Panel: Cooperative Learning: CON

Linda Heidenrich
SED 600
Cooperative Learning is the Best Way to Learn Science-Con Argument
“Effective science programs reflect a balanced, comprehensive approach that
includes the teaching of investigation and experimentation skills along with direct
instruction and reading (CA Science Framework, 2003, 11).” There is no best way to
teach science. Despite the arguments to be made for cooperative learning including
social development and problem solving with peers, peers are novices and science with
its complexities demands an expert.
In addition, cognitive neuroscience has
demonstrated the teacher must be directly involved in the building of knowledge or the
knowledge is difficult to build. Finally, there are alternatives to cooperative learning
including bridging assignments and inquiry assignments.
Students need peers to make sense of their environment and provide emotional
support during the teenage years but peers cannot effectively teach science because the
subject of science includes problem solving and complex concepts that the teenage mind
would have difficulty mastering much less explaining. As discussed in How People
Learn, experts are needed in areas where there is extensive breadth of knowledge
required because experts can contextualize ideas in terms of the bigger picture and
provide guidance to novices to gain understanding in these areas. In addition, experts are
productive problem solvers as well as having the metacognition to assist novices in
understanding how to solve a problem in an area such as science which requires problem
solving. For the science curriculum, experts are needed not novices (National Research
Council, 2000, 49).
Much studying of the brain has occurred in the last several years and the results
attained demonstrate the need for a teacher to be the central figure in a science classroom,
not their peers. In her study relating cognitive neuroscience and the classroom, Janet
Phillips explains how the brain functions best when several conditions are being met; the
students need information chunked as they are absorbing the larger picture and students
need the information to be made relevant to them (Phillips, 2005, 13). Peers do not have
the ability to provide the big picture involved to make sense of the content because they
themselves have not been exposed to the big picture and, therefore, it is unfair to rely on
peers to provide appropriate context. In addition, depending on the makeup of the
cooperative learning group, some students can move at a quicker pace and would not
chunk the information at an appropriate pace for all students to gain required knowledge.
If the teacher is controlling the classroom, s/he can provide appropriate chunks of
information for all students to be successful. Although peers can be effective at making
information relevant, the teacher can often be more effective because s/he can make the
information relevant in terms of past, present and future in contrast to peers who can only
make the content relevant in the present.
There are viable and positive alternatives to cooperative learning in which the
students are engaged, interacting with the content and making the information relevant to
them without using their peer group. The most effective alternative is a process entitled
model-based inquiry as proposed in How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom.
This method uses the students’ lives to generate projects and discussion items relevant to
the students. The projects discussion items are then used to understand a curricular topic.
The example given in How Students Learn refers to a genetics unit in a high school
biology class. The students read an edited version of Mendel’s paper regarding his work
with pea plants to gain background knowledge. The students then created pedigrees of a
disorder in their family (National Research Council, 2005, 529). The pedigrees were used
to understand the content standards relating to genetics, including how to read a pedigree
and understand its significance, how to determine the inheritance patterns of traits and
understand how some disorders may have special circumstances, such as sex-linked or
multiple alleles. The students do not work with each other to access the knowledge but
instead the teacher accessing their prior knowledge and makes the content relevant to
Works Cited
Bransford, John D. & Ann L. Brown (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind,
Experience and School. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
Bransford, John D. & M. Suzanne Donovan (Eds.). (2005). How Students Learn: Science
in the Classroom. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
California Department of Education. (2003). Science Framework for California Public
Schools. Sacramento, CA.
Phillips, Janet (2005). From Neurons to Brainpower: Cognitive Neuroscience and Brain
Based Research. Washington D.C.: Office of Educational Research and
Improvement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED490546)