The Cooperative-Communal Classroom–>Insights from Nature

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

The rationale for establishing cooperative-communal classrooms can be linked to the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and the work of two Russian scientists of the 19th and early 20th Century, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945), and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921).  I know that this appears strange, but as you read ahead I hope you will see how my thinking was influenced by not only my experiences as a teacher, but my collaboration with colleagues in the U.S. and in Russia.

Anatoly Zaklebney, ecologist and science educator who worked with students and teachers during the era of glasnost and perestroika.
Anatoly Zaklebney, Russian ecologist and science educator.

I started visiting Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1981, and continued for the next twenty years making one or two trips per year collaborating with teachers, researchers, scientists, students and parents.  After several years of building trust and friendship with Russian colleagues (by sending and receiving delegations of teachers and researchers, teaching in each other’s classrooms, and holding open-ended discussions about teaching, and drinking lots of coffee and tea), we created a project that connected students, ecology, and the Internet into what became known as the Global Thinking Project–a kind of hands-across-the-globe environmental science project.  Cooperation was a central tenet of our work.  There was no attempt to Americanize Russian education; instead, we hoped to build a form of collaboration to enhance teaching and learning in each country’s classrooms touched by our work.  Our model was to join classrooms–the class–from one country to the other, for collaborating on one of several ecological and environmental projects that would be carried out using “project-based learning.”

GTP classrooms in Russia, and the U.S. had only one computer per classroom connected to the telecommunications network we established with the help of Gary Lieber, on loan to us from Apple. We actually carried on a flight to Moscow, six Macintosh SE 20 computers, printers, and 2400-baud modems. With this equipment, phone lines and a connection to SOVAM, a telecommunication’s company in Moscow, we linked six Russian and six American schools using email and bulletin boards.

Collaborative teams within each classroom were essential in the GTP, and as a result we had years of experience working with schools that experimented with cooperative-communal classroom learning.

We documented our work in a variety of publications including: Environmental Science on the Net,  The AHP Soviet Exchange Project, Teaching Students to Think Globally, Citizen Scientists, The Emergence of Global Thinking Among American and Russian Youth, and other research.

In time many other teachers and researchers joined with us including, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

Thinking in Wholes: Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

In 1988 I met Anatoly Zaklebny, a professor of ecology and ecological education, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, Moscow.  Dr. Zakhlebny was a principal leader in ecological education in Russia, and had led many excursions into Siberia to give “field-camp” type experiences for science teachers.  He also developed ecological curriculum for schools throughout Russia.  He argued that science curriculum should be interdisciplinary, helping students experience connections not only among disparate fields in science (biology and chemistry, biology and geology, and so forth), but with politics, social science, and history.
Dr. Zaklebny introduced us to the ideas of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, a 19th Century Russian scientist.  At the time, most of us in the West were unaware of what Vernadsky had taught about the Earth.  Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years.  To Vernadsky life makes geology.  To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.”  Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.  As Dr. Lynn Margulis, and colleagues stated in the introduction to the first English translation of Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere, Vernadsky showed us the way to understand how life and non-life are connected.  They wrote:

He illuminates the difference between an inanimate, mineralogical view of Earth’s history, and an endlessly dynamic picture of Earth as the domain and product of life, to a degree not yet well understood. No prospect of life’s cessation looms on any horizon. What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all-through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere-connected in space.

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study.   This is especially true for the science curriculum.

But Here’s the Thing.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been criticized for their lack of attention to interdisciplinary curriculum, and the role of schools in preparing students for citizenship. Professor William Wraga suggests that “disciplinary myopia” has led to standards that are overly technical and steeped in discipline concepts, processes and practice. He suggests, and we would agree, that interdisciplinary curriculum can lead to greater understanding by seeking connections among the disciplines. S-T-S, science-related social issues, and a lived curriculum should be starting points for a science curriculum; unfortunately this is not the case in the new science framework.

Wraga also focuses in on the unfortunate single purpose of schooling as depicted in the common standards, and that is that education should be in the service of economic interests. We see this in news reports each Spring when test scores are released which typically lead to “a sky is falling” mentality amongst chief school officers, governors, and other politicians. Repeated attention to international test results leads to unfounded comparisons among countries. Wraga sees this as a narrow function of schooling, and wonders why vocational, social, civic, cultural, and each goal give way to a single goal, which he identifies as the academic goal.

The same criticisms can leveled at the framework for science education in that National Research Council’s Framework as it is steeped in a disciplinary approach to content. In fact, the word “interdisciplinary” is found only twice in the framework, and one of these was part of one of the committee member’s biography. The science framework is neatly organized into four traditional content areas: life, earth, and physical science, as well as engineering and technology. The framework does name cross-cutting ideas, but this is not at all what science educators would view as anything remotely close to interdisciplinary curriculum.  The Framework was the basis for the NGSS.

