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Group Productivity Enhances Joyful Learning
Brian M. Pack
Science Educator and Researcher
A Modest Beginning
Those Monday after school faculty meetings were a real drag, and so you
can imagine how we felt when our principal announced, "Kathy from our
middle school is going to discuss the merits of cooperative learning"
at 5 pm. Notwithstanding, she was enthusiastic and eloquent as she
expounded on the benefits and some of the strategic elements during her
A walk down the hallway in the following months revealed clusters of
students working cooperatively on assignments in a few classrooms. I
decided to try this approach to teaching and learning, and so had my
chemistry students put their desks together to complete fifteen-minute
tasks from time to time. They worked in an industrious manner, perhaps
finding the group work to be novel. I wasn't sure about cognitive gains
but saw it as a nice change of pace from my being the center of
attention the entire period.
As with many educational innovations, the number of teachers using
cooperative learning in our school diminished. I began to see value in
it, however, in the months and years ahead, usually with short
worksheet assignments after a presentation. As a chemistry teacher,
collaboration was normal because students were paired in the laboratory
and thus were accustomed to the cooperative mode about twice per week
while manipulating apparatus, collecting data, as well as retrieving
reagents or weighing samples.
After a student remarked sarcastically that it would be nice to do
graded quizzes in a collaborative manner, I followed suit and arranged
for such a process in groups of three. In time, all quizzes were done
in this manner. Either distributed around the lab stations or in desk
clusters around the room, students were noticeably engaged and never
balked when quizzes were given. Furthermore, as you would expect, the
grades were considerably higher than were grades from individual
I became particularly sensitive to the cognitive gains in this area and
established a collaborative 'how to' agenda that explained the value of
teamwork and how everyone benefits from the process. Only in rare
instances would a student complain that classmates were not
collaborating. I would typically see three-person modules with heads
hunched over, in close proximity, sharing wisdom to derive answers.
I found this method very beneficial and that it could be done up to
three times per week. It provided a comprehensive and considerably
faster review of homework compared to doodling at the board. More
importantly, cooperative quizzes amplified engagement considerably and
the long-term effect manifested in a better understanding of the
curriculum. Scores on unit tests and final exams increased. Further,
the stronger students received praise for their leadership and everyone
derived a feeling of inclusiveness. As an educator I was particularly
pleased because significant engagement occurred and with it a universal
sense of ownership of my content area.
Recent Research Has Revealed Why I Had Success in this Area
Why did my students flourish in this setting? Brain scans have
elucidated the profound effects of socialization on different regions,
particularly memory. Here are a few recent studies.
1. Brains Synchronize
Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson, Professors of Psychology at Princeton
University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan
the spatiotemporal brain of people as they read a story into a tape recorder. The researchers then scanned people that listened to
the recorded story. What they found was that the listeners' brain
pattern mirrored the speaker's. In some cases it coincided perfectly,
as if the listener was anticipating the words. The experimenters found
that those research subjects who demonstrated higher comprehension of
the narrative had remarkably similar scans, or what they referred to as
high neural coupling. Stephens and Hasson concluded that coupling
crossed many brain areas "aligning with phonetic, phonological,
lexical, syntactic, and semantic representations as well as processing
social information crucial for successful communication, including,
among others, the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals
2. Face-to-face Proximity Amplifies
A team from Beijing Normal University investigated the neural
consequences of face-to-face communication by comparing brain scans
with Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). Four male–male
pairs and six female–female pairs were each scanned during four task
sessions sitting: (1) face-to-face with dialog, (2) face-to-face with
only one speaker, (3) back-to-back with dialog, and (4) back-to-back
with only one speaker. They found a significant neural synchronization
increase in the left inferior frontal cortex, or language and sound
processing center, only in the face-to-face dialog scenario.2
3. Eye Contact Sets Off Neuronal Activity
The midbrain's amygdala receives a vast array of sensory signals from
the environment and makes determinations that have emotional contexts
based on potential threat. By targeting 318 individual neurons in the
amygdala of three Rhesus macaques, Katalin Gothard, a neurophysiologist
at the University of Arizona in Tucson, noted that twelve percent
selectively changed their firing rate when the subject fixated on the
eyes of monkeys in movies. They contend that most amygdala neurons are
category-selective in that they respond differently to monkey faces,
human faces, and objects. The human context is that we process
another's gaze as the first line of information by eye-sensitive
amygdala neurons about external cues such as objects, events, and
individuals, along with internal cues like emotions, beliefs, desires,
and intentions. From the classroom perspective, students build trust
and friendship with teammates with a repetition of this instructional
4. Rapid Communication Promotes Productivity and Camaraderie
Dr. Alex Pentland, computer science professor at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, used a small device (about the size of a cell
phone) called a sociometer, strapped over a person's shoulder, that
captured an assortment of data from infrared, sound, and movement
detectors. The combination of signals from the sociometer were received
by a computer and quantified to derive what Pentland calls honest
social signaling. From a compilation of a group's workday data using
mathematical algorithms, an assessment of the company's network
intelligence was compiled. They amassed data from hundreds of
participants from many venues and found that groups are at peak
productivity when they:
Accrue a large number of ideas: many short contributions rather than a few long ones;
Their interactions include responsive comments (such as "good," "that's
right," "what?" etc.) to validate or invalidate the ideas and build
Accumulate a diversity of ideas and reactions. 4,5
Improving the Model
Sensing that collaborative work was having a significant effect on the
achievement level of my students across the board, I built a pedagogy
that apportioned time for group work. At the start of the school year I
stressed the value of collaborative learning and established guidelines
that emphasized camaraderie and task efficiency. Furthermore I
developed a script of comments that students could use to guide their
work 'statements' and asked them to develop their own script that
encouraged member participation. I also monitored their progress and
made recommendations. In time, the groups became autonomous and
productive. Students simply liked being in the collaborative setting to
complete a wide array of tasks.
