Sonoma State University
Education 437
Integrated Curriculum: Preschool Through Elementary

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A Personal Memoir: Children Working in Groups?
It Doesn't Work!

by: Selma Wassermann, Professor of Education,
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

There were 36 of them the year I was assigned to teach 6th grade in a suburban school about 35 miles outside of the Big Apple. The size of the class was challenge in itself. It was also the year I was determined to put all of my ideas about a student centered classroom into operation: teaching for thinking, student self evaluation, cooperative learning. I must have been mad. But I was younger then and hopelessly idealistic about what a classroom could become.

The students were a mixed lot as in any heterogeneously grouped class. About 12 of them were quite bright, alive, vigorous, the class "stars." About 6 of these 12 were smug and self-satisfied with their intellectual skills. They considered themselves the intellectual elite, with license to rock and vilify those who did not qualify for inclusion in their group. On the other end of the behavioral spectrum was a group of 12 children whose behaviors revealed other types of problems: extreme aggressiveness, considerable deficits in their ability to think for themselves, passivity and indifference to learning, lack of self-confidence and diminished self-esteem, poor academic performance. In the middle ground was another group of 12 - pleasant friendly, "nice" kids who made no trouble and who made no headlines. In other words, a "normal" heterogeneous class.

The first few weeks (the "honeymoon" period) passed uneventfully. We got to know each other better. We decorated the classroom after considerable debate about who would do what and where. (So what if the classroom resembled the horse that was designed by a committee!) We established some routines. I told them about my plans for the school year: emphasis on thinking, working in groups, project work in social studies and science self-pacing and choice with respect to certain areas of the curriculum, self-evaluation of growth. Heavy-duty Dewey. They listened to me politely. It must have sounded like Alice in Wonderland. I know now that their ability to comprehend what I was proposing was about O on a scale of 10. What I was presenting as a way of life in the classroom was totally and completely outside the realm of their previous school experiences. It was about the equivalent of presenting the idea of airplane travel to cave dwellers. It sounds wonderful to be able to fly like a bird; but until your baggage has gone to Detroit while you land in San Francisco, the concept remains far-fetched. If an experience must be lived to take on real meaning it is no wonder that my words rang no bells and no eyes lit up with understanding.

There was, of course, one small additional problem. I had never tried operating a full student-centered program in my own classroom before. Oh, yes, in other classes I had children working together in groups, making puppets, making butter, baking muffins, working with various art projects; but these were always carefully designed exercises, with a beginning and end, carefully controlled and monitored by the teacher. In such projects the children's options are cautiously circumscribed. Decision-making is contained in the lower realms of choice of design, color or shape, but never in the higher realms of the how of procedure, the what of inquiry, or the generation and application of new knowledge. Those higher-realm decisions I had always hoarded to myself.


Planning for a Student-Centered Classroom

While I had operated individualized reading programs quite successfully with other classes, these were only the smallest steps toward what I had planned for this class. My goal was to help these children move toward greater control over their own learning and themselves, and to do this in a full and not partial way. To give up teacher control, to invite students to play a major role in the significant decisions of classroom life and learning, to empower children as thinkers, as learners, as autonomous persons - well, I had never even considered such possibilities, let alone tried to put them into practice. I began with my ideals, my enthusiasms and my strong beliefs about what I felt was important. What was missing was professional competence in those teaching strategies needed to carry out these goals. Lacking in experience, I naturally lacked expertise.

Treading cautiously, I began with the program I knew best - individualized reading. It was a cinch to acquire about 250 trade books, set up a reading corner and organize instruction around individual conferences and skill groups. Although at first not all children were enthusiastic readers, handling those few who were not presented no major problems. Eventually this problem disappeared - through better selection of books, through emphasis on an individual's reading for personal meaning rather than reading before a group and through the "institutional press" of everyone else wanting to read. If I could get individualized reading to work, how about individualized math?

In those pre-open classroom years, promoting pupil growth as "independent, critical thinkers" and "wise decision-makers" was much heard in the educational rhetoric. But in translating those noble goals into the day-to-day operation of the classroom, most of us were strictly on our own. Teacher training programs were notoriously in deficit with respect to helping with the what and the how of classroom practice; and instructional texts, although rich with big ideas of what classroom teachers ought to be doing, mainly "left the driving to us." Teachers who wanted student-centered classrooms had to learn their way through a series of "field trials" - examining each situation critically, sifting out the unworkable from the workable; building on success; refining, reshaping and homing until it "came out light." No wonder so many of us abandoned projects even before liftoff!

