Cooperative Learning
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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 self-efficacy 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 sought-after 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 student-friendly 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 well-structured 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 lecture-first 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 mini-lectures 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 self-assessment 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 self-guided 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