Why Cooperative-Communal Classrooms Trump Competitive-Corporate Classrooms?

There are a lot of people in the U.S. who think that the only way you can decide whether students learn is with a test.  In fact, Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, has decided to get involved in education in Texas.  Being a guru on testing, he backs the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) system, which calls for end-of-year exams in most high school courses.

Bush said this about testing:

If Texas taxpayers are going to invest in the classroom facilities and personnel to provide students with a physics or history class, it follows that they have the right to know how much students learned about physics or history.

He goes on to say that “the anti-accountability activists discuss ideas for improving schools, but ironically — without testing — lack a credible system of evaluation to judge whether they succeeded or failed.”  Bush thinks that the only way that teachers know if their students are learning is give them a test.  The research on assessment does not support this idea, but in today’s culture of schooling, that doesn’t count (no pun intended).

To their credit, Texas has not adopted the Common Core State Standards, but teachers are still held to an “assessed curriculum, grades 3 – 12.  The tests are based on categories of standards in each content area, and the tests are mostly multiple-choice questions.  For example the end-of-year test in chemistry has 52 multiple-choice questions. Each course ends with a year-end competition largely made up of simple and complex multiple choice questions.  This hardly comes close to “measuring” science inquiry or problem solving, important goals for all students.

So that brings us to the point of this blog post.  Let’s start with an analogy.

Competition is to Cooperation as: 

A) Biology : Contention
B) Business : Sport
C) Conservative : Progressive
D) Empathy : Community

Did you choose “C,” conservative : progressive?   Two models of teaching dominate teaching.  One is fixed in competition.  Conservatives like this model.  The other is grounded in coöperation.  Progressives like this one.

I am going to argue that the values that are implicit in coöperation and progressivism trump the values that ground competition and extreme conservatism.  In school, social interaction, interpersonal relationships,  and collaboration should be the foundation for teaching and learning.

Lets take a look.

Competition and Extreme Conservatism—->The Corporate Model

Having the competitive edge, being able to compete with peers around the world, and reducing the lagging achievement of U.S. students, especially in math and science are front and center for the current cohort of school reformers.  Competition and extreme conservatism lead to a corporate model of teaching.

Their reasoning is sustained by conservative values.  In their mind, how American student do on national assessments such as NAEP and international assessments including TIMSS and PISA answers the question, How are American students doing?  According to the corporate reformers, tests are the only way to answer the question.

As we have said on this blog, these reformers how American students compete in the global economy is the most important result of schooling.  To monitor student learning, these reformers have convinced the American public that the only way to be sure that the cows are getting fatter is to keep measuring them.    Learning in school has been reduced to teaching to the test, and the narrowing of the curriculum.

Competition

Figure 1. Corporate Classrooms

At the international level U.S. students are compared to nations that are very different in culture and size, yet reformers use the rankings in their assessment of science and mathematics education.  Its kind of envy syndrome in that in American culture being number one is the important mantra, especially in sport’s competitions, and now in international achievement test competitions.  If you look further into the concept of envy, it might help us understand the unreasonable emphasis on competition.  One definition is that envy is the propensity to view the well-being of others with distress.  Or envy is pain at the good fortune of others.  In the context of international tests, we probably have a superiority complex, and so when we see other countries’ students scoring higher than U.S. students, what’s a conservative to do?

At the school level, it’s even worse.  Schools, teachers and students are held accountable to some bureaucratic committee’s end-of-year high-stakes tests, like the ones mentioned above when I talked about Texas.   The nature of instruction, the way teachers interpret curriculum, and conservative values create a model of schooling that is narrow and stressful.  Since the No Child Behind Act, a system was put in place that makes it possible for bureaucrats to set up a climate in which schools, students and teachers can fail.

As seen in Figure 1, a variety of words and phrases describe the corporate classroom.  Some of the idea include rivalry, bout, go-for-the-gold, race (to the top?), warfare, fight, tournament. In what way do these ideas affect our classrooms?

