Monday, December 22, 2003

An odd start to the salvos 

The RedStarTribune is silent today over the new science and social science standards, but the PioneerPress, rather than discuss them, digs up some education researchers unhappy over Commissioner Yecke's book. In The War Against Excellence, Yecke is rather critical of "cooperative learning".
Ability grouping was discouraged as elitist, and in many places was replaced with �cooperative learning,� where a few students did all the work and everyone shared the grade. High ability students were often not allowed to work at their own pace, but instead were held to the pace of the rest of the class and required to tutor others--resulting in a loss to their own intellectual growth. Based on misinterpretations of scientific theories addressing brain development, a number of schools watered-down the middle school curriculum out of fear that pre-adolescent brains could not be expected to handle rigorous learning. And in some cases, academic competition was discouraged. These policies and practices resulted in some middle school environments that actively encouraged a culture that looked down upon high academic achievement.
The authors of a leading book on cooperative learning happen to teach at the University of Minnesota. They argue that Yecke has not read their work and that they are "professors, not activists". But their own work downplays the importance of what they call "technical skills".
The ability of all students to learn to work cooperatively with others is the keystone to building and maintaining stable marriages, families, careers, and friendships. Being able to perform technical skills such as reading, speaking, listening, writing, computing, problem-solving, etc., are valuable but of little use if the person cannot apply those skills in cooperative interaction with other people in career, family, and community settings. The most logical way to emphasize the use of student's knowledge and skills within a cooperative framework, such as they will meet as members of society, is to spend much of the time learning those skills in cooperative relationships with each other.
Yet the research of Marian Matthews suggests that group learning limits the abilities of gifted learners. The problem, it seems to me, is agreement on what should be called "cooperative learning". When it is tied up with the question of "tracking" (which I discussed earlier, as has Michael Lopez), it boils down to the broader question of limiting excellence, which is what Yecke is discussing. Cooperative learning with tracking would give much different results than without tracking -- I suspect it would be better but I'm not going to be able to prove that to anyone's satisfaction who doesn't already agree with me.

The other item that struck me was this misunderstanding of cooperative and competitive behaviors and the heroism of Flight 93.

Yecke said she was struck when she read news stories that repeatedly characterized the heroes of that flight as very competitive.

�Family members didn�t talk about their cooperative nature,� she said. �In Flight 93, you have competitive individuals who knew how to cooperate, but they were driven by a competitive spirit.�

David Johnson wondered if Yecke was giving short shrift to the collaboration of the heroes. �They organized. They talked with each other,� he said. �It�s a testament to the power of cooperation. Each one of those men might not have been able to do it on their own.�

I think that Johnson, one of the UM professors, has a real problem with understanding what competition is. In the article they write that competition "is characterized by negative goal interdependence, where, when one person wins, the others lose." That's true only in a zero-sum game situation. Entrepreneurs compete, and thrill from the competition, without their victories being completely offset by the losses to others. This is the nature of market activity. Only one may win the spelling bee, but high grades are not earned generally at the expense of others (unless you grade based on standard deviations from mean performance in the classroom). The Johnsons divide competitive from "individualistic" learning, where students move independently to meet predetermined learning objectives. That, I hasten to add, is exactly what the new standards are about -- individualistic, not competitive. Cooperative learning could help when structured with appropriate incentives, a point with which I think even Yecke would agree. Why Welsh decided to run this piece now is a question worth answering.