In shaping an individualized math program, there were certain principles that I wished to make operative. First, emphasis should been pupils' understanding, rather than rote application of mechanical skills; "What does this mean?" should be the a priori question to "How is this calculated?" Second, students ought to work at their level of competence and if there were a range of competencies, that must be reflected in the day-to-day work. Third, there must be opportunity for students to pace themselves in concept and skill development Those who needed more time to work out concepts should have that time available; those who were able to progress more quickly should not be kept from moving ahead.

Fourth, students ought to be learning how to make valid assessments of their own skill needs. As part of learning math, they ought to become self-diagnosticians, learning to observe where their skills were strong and where they were in deficit. Being able to make thoughtful and nondefensive analyses of their skill needs seemed to be a critical component of their studies in math Finally, it seemed important that children learn to work together in carrying out their mathematical studies. Children should be helping each other to work productively, using each other as resources and support systems.


Managing Initial Disappointments

Working out the details of classroom application of these principles proved a great challenge. I learned the hard way that the most important tools I had were my own wits, inner resources and ability to observe diagnostically how my ideas were working out in classroom practice. It took several weeks for me to work out the kinks. The children did not live comfortably with instructional practices that had to change from week to week as I learned my way through each stage of field trials. The children responded to my initial confusion by showing me theirs. There was increased evidence of behavior problems and the noise level and aimless activity level seemed to escalate. The honeymoon was definitely over.

If I had no experience in the implementation of a fully student-centered program, neither had the children any experience in those skills absolutely critical for carrying out their parts in such a program: self-discipline, self-control, cooperative behaviors In my infinite wisdom I expected that they should. it was my implicit expectation that, once informed they would have to learn to take responsibility for their learning, the children should, in fact, learn to do it simply by following my orders. Now, in retrospect, it boggles my mind that I would ever have such an expectation. I would never have expected any child to learn to eat with a spoon just because I had presented such an idea; nor would I have expected children to write poems just because I had announced to them that it might be a nice idea to do so. Yet, I expected of them thoughtful, wise, independent functioning. I was bound to be astonished by their inability to perform according to these unrealistic and rather foolhardy expectations. Naively, I believed that since my program would allow pupils more freedom, more responsibility, more control they should "buy into the ideas" enthusiastically and show their appreciation and gratitude. Hah! I had much to learn about children, teaching and learning.

My biggest disappointment was not that the children were unable to function in these sophisticated, mature and self-disciplined ways. That was bitter, but not unendurable. The killing blow was that the children wanted, asked, begged for a return to "the way we did it in Grade 5." That meant, "The teacher tells us what to do and we do it." ("We grow to love our chains.") In those nightmarish moments, crushed and in despair, I found I could hate teaching. Not only would I have to help the children gain the skills required to function as thoughtful, responsible, independent, cooperative learners; I would also have to change their attitudes about what was important in their learning. In such terrible "moments of truth," there is the overwhelming feeling that the task is too great, that the effort is beyond human capability, that discretion is the better part of valor and that the whole plan should be packed in. Children working as self-motivated learners? It doesn't work!

Of course, it doesn't work automatically. It takes more than just wanting it to work or expecting it to work. We can't order it to work; we have to make it work. We have to teach children the skills of working thoughtfully and responsibly together. We have to provide the experiences pupils need to gain practice in the development of those skills. Without such experience, without such practice, pupils will not be able to perform in new ways. Most teachers already know this, and they act on that knowledge in such skill areas as teaching children to read and write and number. But we mostly forget that the same is true for learning interpersonal and group process skills.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to remember what we were taught as children: Practice Makes Perfect! If I could help pupils-through practice and on-the-job experience - to take responsibility for their learning, concentrating my teaching not only on curriculum but on the process skills of pupils' higher-order thinking, their decision-making capabilities, their interpersonal behavior... was that within the realm of the possible? Could I allow that the beginning stages of their development might be slow, that their first efforts might be considerably less than perfect? Could I be prepared to hear all the wrong notes at first, if I had hopes of hearing them play beautifully (After all, no one learns to fiddle without playing lots of wrong notes.) Could I survive the cacophony without losing my mind?


Sticking to the Plan

Intrepidly I moved into yet another territory of curriculum: project work in social studies. After all, if you're sailing on the Titanic, you might as well go first class!

A unit of study was selected from the Grade 6 curriculum guide: a study of new African nations. I began with a whole group session in which I called for comparisons to be made on two maps of Africa: one map drawn in 1940 and the other in l960. From the discussion, certain countries were identified as "emerging nations" and a list of these was put on the board: Ghana, Nigeria, Malagasy, Tanzania, Republic of Congo, Zambia. It seemed reasonable to me to introduce a study in which the children could explore the "big ideas" of self-government versus colonialism, and how this had been and was being played out in a huge continent about which we had very little immediate knowledge.

