Friday, July 5, 2013

Surviving The Harry Potter Classroom

It's summer, the time when teachers start to second-guess themselves and their teaching. They read articles and research teaching methods. Let's try CoolMath's Cooperative Learning Article which starts with a StrawMan argument and slides downhill from there. I'm not exaggerating. Here's paragraph 2:
"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.”
Really? Haven't seen many traditional classrooms, have you? Ever been in a New England Private School? Ever seen a public school? Apparently this author has watched Snape.
"I've been teaching math for about 14 years (writing this in summer 2005) at the community college level. But, these methods will all work with middle and high school kids too."
Sure, they'll work just as well because you said so? Because we all know that 19 and 20-year-old college kids in a community college remedial class behave and respond exactly as 12-14 year-olds in honors algebra I?

What are these magical methods? Collaborative Learning, because, according to research, "It is Bandura’s theory that interactive, collaborative projects help build self-efficacy and introduce new patterns of behavior.(Klinger, 1999)"

Well, I feel all better now.

Any hooo, let's introduce "Survivor Algebra." Put your class into Tribes! Have them collaborate! Compete!

Give them mathy names (these are copyrighted, no less): Newtongon, Quotiedor, Numa, Pascalos, Calcula, Fractoanan, Subtracto, Pentanos, Arithmatog, Decimos, Algekor, Quadraticus, and Additron.

They have to work together! Their teammates help them! Everyone is motivated!

Or not.
Students are put into tribes/districts that will last the school year. Everything they do matters to the tribe. Everything that normally happens in the classroom: group work, discussion, problem solving, quizzes, tests, neatness, homework, good questions, good behavior, good attendance, etc is now a chance to win game pieces.
1) We take kids and arbitrarily divide them into groups that will last for the entire course, whether they like it or not. Whether they want to or not.
  • Suppose my "teammates" can't learn as quickly as I. I therefore have to "help" them, but I don't want to be the teacher. That is not my role and I shouldn't be forced to do it. I'm in the middle of learning this and I don't quite know it well enough for me to be doing the teacher's job.
  •  Suppose my "teammates" aren't motivated and spend a lot of time talking about other things instead of simply getting to work? A 12-yo is not going to be able to influence an unmotivated 14-yo and will not have the "leadership" skills to overcome it.
  • Suppose you mix girls and boys together ... the belief is that everyone's the same, right? Will you also require the boys to shut up occasionally or will you let the girls all take a subordinate role if that's what develops? Are you ready to separate by gender? 
  • How about racial quotas - every team has to have 1 black kid, 3 white kids, and 1 Asian ... so the Asian kid can balance the black kid? Are you sure you want to open this nasty can of worms?
  • Which group gets the special ed kids and who does their work? Kids can tolerate having a para help out but not if it affects a grade or helps another group get more points.
2) Group grades:
  • A teacher basing a student's grade in any way on the work ethic and understanding (or lack thereof) of any other student is immoral and wrong. Except for Hogwarts.
  • A student's transcript should be based solely on what that student knows or can do or has accomplished.
  • Group work is useful and valuable when you are doing work but most of the time, students are not doing "work" ... they are learning.This is an important distinction.

3) Group dynamics will also get into the mix. Watch Survivor and follow the changes team members undergo while being with their teams. Check out Big Brother and see the same thing.

There's a reason why the Hogwarts students are divided into houses. For those who didn't realize, Slytherin values ambition, cunning and resourcefulness, a little cold and calculating, maybe a touch immoral; Gryffindor values bravery, daring, nerve, and chivalry; Hufflepuff values hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play rather than a particular aptitude in its members; and Ravenclaw values intelligence, knowledge, and wit. Rowling wanted everyone to know who the bad guys were.

If you force students into a group, the students will take on the qualities of that group, usually the qualities of the most outgoing or loudest member. Success by the group becomes the success of the individual. Likewise failure. Rivalries will begin to dominate. Differences will be exaggerated: Ohio fans hate Michigan fans for no apparent reason ... the same thing will happen here.

Any special treatment given to one group will antagonize the rest, even if the reward was "earned". Punish one member for being sloppy and you'll set them against each other. Any reward that was earned unfairly ("They have Jason. He knows everything.") will ensure that everyone hates the smart kids ...
... and the banner at the front of the room will remind them every day 
exactly who those smart kids are.

Remember the arm-band experiment? Yeah.

4) Everything they do will be known to their classmates, good or bad. Every grade, every assignment, every assessment. Besides being a breach of privacy, it will lay pressure on those who handle it least well and it will generate the kind of bullying and peer pressure that we should never allow. A weak student is an anchor every single day to other students that he otherwise enjoys working with - he'll know and they'll know it.

5) Everything is scored. From neatness to "good questions", discussion to behavior, everything is measured, whether the child has control over it or not.
  • Homework is practice and should not be graded. 
  • If you want the good students to be asking all the questions, score the behavior. They'll be happy to scrounge points from you this way. 
  • "Problem-solving"? You won't see the entire group solving anything - the smart kids will make sure they're first and right.

Every point will count and they'll make sure that you give them every one. So will their parents. God help you if you put the future valedictorian with anyone who will lower his score.

You've changed the emphasis from learning to scoring points. Points indicate what you value. Do you value understanding math or writing neatly, knowledge or copied homework, math ability or teamwork, promptness and a pencil or being able to calmly consider a new problem in a thoughtful way?

Why should math class be a horserace anyway? Must we have a winner and a bunch of losers?

So here's the bottom line.
  1. Have the occasional competition, but don't make it the point of the class.
  2. Don't make any student responsible for another.
  3. Don't tie grades to group work.
  4. Don't score anything that's not important. 
  5. Don't divide the group against itself.


  1. Maybe we can try the group approach to Sex Education?


  2. I don't think you really know what Survivor Algebra is about. Students do not share grades. They do share an opportunity to earn extra-credit, but that is about it. Also, tribes are not created arbitrarily.