Many school districts, especially in the high school division of our educational system, are lovingly embracing the Kagan style of learning and bringing forth an age of micromanagement in a system that isn’t structurally accepting of it. On paper, the methods of cooperative learning that “structure positive interdependence” seem relatively indisputable. In practice, however, the system is flawed. Although it was designed to promote the involvement of students in any subject through the support of higher learning, it has allowed itself to severely devolve into a major waste of time that is despised by educators and students alike.
From my observations of attending a Kagan-based, formulaic school for four years (one that was so micromanaged that it forced students to use specific formats of Cornell Notes and policed how teachers should structure their lessons), I have only seen “Kagan” playtime and the cooperative learning methods fall flat on their face.
For one, the “styles” of how the school system wanted to implement this controlled learning method was constantly evolving. Bits and pieces of the systematic approach of education would be concrete one year and never spoken of afterwards. Teachers, each in their own departments and then in their own individual spheres of criteria, rarely communicated between each other as to what would be universally accepted; this allowed for such learning skills to vary from class to class, leading to severe confusion and a nonstop need to further waste valuable time re-explaining rules and regulations that had no base.
This is essentially what made the ‘learning’ within these classes as dynamic and ineffective. On one hand, many teachers openly mocked the system, and several (who will go unnamed) refused to even implement their own versions, which further confused the issue and led to a system that didn’t even believe in itself. On the other hand, many teachers who did fall for the song of ‘cooperative learning’ used it as sort of a crutch. They used it as nothing more than a way to “keep students busy” while also effectively keeping the administrators and department heads at bay if they so happened to walk in for an evaluation. Many activities, from the horrendous “think-pair-share” to “rally robin”, were literally nothing more than time-wasters and viewed as such by every party.
Sometimes, the whole ‘Kagan’ thing isn’t even applied correctly. As stated in a previous article, some teachers abuse the cooperative learning. In “An Open Letter to My 11th Grade Math Teacher”, I discussed a teacher that forced students to do push-ups and sit-ups and labeled it as a required ‘brain break’ while screaming at those who refused to partake. This style of ‘cooperative learning’, advocated for by Kagan and implemented incorrectly through teachers that either don’t know or don’t care about what they’re actually doing, can prove to be problematic.
Can You See The Problem?
A Critical Evaluation of Think-Pair-Share
Think-Pair-Share is perhaps the perfect example as to what exactly has gone wrong with the cooperative style of learning in higher education.
Originally developed by Frank T. Lyman (1981), Think-Pair-Share allows for students to contemplate a posed question or problem silently. The student may write down thoughts or simply just brainstorm in his or her head. When prompted, the student pairs up with a peer and discusses his or her idea(s) and then listens to the ideas of his or her partner. Following pair dialogue, the teacher solicits responses from the whole group. When teachers use this technique, they don’t have to worry about students not volunteering because each student will already have an idea in their heads, therefore, the teacher can call on anyone and increase discussion productivity. Cooperative learning.
Once again, on paper this looks wonderful. In practice, it fails. I have never once, in four years of learning through ‘Kagan-styled-approaches’ and two years of student teaching, witnessed a Think-Pair-Share activity work in the way that it is advertised as. Teachers do have to worry about volunteers, because half the time most of the students still don’t volunteer to raise their hand. Some will claim they do not have an idea, others will simply not want to socially interact in such a way with their fellow classmates in fear of their idea being “wrong”.
And even the students who do raise their hand and find a friend to share their thoughts with rarely take the activity seriously. Most specifically target out their social cliques and have off-topic discussions. Many teachers tend to sit back and just wait for the actual group assessment to start afterwards.
One could simply say, “well, the teacher should police the discussions more.” That is the entire problem here. This, on paper, is supposed to be a way to have students icepick their way through a specific prompt. In practice, it turns into a structured way of wasting time. If more time is spent monitoring the situation and correcting incorrect behaviour, the same “practice” of the activity could have been implicated through other means.
“Group Hatred” and Hostile Resistance
Cooperative learning methods like Think-Pair-Share and other Kagan activities also incorporate group activities, many of which try to incorporate the theory of multiple intelligences.
