Patrick Higgins, Jr.

Great Pushback, From a Local Source

In ascd, pedagogy, teaching on March 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm

This comment appeared in my email inbox the other day, submitted by a teacher I work with in regards to my Attention, Engagement, Learning post from ASCD :

I really liked your “transfer of responsibility” model. But to a degree I disagree with the idea that students speaking/ interacting is a panacea for learning. I remember in my teaching classes we were drilled with the mantra “leanring is social”. But I think that’s just a new myth. I think instruction has to be differentiated. SOME kids are social learners and some are not. I frequently do partner assignments in Russian at the high school, and one of the consistent comments I got back on my survey was “less partner work”. My other class there ( I have two sections) seems to love it. I’ve also seen partner/ group work devolve into BS sessions or one person giving the answers to the other and the other kid not learning a thing.
So: not a panacea, just another tool to use appropriately.
I was blown away that anyone in my district actually reads this, but psyched to have some push-back from a local level where, to me, it matters most.  Here was my quick reply:
Thanks for checking it out; it was a great weekend where I was able to really get into excellent discussions about things that matter.  Here’s my take on your reaction.

Yes, some kids are social learners, some are not.  Some kids draw pictures, some are like me and cannot even begin to attempt that.  What the GRR model advocates is not “all social all the time,” but rather a mix of various types of collaborative and cooperative work.  Some of that will involve talking, some may not.

Plus, when you take a close look at what Kagan believes about the brain and what he believes about how we learn, the structures make a ton of sense.  In the model you gave me for your classes, how do you hold each student responsible for what goes on in the discussion?  If, as you say, it devolves into a BS session, what can be done to deter that?  The structures Kagan created all are built with a combination of group and individual accountability whereby, if done right, there is equal responsibility on the part of all cooperative partners.

From my perspective, we as teachers work very hard.  Can we begin to look at what we do not from the standpoint of teachers, but from the standpoint of learners?  If we did, I think we would agree that there is a lot of responsibility that can be transferred to the learner.  This is not just a tweak here or there I am talking about, but a whole paradigm shift in practice.

And, that was not all.  He came back today with another great insight:
My observations and criticism were directed more toward the PET scan and the concept that “the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning”. For me to buy into that model I would need to see more context for what specific events were occurring during the PET scan. For example, I”m sure that parts of the brain involved in registering the facial expressions and emotional reactions of the person one is speaking to are lighting up in that scan. But does that necessarily mean that that person is “learning” more of a particular content? What if we took two individuals and asked one to write a summary of  Romeo and Juliet and asked the other to retell it? Which brain would light up more? And what needs to be lighting up to demonstrate learning? To be mildly flip: I bet my brain would light up pretty brightly if I was about to be in a car accident. What am I learning (except that I”m screwed …:)
My point simply is this: I need more evidence to buy the notion that the “one doing the talking” is the one who is learning. This may be true for some social learners in some contexts but not necessarily in others (again, returning to what we both agree is the need for differentiating instruction).
I like and accept in principle the GRR model, especially in the broad principal/ thesis of moving the student from dependency to independence. I think that some of the failures I’ve seen of cooperative learning was that it kept students stuck in being dependent on other students for the answer/ learning, rather than using it as a means to wean them to a level where they can demonstrate/ perform a skill independently. So I think the concept if I do it-we do it-you (plural) do it-you (singular) do it is a good one. (Although not all kids will need to do the you plural one all the time in all situations…
These are the kinds of discussions that we should be having, and whether or not they are in person, at this point, I don’t care.  Eventually I would love that, but we have to start somewhere.
What do you think?
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  1. Good morning!

    I wish your local source had posted on the blog–leads to great conversation.

    While I have been skeptical of some of the brain data, I’ve no doubt it will get more finely tailored as more data rolls in. I will say this much, though–I’d bet that if you could get every kid in the same focused zone a driver is in right before he collides with a guardrail, you’d see amazing results. You might not learn much in that instant (not enough time) but you are consciously receptive to a whole lot of sensory input.

    (I am not arguing that this is necessarily a good thing–I’d rather not feed my kid Provigil just so she can excel in a school environment or increase productivity in the workplace.)

    It’s one reason many of us can vividly remember where we were when the Shuttle blew up on launch, but not what shoes we were wearing that morning.

  2. These are the discussions we need to have. And why are they so difficult to have within the traditional structures of our schools and school systems? We are beginning at my school, and the dialogue makes us all more focused on finding answers that work for our kids.

  3. Michael,

    So glad you chimed in on this one. Having a medical background really would have helped me ask some better questions of Dr. Kagan. But, as it were, he actually used a reference similar to the one you use in your comment. Do we remember where we were on September 10, 2001 at 9:00am? I know generally where I was, but the details of the day escape me. The same is true for the 12th and 13th, and so on. Why? For the same reason that life seems to slow down in certain traumatic situations, he says. Brain chemistry is succinctly tied to emotion, and even further to specific decisions our primitive brain makes about what is a threat and what is to be discarded. It blew me away to think about how basic our brain is in terms of what it deems necessary.

    Kagan showed, via the PET scans, that when we can really nail down attention via engagement and emotion, we have a very good chance at capturing that emotional memory in a similar way. I’ll point you to his research here (“Kagan Structures Enhance Brain Engagement!” http://kaganonline.com/KaganClub/index.html) if it helps.

    Susan:

    Absolutely! To be fair, the teacher that emailed me is one of our most interrogative and investigative, and I just love how his mind works. Rather than settling in and being cantankorous, he routinely asks very difficult questions openly and then takes the time to find the answer.

    If what Jennifer Clark Evans is doing is any indication of the good that is coming from your conversations, then I have to say you are making some wonderful progress. For lack of a better term, she rocks my socks with what she is doing, and I always take the opportunity to show her work to my department members who are interested.

  4. Absolutely these are the kinds of conversations that “should” be occurring. Brain research derived from PET scans is relatively new and clearly a subject to challenge, at least the conclusions that are reached. I would love to see conversations centered around challenging the accepted instructional methods – for example, why do we believe that students learn best using lectures, textbooks and worksheets? Would love to see pushback around that topic.

    What do you believe inhibits conversations locally?

  5. Hi Karen,

    Local conversations have not traditionally centered around learning, but rather around teaching. You and I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Pedro Noguera speak this summer at BLC, and one of the best takeaways I got from him was the idea that we have to teach in the ways in which our students learn. Most of the professional development and conversation I have been involved with, and even taught, has been around how you can “use this in your teaching.” Instead, shouldn’t we be pushing ourselves to ask whether or not we know our students are learning?

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