2 Simple Steps For More Effective Cooperative Effort

Group work is a phrase that, when uttered, often makes administrators cringe.  They picture students lazily hovered around a collective space completely disengaged, copying from each other, chatting, while the instructor barricades themself behind the comfortable confines of their desk.

This is a shame because cooperative effort is fantastic way to educate students and has overwhelming positive implications outside the classroom (social, emotional, etc. ).

Good meta for starters here.

However, cooperative learning is only effective if implemented correctly.

In an age of ever-growing communicative isolation- think technology- students need to be taught HOW to interact within a group.

Where is one to start?

MIT addressed a similar question about cooperative efforts and the resulting collective intelligence.   They wanted to identify the characteristics of successful groups and uncover the collective components present in groups with synergy.

Synergy is a whole system that is "greater" than the sum of its parts.

MIT wanted to tease out the characteristics that made groups of people working together better than individuals working independently.

They found three common characteristics for high performing groups:
-each group had a high level of social sensitivity (empathy)
-each group had an equal distribution of contribution (group members let others speak)
-each group had a high number of females

This article addresses the first two characteristics, empathy and conversational turn-taking, and how to teach them to your students.

The goal is to synergize your students' collective efforts.

Relevant Reading List: Advice to Young Adults

A unique occupation like teaching requires unconventional preparation.  The Relevant Reading Lists are a series of books that when read together convey a similar message imperative to teaching.  The books listed are not included in typical teacher preparation programs. The Pragmatic TV Teacher feels they should be.  Reading these will make you a better educator.

When leading by example isn't enough, educators need to have relevant resources to consult when young adults need direction.  The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, Never Eat Alone, and So Good They Can't Ignore You are three books that will give you pragmatic advice to share with your students.

Einstein Would Have Been a Crappy Teacher

For all of his wisdom and worldly contributions, Albert would've stumbled as an educator.

(read Walter Isaacson's account of his life: it is truly eye opening)

How do I know? He doesn't understand a fundamental aspect of acquiring knowledge: that facts must precede conceptual constructs and the synthesis of new information. (Origin of this idea is Make It Stick)

Evidence for this bold claim comes from this often praised quote:

"creativity is more important than knowledge" says Einstein.

That might be true for some endeavors, but teachers should be careful and avoid this advice.

For someone who devoted his life to making connections and advancing theoretical physics through the accumulation of knowledge, this quote is confusing.

An ambiguous discussion referring to the context of this quote is unnecessary, of course we love Albert, we are simply using this idea as a springboard into something much larger.

Factual knowledge is the seed of creativity.  Without knowing things, you can not use creativity to weave them together to create new ideas.

Without facts, there is no synthesis.

This article highlights the benefits of factual information on reading comprehension and memory.

William James On How To Help The Kid That Gives Up

We all have (hopefully just) one: the student who shuts down.

Whether they make an initial attempt or not is unimportant.  The "shut down student" is inapproachable, frustrated, and somewhat defiant.  They've given up hope and insist they "can't do it."

Over 100 years ago, the same type of learner was described by William James:
"The teacher often is confronted in the schoolroom with an abnormal type of will, which we may call the 'balky will'.  Certain children, if they do not succeed in doing a thing immediately, remain completely inhibited in regard to it: it becomes literally impossible for them to understand it if it be an intellectual problem, or to do it if it be an outward operation, as long as this particular inhibited condition lasts."
How would perceive and internalize the situation.  Would you get angry or mad?  Would you be patient?  Would you place blame on the student or some extraneous factor?

How would James think about the situation?

"When a situation of the kind is once fairly developed, and the child is all tense and excited inwardly, nineteen times out of twenty it is best for the teacher to apperceive the case as one of neural pathology rather than as one of moral culpability."

James removes blame from the student.  The student is not consciously behaving this way, it is simply a result of the student's psychological being.

How would you proceed?  Would you remind the student of Dweck's work and say "you can understand the problem if you realize that your intelligence isn't fixed.  If you work hard, you'll get it!"  Or would you pull a page from Bjork's desirable difficulties handbook and say "this is what we call a desirable difficulty, trust me, you want this challenge!"

(I'm not, at all, saying that the work of Dweck or Bjork are unimportant.  I'm just having some fun.)

How would James handle the situation?

"The aim of the teacher should then be to make him simply forget.  Drop the subject for the time, divert the mind to something else; then, leading the pupil back by some circuitous line of association, sprint it on him aging before he has time to recognize it, and as likely as not he will go over it now without any difficulty."

Surprised that he uses distraction and deception?  Don't be.  James is a powerful thinker who truly understands the applications of psychology.

Tricking a student into working through a difficult problem is like getting your dog to take it's heart worm medicine.  The dog won't touch the pill by itself but you know it's necessary to keep your dog healthy.  So you use a little distraction and deception and  disguise the pill in a delicious piece of deli meat.  Everybody is happy: to dog got a little snack and you're taking steps to keep your dog worm free.

The solution posed by James is simple.  He suggests first getting the student's mind off the challenge as a way to calm them down and forget about the difficulty.  When the mind is calm, the teacher can then re-introduce the difficult idea, maybe dressed up as something else, quickly so the student doesn't have a chance to realize that it is the old problem disguised as something new.

It sometimes becomes overwhelming for writers to consistently report the newest and lasted educational best practices.  I believe it is worth taking a step back and considering simple ideas based on common sense.

Talks To Teachers On Psychology And To Students On Some Of Life's Ideals is a timeless, underutilized, educational resource worth your time.

Thanks for reading.

The Most Powerful Way To Help Kids With Testing Anxiety

Adam was a mess.  If you saw him, you would have thought that he was attending the funeral of someone very pivotal in his life.  On the brink of tears, unable to breathe, he sat along a set of blue lockers simply clutching his knees to his chest.

The death of a family member?  No, the APUSH Advanced Placement exam.

Adam had an anxiety attack while taking the assessment.

It has become common for students to panic during high stakes testing situations.  Elementary students will simply cry and look confused.  Older students will seize and stare blankly at the page.  Recently however, we've seen more students that have full-blown panic attacks and physical reactions to tests (vomiting etc.).

I feel bad for them, we all do.

For students who experience severe levels of anxiety like Adam, there is little we can do.  For students with lower and more manageable levels of testing anxiety, we can employ a simple trick before and during the assessment to help them.

This article is about how testing anxiety decreases performance on assessments and one powerful trick teachers can do to alleviate that stress.

How To Make Boring Content Interesting: 3 Tips From Psychologists

Follow this line of reasoning:

Students learn what they think about and students think about what they're interested in.

It makes sense, right?

The question now becomes, what makes something interesting?

Think to yourself: what are you interested in?  I'm interested in (read obsessed) with 19th century Russian Fiction.  I'm sure that didn't pop up on your lists of interests.

It seems that interest is subjective.

I know what your thinking: if all of my students are interested in different things, then getting them to think and learn about the SAME thing will be impossible.

Right and wrong.

You're correct to assume that your students have subjective interests that differ.  You are wrong to think that getting them to think about the same thing will be difficult.


Because cognitive psychologists have determined the common characteristics of something that is interesting.  Said differently, I'm interested in Russian literature for the same reasons your are interested keeping dogs, hiking the Adirondack high peaks, or restoring vintage cars (fill in your hobby).  My interests and your interests share the same intrinsic appeal.  This interest intrinsic appeal can be deconstructed.

This article is about how you can make your content interesting.