Vicki quiet in classroom blogImagine being 13 years old and having a social studies class in which you and your classmates learn cooperatively 100 percent of the time, and no one ever works alone… ever. Depending on your personality, this could be your favorite class or your worst nightmare.

This was the learning environment one teacher created for his students after attending a professional development seminar on the benefits of cooperative learning. Upon returning to the school, he physically made over his classroom, creating stations for small groups of students to work together every single day.

Perhaps he was so inspired by a dynamic instructor that he couldn’t resist converting to a new teaching approach; perhaps he viewed it as a way not to have to deal with the time-consuming planning that good teaching often requires; or he may have viewed it simply as a fail-proof way for students to learn. Whatever his instructional motivations, it most likely was the way he himself preferred to learn. However, it was not the preference of at least one of his students, who began to dread attending his class and, as a result, learned very little social studies that year.

An insight as to why and how some students choose to opt out of cooperative learning is revealed in Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which posits that our culture, in general, and our schools, in particular, undervalue certain types of individuals, specifically, introverts. She contends that the focus on group learning in schools ignores the needs of students who not only dislike working in group settings but actually don’t learn in them. Instead, they learn best when they work individually, usually through reading, writing, and reflecting.

In McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works, Second Edition, the authors write that learning to collaborate and cooperate is a good foundation for future success in a world that demands high levels of social interaction. When used consistently (but not daily) and systematically (but not rigidly), cooperative learning structures provide opportunities for students to interact, take on specific roles, and listen actively to others’ ideas. But cooperative learning is not necessarily the basis for thinking or problem solving; that level of understanding often occurs when students are allowed to think and wonder on their own.

Cain writes that introverts represent one-third to one-half of all Americans; naturally, the same percentage exists in classrooms. For students possessing this personality trait, a steady stream of external stimuli is exactly the opposite of their ideal learning environment. And taken to the extreme—where students even take tests with a partner, possibly because teachers think it will reduce student anxiety (and new brain research suggests it sometimes does)—the practice gets in the way of learning.

More than two years ago, McREL Senior Researcher Charles Igel wrote on this blog that, while group learning had become as ubiquitous to modern instruction as rote recitation was during the last century,  many teachers were still confused about how to use it effectively. In a recent article, he explains that the early researchers of cooperative learning realized that just putting people into groups and having them learn together was not enough to improve learning. Cooperative learning is a subset of collaborative learning, and is different because it is highly structured and contains certain identifiable elements to foster the upside of social learning (i.e., engagement and high achievement) while avoiding the downside (i.e., uneven effort and outcomes). The research supports that when teachers use cooperative learning properly, they are more likely to reengage students who have become marginalized while preparing all students to be successful in their future endeavors.

Which brings us back to the over-zealous middle-school teacher, who, had he not taken his efforts to the extreme, might have created an environment where students learn to think on their own. We must acknowledge the possibility that when students seek solitude to “do their own thing,” they aren’t necessarily refusing to play well with others; rather, they may be following their natural tendencies to seek out an environment that frees them to learn their way.

Listen to Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.

17 Comments

  • Miriam says:

    Meeting the needs of all learners is an ongoing challenge we, as teachers, meet on a minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day basis. There are always students who, by their learning style, are at the forefront of our teaching.
    I often worry about the quiet, unassuming student who does everything you expect them to. Sometimes I wonder if I am really reaching them. He or she may be struggling in ways that I never expect or address. By their introverted nature, they do what they have to just to get by.
    I plan on reading Susan Cain’s book. The above references to her insights have tweaked me. I definitely want to explore her insights into this type of learner.

  • Kristie says:

    I try to find a balance between individual and cooperative learning in my classroom. It is difficult to accommodate all learning styles during a lesson. I methodically choose my groups for cooperative learning. I try to put my more introverted learners with students who are good leaders, but will not intimidate the shier student. I definitely want to read Susan Cain’s book to learn more about reaching the introverted learner.

  • Michael says:

    I really do believe a mono-instructional approach is so deadly when it comes to student buy in. One has to mix how content is delivered, because the receivers will get bored with the predictability of it all. I too struggle, however, with always finding the right time to take the risks needed to have this blend of instructional approaches. It must be a balance that is learned over time. This was a great article by the way! Thank you for the wonderful insight!

  • Your article affirmed my own childhood dread of group work? Without fail, the people I was grouped with didn’t like me or didn’t work as hard as I did or were so brilliant I felt stupid and was ignored. Needless to say there was zero learning by me taking place. As a teacher I allow group work when it is appropriate and encourage independent work if someone isn’t in the mood to group. It is an option occassionaly allowed, never required.