Each of the emerging nations listed by the children would become a separate unit of study, all linked by the common theme. Groups would be formed around the units, so that each group might undertake depth analysis of an emerging nation: its history, geography, socio-political structure, population, economy and economic potential; government, ethnicity, etc. Children would choose the group in which each wanted to work, and each group would then receive an outline that would guide and give focus to their group studies. I envisioned that such an undertaking might take about 4 to 6 weeks of serious data gathering - 5 afternoons a week collecting and organizing information, identifying and establishing group work procedures and strategies, holding group discussions and analyzing issues, determining and executing a group project that would be shared in a culminating event with the rest of the class. What a dreamer I was!

My first awakening occurred in the organization of the groups. The important criterion for choosing a group became not (as I had naively thought) the topic of inquiry, but rather the personal relationships. If Franklin chose Malagasy, then Gary and Ricky and Lenny and Margaret and Sheldon also opted for Malagasy. Never mind if they didn't care two figs for the unit of study. It was a matter of choosing which children they wanted to work with. The topic was purely irrelevant in this first decision making task.

Coupled with my determination that each group should not exceed 6 children (due to my concern over what number of children would constitute a productive working unit), the matching of children with each other and the decision about the topical country took the better part of two full afternoons. "Was this time well spent?" I kept asking myself. Amid the tumultuous decision-making activities were the ever-present undercurrents of "Ugh! I don't want her in my group! I'm changing to Nigeria." Children who have not been accustomed to living together cooperatively, who have not been given opportunities to develop interpersonal skills and who, moreover, have had their worst competitive and cruel instincts subtly validated through earlier school experiences are not magically transformed by the teacher's sincerest wishes that they behave well. Frogs do not turn into princes.

The ordeal of choosing groups was an education for me. It would have been much easier to assign pupils to groups. That would have taken 20 minutes, instead of 4 hours. It would have been easier to say, with conviction, "These children can't choose!" and be done with it. But, of course, they couldn't make choices based upon the more significant criterion of interest if they never had experiences in doing so. And if I had taken the opportunities for choosing from them, how would they ever learn to choose by better criteria? The process of learning to choose has to start somewhere. Regrettably, it doesn't start at the higher plane of intellectuality, but rather in the swampy lowlands of "I want to work with my friends." But it has to start somewhere.


Learning How by Observing What

The way the children chose had prepared me for what was to come. The first weeks of so-called "cooperative" group work was anything but. All manner of uncooperative behavior emerged, and I was not prepared for it. Among the children whom I perceived to have few inner controls and considerable difficulty functioning under their own power, there was a lot of random behavior. They couldn't focus on the tasks; they didn't care about each other; they didn't understand "what they were supposed to do." In the absence of clear and specific teacher direction (i.e., "Do this now and do it THIS way!"), they fell apart. Their frustration with themselves transferred to me. I was a bad teacher. Why was I putting them into this hopeless, intolerable situation? The most common courtesies went unobserved; interpersonal human decency sank to new lows.

In the "middle" group, children sat as if stoned. They were confused, befuddled and unable to take charge. While they could not begin to work on group tasks on their own power, they at least responded without violence. But their eyes looked at me with such pathos that I was ready to give it all up then and there.

The "movers and shakers group surprised me the most. All chiefs and no Indians, they wrangled with each other in the nasty ways of intellectual elitists, each wanting to take ownership of the plans, each condemning others' ideas as worthless The class was a shambles and I had created it. Children working in groups? It doesn't work! Bring out the textbooks! Bring out the worksheets! Let there be peace!

All of these events occurred more than 25 years ago, yet the memories linger on. Every time I hear a teacher say, "Children working in groups? It doesn't work!" I know exactly what that teacher means.

Children cannot move from highly directed teacher-controlled classroom experiences into mature, wise, thoughtful and responsible interpersonal behaviors in a single day. Children cannot learn to function on tasks that require higher-order mental processing as a result of a single lesson. They can, however, learn to work cooperatively in groups over time, gaining sufficient cognitive power to undertake and carry out tasks that require higher-order functioning. This the teacher teaches them how to do, making interpersonal functioning, cooperative group behavior and higher-order thinking skills important learning goals. If a teacher can teach a child to read, solve number problems, divide with fractions and write poetry, surely that teacher can also teach interpersonal skills and higher order thinking. We must not, however, make the mistake of expecting that cooperative group behavior and thinking for oneself will occur in the absence of classroom instruction and practice aimed at these specific goals.

