How controversial topics inspire deeper learning

A learning specialist shares how her district uses “positive interdependence” to teach students to see the world from multiple perspectives

As a former social studies educator and current learning specialist, my idea of nirvana is to help grow students who can examine issues from multiple perspectives. Getting them to practice that, however, can be a harrowing experience, particularly when the issues up for discussion are controversial. At Horry County (SC) Schools, we have a diverse student population that is approximately two-thirds white, 20 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic, and yet we have found a process that combines cooperative learning with a technological tool to help to deepen thinking about topics as sensitive as racism and segregation—and get students looking at issues through multiple perspectives.

Eight years ago, our district began training teachers in cooperative learning as a strategy to maximize student engagement. At the center of cooperative learning is a framework developed by Spencer Kagan called PIES. PIES stands for:

  • Positive interdependence: everyone in the group depends on each other for a positive outcome
  • Individual accountability: each student is accountable and cannot hide from the learning
  • Equal participation: everyone must participate somewhat close to equally
  • Simultaneous interaction: the number of students interacting at any one moment in time is increased

Cooperative learning training also embeds methods to develop social skills. Part of what we are teaching kids is to be kind to each other, to be empathetic, and to employ positive social behaviors and language.

Our teachers love the training. When we conduct professional development (PD), we rarely have a teacher who doesn’t give the trainer the highest marks. There are even some who say, “This really saved my career, because I was burned out.”

Group work vs. cooperative learning
When I was still in the classroom, I called lots of activities “group work,” but some students hid from the learning while others carried the group, and that is not true of cooperative learning.

One of the tools we have found to ensure we are practicing cooperative learning is Verso. It’s a structured online discussion platform that fosters positive interdependence while encouraging students to grow in their own thinking because they can read and respond to the thinking of others anonymously. The platform provides individual accountability because everyone is asked to frame a response to a provocation. Not allowing students to see others’ responses before they contribute assures equal participation along with simultaneous interaction. In short, the platform has PIES.

In the years since we adopted cooperative learning, I’ve never seen students who don’t want to read what their peers say, and the anonymous nature of comments in the platform helps to facilitate that eagerness by making students feel safe enough to say what they really think.

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