“When it comes to the psychology and sociology behind individual differences, many education systems tend to ignore individuality in favor of statistics and systematic grading formulas. Individual differences, labeled by psychologists as differential psychology, address the empathetic differences between every individual or individuals residing within groups. An individual in the educational sense would be your “typical” student; and a group in the educational sense would be a “typical” classroom.” The Proposals of Individual Differences and Multiple Intelligences, Joseph Kaminski
It becomes important for educators to realize that students aren’t the same, and that students that have different learning abilities may be negatively affected through some of the group work activities that Kagan presents.
Rather than incorporating the seven main styles of learning into their lesson plans, several teachers take the Kagan way of doing things and force students to work together as if the work presented would be better because of it. Some “accelerated” or “gifted” students might feel as if their fellow team members are slowing them down and/or forcing them to do all the heavy work. This helps nobody, as it continues a trend of “group hatred” for those who do all the work and allows the other “team members” to learn nothing through the experience.
Many Kagan activities (Round Robin, for example) ignore this in practice and just thinks it is “so swell” that students are “getting along”, when the majority of the time they are not. Thus a normal group activity becomes a major waste of time, a running theme for this style of learning.
Forced group work and Kagan styled events are also the worst nightmare for introverted students who 1) work better by themselves or in small, self-created environments or 2) actually freeze up when it comes to situations like this. These types of experimental learning literally want everybody to be the same in a sense where they will fit the on-paper definition of what a student should and should not do. The environment that Kagan seems to want is “pure”, in a sense.
Training in the topic insist on purity, insisting that all students will follow the steps perfectly and that all students would willingly indulge themselves in what (most) consider a waste of time. It is very ritualistic in a sense where students in these “Kagan based schools” expect that they will get the loosely-affirmed brain breaks and be forced to do faux socialization through time wasters that ultimately leave the majority of students either confused or unhappy.
Overall Complaints for Cooperative Learning
The main idea in this section was influenced by teachercommons; it has been edited and reordered and added upon.
- Classroom Management: More times than not, it seems as if these assignments lead to off task discussions, the repetition of rules, and the result of too many students not participating. Teachers cannot crack down on every single issue here without wasting time.
- Dependency on Groups: Students who are too accustomed to and/or attached to cooperative learning can have a hard time adjusting to learning environments where it is entirely independent. For example, they might have a hard time in college, when a professor stands up and lectures. This style of learning doesn’t help individuals think for themselves and may make it so that they need a social style of learning in order to make progress.
- Cookie cutter collaboration: Cooperative Learning wants purity, and tends to force students to accept pre-created roles and information despite their learning style being entirely different. Group work limits specific skills and crams information into a limited period of time that is already shortened through other problems with the system.
- Group Think: Constant group work can engage in a style of groupthink that creates an environment where students do not have a chance to challenge their peers. It creates a ‘culture of conformity’, which is one hundred percent anti-education. On a larger scale, the designated “speaker” in a group speaks for the entire team, which leads to inaccuracy or certain ideas falling through the crack.
- Group Dysfunction: Students at the bottom do not complete anything and students at the top do all the work. This can lead to perfectionism at the top and a low sense of self-efficacy at the bottom. Students who ‘don’t care’ harm the entire project, and oftentimes simply piggyback off the work done by their peers, receiving good grades for little to no work.
- Complicated Instructions: Whether they believe it or not, many teachers end up making Cooperative Learning too complicated for everyone to understand. Elaborate roles and complicated instructions that are entirely too detailed makes it hard to properly discuss. Simplicity is key to Cooperative Learning success, and micromanagement at upper levels oftentimes despises simplicity.
- Not enough collaboration: Some critics have suggested that students need to develop roles in an authentic process and work collaboratively on a larger project without being confined to the procedures of cooperative learning. The chief criticism is that cooperative learning is not reflective of how true collaboration occurs in the real world. Think of the Kagan group works that have students research other topics and collaborate at the end: if they took it seriously, they will master their topic and fall short at the others. When it comes to Kagan group works that have students do entirely different tasks, nobody gets the overall picture.