Common standards, high-stakes tests, and measuring teacher performance on the basis of high-stakes tests establishes an educational system that is the antithesis of education in a democratic society.  This creates an authoritarian system of education with power concentrated at the top of various hierarchies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, and the various state department’s of education.

If you look the data that the Georgia Department of Education reports on its website on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), you will find state, system and school summaries.  These summaries are Excel spreadsheets of  test scores, and the percentage of students that did not meet, that met, and that exceeded the “standard.”  You can find data for each grade level, for each school system, and every school in the state by grade level and content area.  You can have a lot of fun with these spread sheets.  You can rank order the school districts in the state based on CRCT scores.  You can also scrutinize each school system, and find the “best” and the “worst” performing schools.

The standards have a powerful impact on the day-to-day actions of teachers and students.  They are based on the CRCT.  Dr. Carolyn Wallace  speaks to these issues in a study,  Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.   Wallace found that the authoritarian system of education in Georgia impeded teaching and learning. An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, and were not part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are not participants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, first. That was done by élite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace cites research studies that document the harmful effects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on teachers and students, and especially students-at-risk. Wallace shows that NCLB has diminished teachers abilities to work professionally to interpret curriculum as it relates to the needs of their students. Wallace suggests that there is a consensus that the content and product nature of the standards (or curriculum) limits teachers’ pedagogy in that teaching becomes “less diverse, less contextualized, and less creative.” Teachers must teach the same material because it is discrete, and will be on the test.

The corporate model reformers are working very hard, and with a lot of money to privatize education, and remove the word “public” from public education.  There has been an outright assault on schools, administrators and teachers by the conservative reformers, and they have done a very good job of turning our schools into yearly achievement test competitions.

In George Lakoff’s book, The Little Blue Book, there is a chapter on public education, and how crucial education is for democracy.  Lakoff, however, points out that education is moving in a direction in which money is determining the nature of “public” education, and that  danger lurks.  He writes:

Given this understanding of education, it is natural to view even public education as a business. Schools whose students get good test scores are profitable. Teachers of those good students bring in profit and, like executives who earn bonuses, deserve merit pay. Schools whose students regularly get bad test scores are unprofitable and considered failing schools. Like divisions of companies that lose money, they can be closed down, and just as managers whose divisions regularly lose money stand to get fired, so do teachers whose students don’t get high-test scores.

The belief that students can only be motivated to learn through competition is a dangerous path to follow.  As Ed Johnson pointed out in a guest post on this blog, competition is the life-blood of the way much of schooling is arranged.  The use of grades, prizes, money, stars, happy-faces, and the like are all examples of the use of competition to “reward” the winners.  Here is what Ed Johnson had to say about how competition in learning such a destructive force in learning and teaching.  He writes here about an experience he had as a judge for a Social Science Fair in Georgia.  He says:

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

We need to step back and look at the unintended consequences of using competition within and between classrooms, teachers, and schools.  Do we want to think of education as a process in which some are winners, and the others are losers?  I don’t think so.

Let’s take a look at an alternative.

Cooperation and Progressive Values—->The Communal Model

We often assume that Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of the concept of natural selection, would name competition as the most important trait for survival for human being.  George Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling discuss Darwin’s ideas about coöperation and write that,  “Darwin explicitly described empathy and coöperation, and not competition, as natural traits of humans and animals and as central to the survival of animal species.”

In fact, Darwin argued that empathy is crucial to species survival.  He said this about empathy:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races  (quoted in Lakoff, 2012).

Figure 2. Cooperation

Figure 2. Communal Classrooms

Cooperative and empathic values should characterize classroom teaching and learning.  We think of classrooms as social learning groups of students and teachers who can work cooperatively to solve problems.  We argue that competition for grades and approvals are not needed to motivate student learning.  In fact, using external motivators like grades and approvals does not motivate students to do anything more than ask, “Is it on the test?”

