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Kids' "status differences" impede cooperative learning in classroom

STANFORD -- "Do we need a knife?"

"No. Just leave it."

"Cooking pans? We'll need that."

Two boys, engrossed in a classroom project, are huddled together and turned slightly away from a third as they choose from a list of objects they would most need on a pilgrimage to a shrine in medieval Japan.

The third boy, an African American child of about 10, is bright and intelligent, but his contributions to this "cooperative learning" situation are ignored by the other two. They seem oblivious to his existence - even when they echo his suggestions seconds later. ("That's what I said!" he protests.)

"You need a knife to kill somebody," he finally says, more assertively.

"You need a knife to kill some food," one of the others says, then turns away from him again. The first two boys resume their discussion of whether to choose fruit on their list.

The third boy, defeated, buries his head in his hands in frustration. It's not hard to imagine how, after a few years, such a child might not bother coming to school at all.

This disturbing scene is part of a new Stanford School of Education videocassette, written by education Professor Elizabeth Cohen and produced by Lewis S. Cohen, highlighting "status differences" in classroom learning, and showing what teachers can do to ensure that all children get a chance to learn. The video, "Status Treatments in the Classroom," is to be released this spring by Teachers College Press in conjunction with the second edition of Cohen's book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for Heterogeneous Classrooms.

Local schools included in the film are Selby Lane School in the Redwood City School District, Riverview Middle School in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, Rose Elementary School in the Milpitas School District, and Monroe Middle School in the Campbell Union School District.

Cohen's new tape reveals a hidden side to "cooperative learning." She shows how children can use group learning situations to bully and ignore each other or to override the learning needs of a classmate in a way more blatantly cruel than even the most incompetent teacher.

In short, cooperative learning "can recreate the status inequalities of the larger society within the small group" - especially in classrooms where lack of proficiency in English and differences in academic skills may already make it difficult for some children to participate.

According to Cohen, status problems are rooted in the students' expectations of themselves and others - some students are expected to do well; others perceive themselves, and are perceived by others, to be failures.

Often, for example, one child dominates the group, "doing all the talking" - thus forcing others out of the discussion.

"These different expectations affect how much students participate," Cohen said. Status problems even permeate classrooms where teachers and students have had a lot of training in cooperative work, she says.

How to spot "low-status" kids

Cohen cites several signs that "low-status" kids are being ostracized during group tasks:

"Research shows that the students who talk less during group work actually learn less," Cohen said.

"Many times, teachers mistakenly see low-status students as passive or unmotivated," Cohen said. "In fact, the student is simply unable to get access to the materials or the attention of the group.

"The low-status student shows motivation and intellectual curiosity. The problem is he can't effectively participate. This is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy: Neither the student nor the other members of the group believe he can effectively contribute. So the student actually ends up contributing very little.

"These problems are not unique to younger children; we can also see them in adolescents and adults," she said.

How teachers can help

Cohen stresses that since different expectations are at the root of these classroom problems, teachers who can change the expectations for particular students can influence the behavior of the whole class.

"Students tend to believe evaluations teachers make of them," Cohen said. "When the teacher gives a low-status student a positive and specific evaluation, other students overhear and revise their own opinions."

Teachers also must convince students that each task needs many different intellectual abilities, Cohen said. This requires "rich groupwork tasks" that demand many different skills.

"For example, a task [might ask] students to observe, measure accurately and compare. The tasks must be challenging," Cohen said.

Other tasks might include planning, analyzing, interpreting a diagram, designing an illustration, hypothesizing, acting, predicting, inferring and concluding. All such abilities must be seen and emphasized as important intellectual skills.

Conventional schoolwork will not work, says Cohen, "because every student knows that in these tasks reading, writing and computing are the only things that count."

In one incident, where a Milpitas class is putting together a fragile structure of straws, the teacher, Maria del Rio, singles out for praise a silent Latino boy, quietly working by himself.

"Luis is looking and following a diagram. That's a great ability to have - that's what architects do!" she tells the class. "You can rely on him to make the structure stronger. He's a resource for the group." Then she translates her comments into Spanish, for Luis.

With improved classroom techniques, Del Rio notes later, such low-status children "see that they can help make the group successful. I saw that today with Luis. Everyone saw that he can do something better [than they could] - even if he cannot read or write."

Cohen also notes that it is important that such "positive evaluations" for particular students be sincere and genuine. Attempts solely to manipulate class opinion will likely backfire.

Cohen warns teachers not to try and hoodwink their students: If teachers haven't thought about, and really understood, that different skills are needed for a particular task, they won't be able to persuade their students.

Moreover, "students must be made to believe that each group member is good at one or more of these abilities, but that no one is good at all of them.

"If you can convince students that this is so, you will find that the low-status student will talk more and the high-status student will be less likely to dominate the group."

The result, she says, is improved learning for all the students in the classroom - regardless of academic skills, race, ethnicity or language.



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