Take It to Another Level
Eventually, students worked collaboratively not just on quizzes
but also on test review guides coupled with student-led chalkboard
The most daring application was eliminating the one month
teacher-led review before the Advanced Placement Exam and replacing it
with an almost exclusively team collaboration using well-crafted review
guides and even laboratory experiences. Scores on that national test
went up across the board.
Laboratories were done in pairs but teams could check with other
classmates on data collection and interpretation. I incorporated more
elaborate experiments to accommodate this full-range collaborative lab
Students made group presentations to the entire class on a wide array of tasks and topics.
In some courses, students took their final exam in a team format.
Many students from the poorest demographic in the Milwaukee area
came to my weekly after-school mentoring program, and improved their
academic performance in their school through tutoring and social
interactions with my students.
I saw young people who were relaxed, smiling, encouraging one another
to understand the material fully, and employing a full range of prosody
and gestures not observed in row settings. In general, they were
completing tasks and having fun with their peers expressing ideas
without fear, able to ask questions that they might not offer in the
teacher directed situation. It was participation to the highest degree.
Did I Abandon Lecturing?
No. It continued to be the starting point for many lessons, but
expedited within a time window that allowed students to attend to other
tasks individually or in groups for the rest of the period.
Anticipating a collaborative element, students were very focused during
the teacher presentation to assimilate core knowledge for the
subsequent tasks. Moreover, students developed a greater
respect for me because they recognized that I trusted them to
manage their learning and goals. Whole period lecturing was no longer a
The American education system is often criticized these days, and blame
is distributed to many parties. In my judgment, using strict autocratic
means to control behavior by maintaining equidistant rows minimizes
content area mastery and favors the auditory-able students. I found
that this pedagogy was labor intensive and did not take into account
the full range of learning styles of my students as well as any
discipline concerns brought on by monotony. Building a strong
collaborative system changed all that, and bolstered the comprehension,
enjoyment, and achievement levels of everyone in the class.
My colleagues were good content area facilitators but many petered out
of the collaborative realm because they were accustomed to the
chalk-and-talk methods experienced in their formative years. I hung on
in the early going because collaborative learning seemed to be a good
way to break up the tedium for both the students and myself. However,
it was extended so that they could experience nearly full control of
the learning atmosphere and pace of the lesson. They were rewarded with
the enjoyment that goes with brain enhancement accompanied by
socialization and eye contact. They liked coming to chemistry class. It
was a risk worth taking and I hope my colleagues will do likewise.
Research supports it.
Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L.J., & Hasson, U. (2010).
Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved 5/11/2016 from http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1008662107.
Jiang, J., Dai, B., Peng, D., Zhu, C., Liu, L., & Lu, C.
(November, 2012). Neural synchronization during face-to-face
communication. The Journal of Neuroscience.
Mosher, C., Zimmerman, P., & Gothard, K. (2014). Neurons in
the monkey amygdala detect eye contact during naturalistic social
interactions. Current Biology.
Pentland, A. (2008). Honest signals: How they shape our world. Boston: Bradford.
Pentland, A. (2014). Social physics: How good ideas spread—The lessons from a new science. USA: Penguin.
taught secondary school science in Wisconsin, including physics and AP
Chemistry, and received the United States Presidential Scholar Teacher
Award and the Siemens Advanced Placement Teacher of the Year Award. He
served as head grade level advisor, and coached both football and cross
country. He was a community advocate, and coached the six-time state
champion Academic Decathlon team. He did numerous stints at research
institutes in molecular biology and biochemistry.
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