We need to teach science that is rich in connections not only within the traditional disciplines of science, but the connections with and among social studies, politics, economics, history, and geography.   Charlene M. Czerniak, in a chapter entitled “Interdisciplinary Science Teaching” in The Handbook of Research on Science Education, an advocate for “integrated curriculum,” reports that there are challenges to implementing interdisciplinary curriculum.  Even though interdisciplinary approaches have been around for a long time, the 1996 Science Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards, still organize the standards into each discipline of science.  There is very little attempt to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

Perhaps what we need is a Vernadskian curriculum theorist and practitioner who will apply integrated approaches, especially if we think that this kind of curriculum might be more relevant to students, and might indeed focus on problems that would be of interest to our students.

The Place of Cooperation in Evolution : Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin and Charles Darwin

Wordle on Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin

The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics is a new book written by Lee Alan Dugatkin an evolutionary biologist and historian of science and a professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville.  Dr. Dugatkin’s book should be of interest to scientists, and science educators, but I think also the corporate reformers that I wrote about in the last blog post.  Dugatkin writes about the science and politics of Peter Kropotkin, and it is the science that I think should be reading for all interested in improving teaching and learning of the youth of the species, Homo sapiens.
As Dugatkin writes, Kropotkin was a brilliant scientist, who spent years studying nature in Siberia.  As a young man, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, his travels to Siberia began a life of exploration, writing, publishing, editing, and activist politics.  As Dugatkin points out, the evolutionary theory of the late 19th Century suggested tha the natural world was a “brutal” place; indeed, competition was the driving force.  Kropotkin expected that he would find examples of the brutalness of nature, but instead he found the opposite.  Lee Alan Dugatkin writes:

And so, in the icy wilderness, Peter expected to witness nature red in tooth and claw. He searched for it. He studied flocks of migrating birds and mammals, fish schools, and insect societies. What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every corner of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution” (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

And during his studies in Siberia, he visited peasant villages, and in them he saw their sense of community and coöperation.  According to Dugatkin, Kropotkin as a young scientist “witnessed human coöperation and altruism in its purest form.”

These observations presented a problem to the Russian scientist.  As an advocate for natural selection (as discovered by Darwin and Wallace), as the driving force that shaped life on the earth, he began to question the way Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented, especially by British scientists.  Even today, most people misinterpret Darwinian evolution by invoking the term “survival of the fittest” as the fundamental idea of evolution.  It is not.  Dugatkin writes:

Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. Natural selection favored societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favored such actions. Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term—progressive evolution—to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

Instead of using the attribute of coöperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Unfortunately, much of the rationale for this standards/high-stakes testing is based on the flawed theory that to compete in the global market place, we need to beat the drums and make sure that students attain a set of goals that may or not be related their own futures.  Using a behavioral and at best traditional model of knowledge attainment, instruction is geared to the teach to the test model.  All outcomes of this approach are measured by how people do on high-stakes testing.

Instead of recognizing that scientists have moved way beyond the simple model of knowledge transmission and have invented a new field of study, called the learning sciences, schools are stuck in the older model.  The so-called reformers of education want only one thing: Higher test score.  The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field of study embracing disparate fields including cognitive sciencecomputer scienceeducational psychologyanthropology, and applied linguistics.  What is significant here is the notion of interdisciplinary study.  Vernadsky and Kropotkin uncovered new connections among various fields of study, and indeed, Vernadsky might be considered one of the earliest scientists to invent interdisciplinary fields including “biogeochemistry,” and “geomicrobiology.”  Kropotkin established that brought together various fields of study to develop a common thread or theme–the scientific law of mutual aid, which brought the fields together.  As Kugatkin in the Prince of Evolution writes:

This law boils down to Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction that what we today would call altruism and cooperation—but what the Prince called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use coöperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

What do you think about all of this?  Do you accept Kropotkin’s idea that mutual aid or coöperation played a major part in the evolution?  Does this have any application for teaching?  And what do you think of Vernadsky’s conception of thinking in wholes, and making connection among disparate fields?


Peter Kropotkin was also a famous political activist.  His travels to Siberia, and experiences with peasant villages led him to “give up on government,” and instead believe that it would be better to have no government.  He joined an activist group in St. Petersburg whose goal was to work with peasants and tell them of labor movements in Europe, and to educate them.  Remember, Peter was from an aristocratic family, and as such, he dressed as a peasant and traveled around spreading the ideas that government was evil, and that people would “naturally” coöperate and solve problems better than any government (See  Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics (p. 23). . Kindle Edition).  Although imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul Prison in 1874,he was able to receive books, and with the help of the Russian Geographic Society, and his brother’s plea to the Czar, Peter was able to receive paper and pen to continue writing.  He escaped from a low security prison in 1876, and fled to England.  Follow this link to The Prince of Evolution to find out more about his political activities in England, mainland Europe and America.



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.

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?

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