Published June 2005 • Revised July 2014
Recently, co-operative learning has become more prevalent in the classroom. Students learning in groups or working together on projects has replaced whole class, didactic learning. The goal of peer-mediated learning is to acquire a superior understanding of the material, develop cross-curricular skills like problem-solving, and create an output that would have been otherwise impossible to produce individually, as a result of verbalizations and explanations in the group.
The role of co-operative learning in gifted education is a controversial topic. Effective gifted education should encourage independent learning, respect the student’s interests, and promote their self-esteem (Strip, p. 26). Co-operative learning can encompass all of those aims when employed judiciously but can have numerous negative effects when applied blindly or in a poorly-conceived fashion.
The verdict on co-operative learning is mixed: some have argued that peer-mediation fails to include the flexibility, variety, and independent thinking desired by gifted learners whereas others believe that high ability students can improve as much as lower ability students as a result of group work (Ashman, 2003, p. 90).
On the other hand, high ability learners can profit from the verbal thinking required by co-operative tasks (Hertz-Lazarowitz, p. 258). Participating in groups can have a large positive social impact on gifted students, as teamwork promotes cross-ethnic friendships and tolerance of individual differences (Robinson, p. 117).
Some of the most effective teams are heterogeneous and comprised of students of different ability levels. One of the best features of this arrangement is that the high ability student in each group can help with classroom management (Kagan, p. 6:1). However, when the co-operative activity is not properly structured research has shown that high ability students lose motivation when required to explain an activity to others (Ashman, 2003, p. 90).
A key premise of co-operative learning is that group members are responsible for each other’s learning. Teachers may erroneously assume that gifted learners are more qualified or willing to help other students. In fact, peer mentoring may be repetitive and boring or require social skills that high ability learners may not yet possess (Randall, p. 14). Not all gifted learners are socially adept and many require opportunities to socialize with classmates as peers, instead of as “teacher’s assistants” (Lang, p. 142).
Both types of group structures have pros and cons. When reading group composition is heterogeneous, gifted students gain subject mastery and self-esteem but when the group make-up is homogeneous, the increase is in subject mastery only (Ashman, 2003, p. 90). In some cases, learners at either end of the ability spectrum are prone to disengage or become passive in heterogeneous groups (Robinson, p. 117).
Throughout the field of gifted education, challenging students is a uniform goal. Often, grouping students by ability can help accelerate the curriculum for gifted learners (Reis, p. 38). In homogeneous groups, studies discovered higher-level discussions and greater productivity (Robinson, p. 117). Self-esteem increased in heterogeneous reading groups but fell in homogeneous groups because high ability students feel that they must compete with each other (Armstrong-Melser, p. 315).
When group structure is flexible, for example alternating between heterogeneous and homogeneous groups, the teacher can pick the structure that best suits the activity at hand. Changing groups permits high ability students to learn social and collaboration skills (Armstrong-Melser, p. 315). Discretionary tasks, where the group chooses one of several alternatives, are appealing to high ability learners (Hertz-Lazarowitz, p. 259).
The stereotypical heterogeneous group: one above average student, one below, and two in the middle, can do a disservice to gifted students because those students may be unable or unwilling to articulate how they came about an answer. Furthermore, explaining a concept to another student may refine the understanding of the high ability student but it will not necessarily provide the challenge they desire (Reis, p. 38).
Individual accountability toward the group’s progress is also essential for co-operative learning. If each member of a group is not accountable for their work, group productivity is not maximized (Kagan, p. 4:7). Additive tasks, which required the combined efforts of all team members to succeed, often suffer from reduced productivity if individual contributions are not identified (Hertz-Lazarowitz, p. 259). High ability learners worry about how their mark will be affected by team-mates (Schumm, p. 549) and may complete more than their share to cover for a poor performer (Johnson, p. 60).
Teachers should foster a climate of positive interdependence, where the performance of individuals and teams are positively related to each other (Kagan, p. 4:9). Gifted students may lack a sense of positive interdependence and the teacher may need to devote more time towards group socialization (Johnson, p. 60). Students’ opinions about the value of their contributions and those of others are formed over time.
