Survivor
Algebra:
An Adventure in Cooperative Learning
It was Piaget’s theory that a child develops different
abilities at strictly defined age
levels. (Klinger, 1999) If this were the case, all
students would take Algebra in the 9th grade. But, they
don’t. Many students still need to conquer Algebra while
in college.
In the old and traditional classroom, the teacher would say,
“I will dictate, and you will listen. I will repeat, and
you will recite. I will test, and you will either pass or
fail. This is how it has always been done.” (Ryan
and Klinger, 2002, pg. W11) Somewhere along the way, my
students turned off to this approach. Their confidence is
weak and their study skills are weaker. Bandura believed
that a student’s self perception will influence their
performance, determination, and what they are willing to tackle
in the learning arena. (Klinger, 1999) Grabe and
Grabe state that students frequently use a single study
approach, even when course material and evaluation procedures
very considerably. (2001) Clearly a different
teaching and learning approach is needed.
It is Bandura’s theory that interactive, collaborative
projects help build selfefficacy and introduce new patterns of
behavior. (Klinger, 1999) Thinking and learning are
interactive. (Grabe and Grabe, 2001, pg. 49) Thus,
my cooperative learning method of Survivor Algebra was born.
Based on the TV show, Survivor, students are put into tribes
where they can learn together. They still take individual
exams (which we call “challenges”), but, in order to
motivate optimal interaction, the tribe with the highest average
wins bonus points. (Students can also win bonus points if
each member of their tribe passes a challenge with a 70% or
better.) In an effort to maximize their tribal average
(and win the soughtafter bonus points), most students get
involved with their “tribemate’s” learning. Vygotsky
believed that verbalizing ideas and learning to explain concepts
to classmates strengthens a student’s ability to learn.
(Grabe
and Grabe, 2001, pg. 73) Students are often better able to
help their classmates because young people have a different view
of the world than their parents and teachers had when they were
growing up. (Ryan and Klinger, 2002, pg. W24) I have
certainly found this to be the case. Tribe members
typically develop a real sense of belonging and loyalty. This social learning environment allows the students to share
the responsibility and ease the burden of dealing with a subject
that most of them finding terrifying. (Grabe and Grabe,
2001, pg. 69)
As a teacher, I try to model the learning process though
cognitive apprenticeship, thus, helping inexperienced learners
acquire essential thinking skills. (Grabe and Grabe, 2001,
pg. 69) I strongly agree with Bandura’s thinking:
A teacher
should serve as more than just a role model of how to do things
or how to respond to situations. They should also be
"cheerleaders" and set challenging goals with
realistic, measurable outcomes that make the students feel proud
and successful. (Klinger, 1999) 
The
hands go up when a tribe has a question… And they come up with
some killers! I have found that students who do discovery
learning think of questions that may have never occurred to the
teacher. (As an aside, I definitely do not recommend this
type of teaching for new teachers. Experience is
important.) Overall, my role as a teacher follows
Gardner's design that a teacher is a collaborator rather than a
dispenser of facts. (Klinger, 1999)
For the last two years, Survivor Algebra has been 100%
cooperative learning. I’ve provided the students with a
very studentfriendly curriculum (Coolmath Algebra) and guided
them with deadlines and assistance. However, my methods
are always evolving… This semester, based on my readings
from How People Learn (National Research Council), I’ve added
a small question/lecture session to the beginning of each class
meeting. The research sited in this book shows that the
optimal way for students to learn (and to retain what they’ve
learned) is to
1) 
Read about the topic 
2) 
Struggle with problems on their own 
3) 
THEN, participate in a wellstructured lecture or overview on
the topic. 
Part 2 is the key – without the struggling BEFORE part 3,
students will not fully benefit from the lecture. Studies
also show that items 1 and 3 alone do not promote learning and
the traditional lecturefirst method does not work for the
majority of students.
This
new “introduction” time has become an invaluable opportunity
for learning and evaluation for my students. I use this
time to do the following:
1) 
Give overviews and/or minilectures of what the students have
learned on their own 
2) 
Answer questions 
3) 
Guide them in creating their own study aids 
4) 
Teach them metacognition methods
(Metacognition is the selfassessment process in which the
student is able to assess what he really knows and understands
and what he does not. Often, knowing what we don’t know
is the key to our learning!) 
I
am happily finding that this addition has lessened the shock
that some students feel with such a different approach to
learning. For many, it is their first experience with
selfguided learning. So far, my new approach is going
very well and is getting my desired results.
In closing, my theory is that teaching is all presentation and
attitude… The right presentation can change a student’s
attitude… Then, the learning begins! The majority of my
students are taking math simply to fulfill their general
education requirements. (Actually, they are struggling to
work up to a college level math class to fulfill this
requirement.) The truth is that they will never need or
use the Algebra that I am teaching them and I am quite honest
with them about this fact. So, why do we make all the Art
and English majors take math? Because math trains them to
THINK! Who are the best artists and writers? Those
who can THINK. I don’t teach “Algebra” classes, I
teach classes in “Success Training.” Algebra is simply
the tool I use to train my students to think and to learn.
Survivor Algebra builds their confidence in their ability to
learn. My students won’t just fly, they’ll SOAR!
Here's more information about
using
Survivor Algebra in the Classroom
