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Joseph Kaminski

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November 20, 2018

Understanding Individual Differences When Implementing Cooperative Learning


There’s something incredibly powerful about education. As Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” There exists ambiguity and apathy within the bureaucratic education systems that exist today, but it goes without saying that the concept of education in general remains as powerful as it did prior to its initial institutionalization. It is, however, a dangerous double-edged sword depending on who is wielding it. In the hands of proper specialists, education can be a tool that can combat hate, ignorance, and misinformation. In the hands of the wrong authority, it can be used to fuel such hate, ignorance, and misinformation. It must be clear that education as an institution has not always been right at heart or mind. It has, over the centuries, evolved alongside our social standards and levels of acceptance.

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To put this into perspective, the notion of eugenics was once widely accepted and perpetuated in the spheres of academic discipline. Entire organizations and institutes were dedicated to the constructed pseudo-scientific, so-called evidence behind selective breeding and genetic-based racism. The moral definitions and ethical guidelines of today would have been shattered by what was perpetuated through the base of education. Eugenics claimed that humans were not born equal, and that predefined heredities created better individuals. This overtly racist ‘knowledge’ that was academically accepted influenced marriage restrictions, segregation on behalf of race and mental disorder, compulsory sterilization, and even genocide. I am by no means stating that eugenics is ‘academic’ in any way, but that our society accepted such information as ‘academic’ in our very own (and very recent, on the scale of things) history. I believe this is one of countless examples of just how important education actually is for our society. Education holds the power to frame the foundations of social consensus between you, me, and every other individual. Education is one of the most crucial ingredients in the creation of an idea, a theory, or a thought.

I, like many social historians and educators before me, personally believe nobody is born with hatred or ignorance in their heart, and evidence seems to point that way as well. Children develop alongside their environments, copying parental behavior and soaking in their surroundings like a sponge. An individual may have an idea, but that idea does not morph into an ideology until individuals begin to interact with one another. Interaction is key, and group theory merges into educational foundations in such a way. In 1979, social psychologist Henri Tajfel put forth his social identity theory. He proposed that groups create pride, self-esteem, and identity. From high school football teams to nationalistic feelings between different world powers, this social “grouping” can create highs and lows in our professional world. Tajfel identified this as an ‘us versus them’ complex that creates highly influential and perpetuating prejudices throughout our society. Everyone believes that their group is superior, and thus we have in-and-out groupage between us. When we begin to identify each other based on our groupage, we enter the horrible reality of discrimination.

With this connection highlighted, it becomes clear how a subject such as eugenics could be academically accepted and maintained into our society for such an extended period of time. Students come together, day after day and year after year, to learn in our education systems. Their main goal is to learn, with socialization through interaction playing a major role in their day-to-day lives. If individuals learn and accept ideas through their groups, then the school systems play a major role in the growth of students. The problem with this is that a large percentage of students remain brutally uninspired and uninterested in their educational environments, and I place the blame on how educators handle their standards. Methods of cooperative learning, oftentimes referred to as the Kagan style of teaching, have brought forth an age of micromanagement in a system that isn’t structurally accepting of it.

On paper, Kagan is a fantastic system that encourages group work and the sharing of ideas and thoughts on a classroom level. Many of my colleagues have personally seen Kagan work – but usually in workplace diversity environments where the majority of people involved signed up for such activities. For the most part, I’ve many day-by-day implementations of Kagan-styled learning in the classroom fail. In many ways, students do not partake in such forced group work. Off-topic discussions, general indolence, and group hatred tend to poke major holes in the effectiveness of forced cooperative learning. A good educator can find ways to inspire their kids and get the ball rolling without awkwardly pausing their lesson plans to haphazardly implement a fifteen-minute activity that leads to a learned hatred of communication, responsibility, collaboration, and teamwork. I am not saying that group work is impossible or unlikely in the education system, but that many people do not implement it properly enough to leave a lasting influence on the next generation of students.

Read similar: Kagainstic Rituals of Modern Education: A Criticism on Cooperative Learning (and How to Do Better)

Read similar: Merging Technology with Kagan

The first step to leaving a proper impact on students would be influencing them to enjoy the topic. Even if a student hates history or hates mathematics, it is usually because of negative experiences that had happened to them previously in their educational career. Unfortunately, these cases occur. What has happened in other educators’ classrooms is not changeable by you, the current teacher. However, it can be combated by new thoughts, new inspiration, and new levels of cooperation with the student. Individual differences and multiple intelligences play a huge role in how students think and learn. Group work may inspire thought or create concrete concepts, but the individual methods of learning vary between students. There is no single way to learn, and every mindset should be brought to the table in properly understanding and coordinating methods of teaching. Oftentimes, this happens on a standardized level. With standardized testing looming over the heads of educators, unique students are oftentimes marginalized in the classroom and slip through the cracks as meaningless statistics. This should not happen in any scenario and could easily be tackled if education more practically targeted the identification of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses on a case by case basis.

The most crucial proposal is one that would concern a more systematic approach to dealing with individual differences – one that holds diagnostic testing of learning styles to a higher standard. The first few class meetings are incredibly important and should be used to identify and gauge student reactions. Educators should match their instruction to fit various learning styles before choosing assessments that not only fit measurable program goals (e.g. state tests, graduation rates, common core state standards) but adopt to individual growth among the students. Instruction should not fit one learning style but rather incorporate individuality within group work. With that being said, an educator should not have to completely compromise their teaching persona. The development of a teaching persona is what creates the characteristics seen by students. It is natural to have “hard” teachers and “easy” teachers, just as it is natural to have “witty” and “dull” teachers. There is no set personality that can perfectly cover the definition of what makes an educator, just as there should not be a set personality that covers the definition of a student. The main goal of educating is leaving an imprint on these students through education – and not in the way as seen by those who lived during the age of eugenics or in the way we witness in the statistics-driven system of our own era. This is where communication, listening skills, and the ideas of diversity and inclusion come into power.

Diversity is one of the most important aspects of progressing our educational system. Understanding that students have backgrounds and are much more than just names on a sheet of paper to babysit for the year. It may be easy to burn out in an environment where state standards are the reprehensible gold standard of success, but there are ways around it. Inclusion, rather than isolation, should be the way to incorporate students into the classroom and into the breadth of knowledge that should be occurring on every level of any individual’s journey through the world of academia and education. In a perfect world, this style of governing over a student body would begin at the preschool level and work its way through undergraduate studies.

Read similar: The Proposals of Individual Differences and Multiple Intelligences in Classroom Environments

In an attempt to erase the negative connotations that bring down students until it is almost too late to change their mind, students should be brought up through an educational system that focuses on teaching them for positive reasoning rather than “because”. Theory and application should come before memorization and bubble-thought ways of learning. Cooperative learning, methods of interaction that highlight the uniqueness of student process, should come before implications of group hatred that mimic the thought of what researchers like Tajfel have highlighted for us. There is no one way of teaching or learning, but education can surely be applied to focus on the positive side of its powerful foundations. Educators are far more than glorified babysitters, they have the power to guide, inform, and advance the next generation of individuals. The field itself is based on how we interact and how the system can evolve alongside the students. What is taught and learned now will be perpetuated for a generation to come, so we must ask ourselves: how can we do better?

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