  • Hi Kristie,
    Since it sounds like you are quite intentional when planning group work for your students, you might also be interested in reading an article from Middle School Journal that I co-authored with McREL researcher Charles Igel,who has studied the effectiveness of co-operative learning. You’ll find it at http://www.amle.org/Publications/MiddleSchoolJournal/Articles/March2012/Article4/tabid/2590/Default.aspx. Another great resource is the chapter in McREL’s new edition of Classroom Instruction that Works. It’s available from ASCD at ascd.org.
    Thanks for sharing your approach to cooperative learing.

  • Donna Robinson says:

    I absolutely agree that group learning may not be a good idea all the time. We all have different learning styles and I can imagine for someone that is shy and introverted, group learning could be horrifying. I do believe that sometimes its good to get people out of their comfort zones and challenge them in different situations, but you really have to be careful so that you don’t do more harm than good. Even though my students work at tables, they are not always working as groups, but I think (hope)the environment helps ease a student’s anxiety when it comes time to work as a group.

  • Ruth Rumack says:

    Discipline always helps you to be good person for society and for your country. In this context classroom discipline plays an important role .It not only provide proper brought up to kids but also help them to gain education in clean and peaceful environment.

  • Marlys Bucher says:

    In Career and Technical Education (CTE) we provide group projects and cooperative learning a great deal of the time. We find that the ‘hands on approach’ of active learning provides learners with contextual experiences that are retaining information. I have not had a chance to read the book yet but am now enrolled in a technology course offered by McREL.

  • charon says:

    It’s interesting that the article talks of “introverts” as those students who don’t want to collaborate. Some students who have extroverted personalities socially, may have a work style that requires that they work alone/independently in the brainstorming or concept framing.

  • bjsmith says:

    It is important to give student opportunities for various types of learning. In real life we need various ways to learn and work. In my past experience I used both independent and group situations for learning and noticed that students usually had a preference. Providing learning in various ways meets the needs of all students which prepares them for real life.

  • rejusrekanta says:

    I do believe that sometimes its good to get people out of their comfort zones and challenge them in different situations, but you really have to be careful so that you don’t do more harm than good.http://www.automateandvalidate.com

  • Sara says:

    I like using cooperative learning in my classroom too. However, I agree with the article that it is not for everyone. I can’t imagine using it everyday in my classroom because it would not benefit all students. Differentiated instruction tells us that not one method of learning is suitable for all students. I remember when I was a student, it always depended on the group I was working with, the subject, and the task at hand whether or not I was able to learn.

  • Megan says:

    Being an extrovert myself, I can see how the middle school classroom described in the article would be great. On the other hand, it’s obvious the students on the opposite end of the spectrum would find the environment detrimental.
    As an educator, one cannot ignore different learning styles. With “all the talk” about differentiated instruction and learning profiles I truly hope students can be offered choices in their learning.

  • Amy says:

    I have found cooperative learning to be challenging to implement in my class. It seems that by high school the students have fallen into some bad habits while working in groups and it is tough to get them all engaged. I usually give the students the option of working alone and there are usually 2 or 3 our of 20 that go that route. I don’t think these students are introverted; I think they just don’t want other students getting credit for their work.

  • Scott says:

    I agree that different learning styles require different methods to reach these students. Differentiated instruction helps reach more students. I think it is important that students are exposed to different ways of learning. I agree that the need to work together is an important life skill but it should not the only method used.

  • Lisa says:

    Similar to anything in life… all in moderation. In my opinion a successful classroom often operates as a small society. As an adult, we all find ourselves in situations/work environments that force us to step out of our comfort zone. As a learning experience, it is critical for students to have a safe environment in which to explore all of these learning styles: working individually, in small groups, and whole group. However, I believe it is an obvious conclusion that shaping your entire teaching method around one style of learning is certain to bring failure to some or, in times, most students. It is a fine art of expanding your teaching methods to support the success of all or most learners. You can’t eat a diet of only brownies and expect to lead a healthy lifestyle. All in moderation….

  • Erica Fulton says:

    I certainly fall on the introvert side of the spectrum, and I see my own school experiences reflected in this article. I hated group work, but it had nothing to do with worry that others wouldn’t pull their weight or I wouldn’t have anything to offer. It was simply the act of interacting with people I didn’t know well. But being an introvert doesn’t mean not be willing to collaborate or work with others to achieve a goal, and introverts will certainly gain much from the experience. If it’s done in the right way.

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