It may be a lot easier to teach children to read and spell than it is to teach them to behave cooperatively and respectfully with each other and to function on their own cognitive power. I have heard teachers give it up after a single attempt, saying, "Children cannot behave responsibly," then removing all further opportunity for students to practice and grow in their responsible behavior. I have also heard teachers say, "Children cannot think for themselves" and proceed thereafter to do children's thinking for them. But these very same teachers would never say, "These children cannot read by themselves," and thereafter remove any opportunity for them to learn to read. Nor would they deplore children's inability to add or multiply or spell or write stories as the reason NOT to teach them to acquire these skills We know that when we teach children and provide them with opportunities to grow and learn, they eventually do.


Facing the Problems of Promoting Autonomous Learners

What's the difference? What confounds our expectations in the area of releasing tight controls for children and allowing them to function cooperatively, in more autonomous ways? Why do we expect this of them without providing the growth opportunities that will allow them to learn this functioning? Why, when we see our plans for cooperative working groups fail after a single try, do we back off and run to the cupboards for the worksheets? I'm not sure I can provide answers that speak for all teachers, but I can certainly address these questions from my own experiences.

The behaviors children exhibit during the first attempts at cooperative, independent group work may scare us into retreat. That behavior is likely to be noisy, aggressive, random It is certainly unproductive, in terms of any clear product-result. When we see this behavior emerge, our nerve-endings are set a-buzz. All our nightmares about "losing classroom control" surface. We want to restore order, gain control immediately, put the lid back on. Watching the kids trample through the first stages of learning to work together responsibly and productively feels as if the wrong genie has been let out of the bottle. If teachers want to beat a hasty retreat from this experience, I can certainly understand the reasons, with great compassion.

Yet, intrepid teachers find ways of helping pupils move from these first incorrigible stages toward more effective group functioning; but like all good teaching it asks a lot of teachers. It asks for knowledge of classroom strategies that work to do the job. (Happily, there are now textbooks that offer suggestions for effective classroom practices.) It asks for understanding that such sophisticated learning for pupils may not be achieved after a single experience. It asks for teachers' patience and understanding; it asks for appropriate teacher-student interactions that enable the learning process. It asks for teachers' confidence in self - the belief that you can make it work. It asks for the courage to take risks and to learn from classroom experience. Above all, it asks for teachers' belief in the importance of such learning goals. Do we believe, really believe, that cooperative group work involving higher - order thinking tasks is an important learning goal? This we must believe to the depth of our soul. For if we believe this enough, prize these skills enough, want them enough, value them enough, we will inevitably go through the fires of hell to bring them about.

There are many stories in the Naked City and some of them have happy endings. But it wasn't until February of that school year that I was able to discern a radical shift in pupils' group work. I had, of course, persisted in my efforts. We went from unit to unit, exchanging emphases between concentrated efforts in science and in social studies, although each unit of work was an integrated curriculum experience that incorporated oral and written language experiences, music, art, math. We undertook studies of the systems of the human body, of our ethnic roots, of early civilizations, of the evolutionary process. All these we did with increasing sophistication of study skills and of data gathering and data organizing. All these we did with increasing interest in pursuing inquiry and investigation. All these we did with increasing expertise in working together cooperatively and productively.

That February, the children worked on a comprehensive unit of study that examined "the development of life on earth." One group investigated one-celled animals; other groups undertook the study of life in the sea, plant life, reptiles, mammals and primates. As a result of whole class discussion, the groups decided to present their findings in 12-foot murals, which could afterwards be placed around the room in a huge pictorial representation of the evolutionary process. Mural work was the order of business that afternoon; because of the length of each, two groups spilled out to work in the hallway. I looked around me and suddenly saw everyone, every single child in that class, working cooperatively and productively in a chosen group. It took my breath away. I wanted to share it with somebody, anybody who would understand what had happened here and the prices I had paid for this accomplishment. I wanted to say, "Hey! Look at this, you guys! Look at these KIDS! Isn't it...wonderful!" But there was no one there and I tucked my enormous pride in them into my pocket and put it on hold for some future disclosure.

With nothing urgent requiring my attention, I moved from group to group observing the work and making small prideful noises about how the murals were emerging. But the children were too involved to take much notice of me. I went back to my desk and stood there, not knowing what I should do. Ricky came up and asked if I could mix more orange paint for his group. They had run out. I was glad to have a job.

I mixed the orange paint eagerly, thinking this, too, is teaching.


Glasser, W. (1986). Control theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R.T. (1975). Learning together and alone: Cooperation, competition, and individualization. Englewood Ciffs,NJ: PrenticeHall.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson. R T, et al (1986). Circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom. Washington DC: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. P. (1982). Joining together: Group theory and group skills. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Slavin. R. E. (1983). Cooperative learnning. New York: Longman.

Wassermann, S., & Ivany, J. W. G. (1988). Teaching elementary science: Who's afraid of spiders. New York: Harper & Row.

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