Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Cooperative Learning and Media Literacy

This was week number eight of fourteen of my D'Youville experience, officially marking the second half of the academic portion of teacher's college. I had a number of assignments due this week (more on that below) and I wrote a midterm exam in Learning Theories (a.k.a. Introduction to Educational Psychology). This exam caused a lot of stress for most of my classmates, primarily because of the highly abstract nature of the subject matter. I feel good about my performance on the exam and when I couple that with the marks I've received thus far, things are going just as I hoped.

Mind you, I find it difficult to imagine that the grades I receive in this programme will make any difference whatsoever in my job prospects—I have been placing a greater importance on the process then the results and I think that will pay high dividends both during the interview process and when I'm working in the classroom.

To follow-up from last week's post about the little social we had in residence: a number of people received letters from the residence administration regarding noise infractions and other transgressions. These little surprise notes just sweetened the memory of the get together, adding a humorous feeling of deviance to the whole affair. You will be relieved to hear that I did not receive a warning and my record is still squeeky clean. (Whew!)

On the academic front and beyond the Learning Theories exam (which seemed to dominate all conversations), two themes emerged. The methods and utility of cooperative learning and media literacy were discussed in a number of classes this week.

The subtleties of implementing cooperative learning, which is also known as group work, was the subject of both my Reading and Writing Across Content Areas and Curriculum Planning courses. When students are asked to work in small groups issues of personal responsibility, methods of assessment, trust among students, role assignment, and when to use groupwork all emerge in a way that needs to be addressed. After almost six hours of instruction and discussion on this matter its clear to me that, as with everything else in this business, a group activity which is not properly planned by the teacher will result in students failing to acheive the educational goals of the lesson.

It is very important that as the organizer of the activity, the teacher needs to have a clear idea of how all students in the group are going to participate or at the very least learn the content. The dual emphasis on individual student responsibility for the content and shared responsibility for every member of the group being involved is key to this. The way to ensure that both priorities are met is through a properly conceived activity plan and assessment. To my mind, the assessment phase of the work—whether that is a presentation, a report, unit test, etc.—is where the individual responsibility pays out, but it does not guarantee that every member of the group will actually learn what they need to. The planning I've described above is definitely the science part of the process, the art comes with figuring out how to create an atmosphere of trust and shared responsibility among students that may or (more likely) may not be friends. I think that if the class is conducted in a manner which promotes these ideals, the planning pays off double.

For the record, the five tenets of cooperative learning (according to Professors McClary and Traverse) are:

  • Positive Interdependence - everyone in the group is needed and needs all others
  • Individual Accountability - each person must be able to demostrate knowledge
  • Promotive Interaction - creation and maintenance of trust in the group
  • Interpersonal Training - teaching skills like eye contact, active listening, complimenting, etc.
  • Group Processing - self evaluation of the group work process

Finally, I want to just quickly touch on media literacy in the high school curriculum. I wrote a little reflectiion piece on this issue based on some readings that I received in my Social Studies Methodology class and one really important idea emerged for me. As a future history/computer science/APS/philosophy teacher I'm thinking more and more about strategies and content that will work across curriculum areas, and I think that media literacy is a very effective magic bullet here.

Though media literacy has typically been handled by English departments, I think that including a media unit in any content area would be a huge boon. It stimulates critical discussions, it allows for analysis of current and controversial topics using a structured methodology, and I think it is incredibly important for today's students in a way that it wasn't 20 years ago. Arming students with a critical eye toward media of every kind arms them with the ability to handle the vast amount and variety of information they are faced with every day.

Read the report!