Working with the grain

Spread the love

(Another post for newbies especially and anyone else who wants food for thought.)

Hello, new teachers,

Your education professors undoubtedly spent a fair amount of time teaching you to create lessons that involve group work. Cooperative learning has been in style for quite awhile. They may also have taught you methods for managing competition. You have likely been steered away from competition, since competition has winners and losers. Educational theory today doesn’t support creating possible losers, despite the fact that we are constantly gathering data that orders students by test score results from highest to lowest.

I owe this post to a former principal who was also a former football coach. I was teaching two grades in the same classroom that year, very unusual in these times except in rural areas. My classroom had seventh and eighth graders. We were talking about a language-learning strategy and he said, “Good idea. You can have them compete. Seventh graders against eighth graders.”

We did compete. We had fun. I pitted grade against grade and discovered that competition worked much better than I had expected. Bilingual language acquisition went up. The eighth graders usually won, but the seventh graders could win with effort, and effort went up as they tried to capture that language-learning crown. In the meantime, the eighth graders were working hard to avoid the embarrassment of being outlearned by the seventh graders.

Tonight, all across the country, people tuned in to watch the Cubbies and the Mets. We are a country of baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer fans. Sports bars dot the landscape. Sports events command big ticket prices.

Many humans relish competition, even crave it. They like a good fight. They like to explore their own wits and abilities. They will fight to capture a flag for no other reason than because that flag happens to be there, and they want to prove they can reach it first.

Competition often works at least as well as cooperation for learning. Teachers have to be careful to keep sensitive children out of the line of fire, but allowing boys and girls to compete in carefully-structured games and contests can promote learning in a way that cooperative group work does not. Some kids are wired to compete. They take winning seriously, more seriously than they will ever take a role in a cooperative group.

Eduhonesty suggestion: Play Jeopardy. Invent a few board games. Toss a plastic ball around in a game of fraction to decimal hot potato.

We can be too sensitive. If a kid really seems unable to handle losing, then let that kid keep score or work on an independent project. But don’t be afraid to pit the boys against the girls or whatever dynamic would work within your classroom. Most kids like to play games. Supporting that spirit — going with the grain — can net big academic gains.

One important last note for newbies: Shut the game down if behavior gets out of hand. If you want to keep playing games, you will have to be able to control the group while you play. I recommend going over behavioral expectations in advance, especially the ones about not making fun of anyone. Then hold your ground. Pull out individuals who break the rules. If too many kids are ignoring rules, tell the class the game is over and give them desk work. Have homework ready that you can convert into classwork for this purpose.

Games are great, but games can also be challenging to manage. As kids get excited, they begin to push limits. You must make sure the limits hold. Those limits make the fun activities possible.