someone, to talk over somebody's head or water down material, especially as reformers guarantee success for every student regardless of ability or effort.

So how does a teacher effectively instruct an ever vaster array of students at the same time in the same classroom?  According to cooperative learning boosters, it's simple.  The teacher doesn't have to.  The students teach each other.

I think kids can learn a lot trying to explain something to somebody else.  The trouble is most kids have a hard enough time just being students.  Arguing that they can learn more from other kids than they can from their teachers is ludicrous.

Forty minutes talking with all my students usually better serves their education than two minutes talking to each of them.  Reformers, including TBL boosters, rail against "sage on the stage" teachers who try to "impart knowledge," as if that's a bad thing, but the fact is I can usually lead my students better than they can lead themselves.  If I can't, please show me the door.

TBL enthusiasts display a staggering unfamiliarity with real students and how they behave.  TBL advocates claim their method induces students to "hold each other accountable for coming to class prepared" because kids "don’t want to be seen as slackers."  And when students "arrive at a wrong answer," TBL allegedly renders them "eager for teachers to explain" their mistake.

I've worked with kids for a quarter-century, singly and in groups, and I'm here to report that a distressing number seem perfectly at ease with their "slacker" image.  The TBL press release also overstates most students' passion to understand, let alone correct their mistakes.

TBL is loaded with gimmicks, from scratch-off answer sheets that "work like lottery tickets," to a menu of acronyms that outdistances the New Deal.  The lottery tickets, for instance, go by the moniker, IF-AT, for Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique.

TBL begins with the Readiness Assurance Process, or RAP, in which teachers assign reading materials, hardly a novel idea.  Next, in an equally cutting-edge move, there's a test based on the reading.  Actually, there are two tests.  First, students take the individual Readiness Assurance Test, or iRAT.  Immediately after handing in their iRATs, they take the identical test again.  This time, though, it's called gRAT, or group Readiness Assurance Test.  On gRATs they fill in the answers together.  TBL calls this "reaching consensus," although many observers may confuse it with another common classroom activity known as "asking the smart kid for the answer."

Both RATs "count equally toward students’ grades," a bad idea on two counts.  First, while inflated grades look better on report cards, a student's grade should reflect what he or she knows, not what the student who's sitting in the next seat knows.  Even in a "real world" that values collaboration, the point of a test is to find out how good a resource someone will be when someone else asks him or her for help later on.  Employers may value team players, but first they're looking for competent players.

Second, some kids, owing to their ability or diligence invariably wind up shouldering more than their share of their group's burden.  Theorists philosophize that students in groups are learning to contribute to a common effort.  In practice all they're often learning is the injustice of having their efforts corrupted by or credited to someone else.  Even TBL promoters concede "there's no easy answer" to avoiding "freeloaders."

After the RAP process, students "apply what they’ve learned" to allegedly "real-world decisions."  As part of these "real world group assignments," groups are never asked to write "more than one-half page" on the grounds that "lengthy documents will not promote discussion."  According to TBL sponsors, limiting how much students are expected to write to a couple of paragraphs somehow fosters "digging into the content."

And another sound-bite generation is born.

I don't object to classroom groups.  They worked for Mrs. Evans.  But it's time we stopped trying to bottle learning and sell it with a slogan.  It's time we stopped experimenting with children.  It's time we stopped reinventing folly.  As silly as it would be to reinvent the wheel, at least the wheel worked the first time.

2010, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: This is one of the rare instances where the IP has some substantial disagreements with Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).  The IP does agree with Poor Elijah that it's silly to assume that the use of one technique, such as working in groups, cooperative learning, team-based learning, or whatever you want to call it is going to be a magic bullet that will solve all instructional problems.  But, the IP does believe that there is a role for group learning activities in both K-12 and college-level classes.

The IP's first experience with group learning was as a student in grammar school.  That was several years before Poor Elijah encountered Mrs. Evans.  The IP vividly remembers a social studies assignment where his eighth grade class was divided into groups to develop presentations on commerce and industry in Canada.  Each group was expected to prepare a poster presentation for the class with only general guidance from our teacher.  After some discussion, we divided the assignment into tasks.  Each member of the group was assigned responsibility for doing the "groundwork" on his individual task.  There was enough peer-pressure generated to ensure that each person in the group made a decent stab at completing his task.  While there was some unevenness in the initial products, the entire group worked together to smooth out the final presentation.

The IP encountered group learning again in college where he would seek the advice of fellow physics students on homework problems.  He was fortunate that there were a number of physics graduate students living in his Oxford Hall co-op dorm; and, he often would "pick their brains" during the lengthy billiards games that provided us with low-cost recreation in those days.  He found that many of these grad students did a better job of explaining difficult to understand concepts than his professors did.  Likewise in graduate school at Penn most of us would not have passed the difficult Ph.D. qualifying exams had it not been for our intense study groups.

Later when teaching at the college level, the IP used group learning techniques fairly effectively to help students focus on isolated, abstract concepts.  In those two- or three-person groups each student had to choose one of several multiple-choice answers to a specific exercise, then he or she had to convince the other people in the group that his or her answer was the correct one.  He also taught a case-study based general education course on "energy and the environment" where essentially all the student work was done in groups.  In that course he used the peer-evaluation techniques developed by Prof. Clyde Herreid at the SUNY Buffalo to ensure that "slackers" could not get a free ride.  The IP's conclusion from all of this is that collaborative learning is a valuable educational tool, if properly used.


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