It is imperative to challenge gifted students and reward their desire to learn (Sternberg, p. 166). Conjunctive tasks, achievable by the lowest member of the group, are often criticized by high ability students and their parents and can be a source of frustration (Hertz-Lazarowitz, p. 259). When all students are not properly challenged, gifted students may still reach the short-term goals of the exercise but they will not obtain the study and problem-solving skills needed to succeed at a higher level (Fiedler, p 108). If gifted learners feel that the task is too easy, they will not work hard and the benefits of working together will not materialize (Hertz-Lazarowitz, p. 259). Often, high ability learners have complained that co-operative learning is boring and group work causes some gifted students to think negatively towards their teachers and schools.
Appropriate co-operative learning task should include challenging activities, articulating one’s views and listening to others, and be relevant to the course and students’ interests (Clarke, p. 49). Interest-based structures permit a team of highly motivated students the freedom to explore a project independently (Randall, p. 14). Grouping students with complimentary skills encourages gifted students to better appreciate their classmates (Johnson, p. 60).
Teams Must Understand Each Other: The Miami Heat won consecutive championships not only because of athletic and skilled players who could play multiple positions but because they shared the same mindset about moving the ball and procuring a good shot for the team. Despite their abilities, this did not happen immediately when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together; coaching – in the form of planning and reflection – and communication enabled them to become nearly unguardable for two seasons.
Proponents of co-operative learning believe it should be used consistently, throughout the school year. This is an inappropriate approach for gifted students, who require experiences from multiple teaching styles (Kaplan, p. 165). Although educators should adapt any pedagogy to the learners in their classroom, teachers of gifted students must be especially careful and modify the co-operative learning activity accordingly.
When utilized indiscriminately, co-operative learning leads to a “dumbing-down” of the curriculum as teachers coach the middle and lower-half of the class, at the expense of gifted students (Stanley, p. 26). This research highlights the necessity that co-operative education comprises only a part of the overall gifted program.
A Supportive Environment
Group work should not be a “hands-off” activity on behalf of the teacher. It is unreasonable to assume that all groups will operate flawlessly. If a teacher hopes that high ability students will help their peers, the teacher should instruct the class in various tutoring methods (Johnson, p. 60). Gifted students possess their own repertoire of learning skills but must be introduced to discipline-specific pedagogy (Kaplan, p. 165).
During the team socialization process, teachers should create a supportive, trusting environment. It may be necessary to monitor high ability learners to discourage condescension or ridicule. When intervening or assisting with group self-evaluation, teachers can take advantage of gifted learners’ meta-cognitive abilities and provide opportunities for reflection (Lang, p. 347-8). Although the development of cross-curricular social skills is important, educators cannot lose sight of the fact that subject mastery is the primary goal of the course (Stanley, p. 11).
There are several pointers that a teacher can follow when first dividing gifted learners into groups, such as grouping students according to personality types; for example pairing an introvert with an extrovert will result in the assertive student dominating, whereas pairing students of each type together will require both to share their ideas. Trust building exercises also develop the team spirit of the group (Grambo, p. 20).
Nurture Leadership: When Tony Parker was a rookie, Gregg Popovich did not provide him much freedom on the court and there was tension between the two. Nevertheless, the lines of communication remained open and a respectful relationship developed. As Parker proved himself as a player and a leader, Popovich delegated more and more responsibility but always provided feedback, such as encouragement when Parker subbed out of the game or additional instructions during a dead ball period. Now, during critical moments of the N.B.A. Finals in the past two seasons, Parker has felt comfortable taking over the Spurs’ huddle to motivate and direct his teammates effectively.
To keep gifted students interested in learning, teachers should make use of all the tools that they are available, including teacher-centered instruction, independent work, and co-operative learning. As noted by gifted researchers David and Roger Johnson: “There are times when gifted students should be segregated for fast-paced accelerated work. There are times when gifted students should work alone. There are times when gifted students should compete to see who is best (Fielder, p. 108).” A few modifications to co-operative learning allow gifted students to achieve cross-curricular social skills in addition to discipline-specific subject knowledge to fully maximize their potential.
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