On the other hand, if students learn that cooperative activities, such as teaching each other, working on small projects together, and discussing and debating relevant content-related issues are relevant, then their attitude toward school, and their understanding of science will be enhanced.

Dr. Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, uses the concept of  the “communal classroom” which involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In an earlier research study, Dr. Emdin collaborated with two of his high school students, Jessica Collins, an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY and has been a student-researcher in science for two years, and hopes someday to be a doctor);  and Lasleen Bennett,an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY.  Lasleen has been a student-researcher for two years. Her favorite subject is mathematics, and she wants to be a doctor, teacher or psychologist.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, the corporate classroom involves students and teacher working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on coöperation and progressive values.

Co-researchers Jessica Collins and Lasleen Bennett comment here on corporate and communal classrooms and give us their insights into life for a studenta in high school classrooms.

Jessica Collins

If things are more communal, you don’t have to worry about who is talking first or who is putting themselves out on the line. We all just talk, figure things out and learn because the classroom is more like part of life. People can get upset or in a bad mood but still figure out how to learn a concept. The communal is pretty much connected to the students’ environment.  You start to see that science is all around you. All of a sudden, everything you see, eat, taste, or hear has something to do with what you are learning in school when it all gets connected.

Under normal circumstances, the teacher gives you information then you have to give the information back. It feels like you are never really learning anything or thinking about it. It’s like we are machines that need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. There are no feelings and no emotions. I feel like if you don’t take care of a machine, it will eventually break down. The process works the same way for students. If you’re treated like a machine, some people will definitely just quit. For some other people, we learn to be more independent. It’s like we are treated like machines but because we go through that, we become strong enough to fix ourselves when we break down.  That is how we learn to survive.

Lasleen Bennett

The major idea that I am getting from what you’ve just said is about the communal and how it’s separate from the corporate. It’s the idea that what we do everyday does make sense and does count and can help the classes. I agree with that point completely. I also see how some people just don’t bother with school being related to the whole idea of being treated like machines. That is why I like being involved in coteaching. It gives me a chance to show that I can understand chemistry or biology enough to pass a test but also lets me teach my friends in a more appropriate manner.

In communal classrooms students’ ideas are accepted, and students are treated with the respect that they deserve, simply as being human beings.  Classrooms that are build around progressive values are more democratic, and more inclusive.  Students feel as if they are participants, not simply recipients of facts and information.  One of the high-school research students, Jessica Collins, speaks to this.  She writes:

The teacher has to be with students and learn their likes and dislikes and then bring what he learns to school to better the lesson. It means that you have to be involved in their lives. The corporate way is different and it really is the way that most of the classes that we are not interested in get run. The students don’t like corporate classes, and that will mean they won’t like the subject. At the end of the school year, the teachers start wondering why the students fail their Regents exams. It’s obvious that the reason is because the class was set up in a way that the students did not want to learn. Teachers should teach in a way that is best for students.  Otherwise, what is the purpose of teaching? The way to teach is about getting your point across in whatever way it takes for the student to understand. For me it’s like, teachers have to see the light whenever they stumble upon the key to their students’ comprehension.

Communal or cooperative classrooms should trump the corporate style of classroom organization that is based on competition and extreme conservative values.  In cooperative classrooms the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Indeed, because of the collaborative nature of cooperative-communal classrooms, there is a greater opportunity for students not only to learn science (or any other subject), but to teach science, and to embody science as a fundamental part of our student’s lived experiences.

In future posts I will describe the communal and cooperative model that I used in more than 30 years of teaching.

What are your ideas on ways to organize school?  Do think cooperative classrooms should trump competitively organized classroom?  Why do you think so?

ResearchBlogging.org

Emdin, C., Bennett, L., & Collins, J. (2007). Exploring the contexts of urban science classrooms. Part 2: The emergence of rituals in the learning of science Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2 (2), 351-392 DOI: 10.1007/s11422-007-9057-x

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

...and I'M STILL FOR HER.

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