By Gary Kroesch, AVID Staff Developer and Teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School, San Diego, CA
Speeding along the winding desert road to Marrakesh, we were three graduate students plus gear crammed into an ancient Mini Cooper. Suddenly, the Mini started to drag and list to the right.
I swerved over to the side of the road and we all wiggled out. Oh, a flat tire. No problem, we can fix that. I opened the boot, pushed our equipment around, and quickly found the tire iron. Now where’s the jack? No jack: I hadn’t checked when we bought the car back in England. We were 200 miles deep into the Great Sahara – literally, in the middle of nowhere -- without a brick or a stick to use as a lever.
After hours of trying to muscle the intransigent Mini (they are way heavier than they look) in 100-degree heat, we finally began to see dark shades dancing among the waves of heat off in the distance. A mirage? Eventually, we could make out a band of Berbers headed straight for us. My heart leaped, and then sank as I recalled stories about Berbers, a nomadic Saharan tribe that hadn’t always been hospitable to travelers.
But when they finally got close enough, I mustered up my courage and asked the man who looked to be the leader, “Can we get some help?”
He looked at me impassively and the faces of his fellow tribe members were similarly blank. Being American, I naturally expected fluent English to be spoken in the middle of the desert. I began gesticulating vigorously toward the car, but they only looked at one another.
“You need to pantomime lifting the car,” Bob suggested as the solution to our communication problem. We all hurried over to the car and pretended to strain while lifting it.
Ah, understanding. The smiles broke out, the camels kneeled and seven Berbers hoisted our car. Our tire was fixed and we were on our way again in no time.
Fast-forward a few decades to my classroom at Rancho Bernardo High School where we find that communication, collaboration, and cooperation have become the three C's of learning. Here in Room 202, students work in teams like tribe members to help each other grasp new concepts.
Proponents of collaborative learning, like Johnson and Johnson, tell us that teenagers are highly social, highly kinesthetic individuals who learn best when all their senses are stimulated. Their research provides convincing evidence that active learning teams increase interest among students. It lets them achieve higher levels of understanding and retain information longer than students who work quietly and individually.
Rancho Bernardo High students aren’t solitary actors sitting in their desks, waiting for a download from teacher. We focus on team-building activities that let students learn in a variety of ways and form close-knit tribes that support-yet-challenge one other. Shared learning lets students engage one another and question preconceptions, while satisfying every teenager’s appetite for social interaction.
One collaborative strategy we use to expand vocabulary and cement new concepts goes by the 25-dollar handle Total Physical Response (TPR). It simply recognizes that, as international education advisor Sir Ken Robinson has documented, students would rather be up and actively engaged than sitting in a desk and learning by rote. We have fun with it, breaking into teams that come up with strategies to demonstrate new concepts.
First, each tribe is assigned a different word or concept that they research using textbooks, computers, or smart phones. Team members hash out the meaning of the word or concept and come to collective agreement on which aspects need to be communicated to the rest of the class. Then, they come up with creative ways to share knowledge with the class at large – be it an oral presentation, pantomime, or other theatrics. It’s not unlike a game of Charades.
Neuroscientists have long pointed out the benefits of multi-sensory interactions for this age group. The more senses engaged, the more sections of the brain involved, the more synapses fire and the more permanent the relationships formed between pieces of information.
Total Physical Response has to be reinforced by regular practice and more traditional written and verbal methods. But generally, it promotes a spirit of understanding and cooperation through authentic collaborative performances. Students are often surprised by the different interpretations others have and are enriched by different points of view.
Beyond academics, cooperative learning has salutatory effects on student self-esteem, friendships, and group interactions. It binds the tribe and fosters the ability to work with others, which becomes so important after graduation.
In today’s increasingly diverse working environment, where more languages and cultures meld, students need to be able to work across boundaries. We may be all individually accountable but, at the end of the day, none of us are in this alone. We’re all one big tribe -- once we get past the communication problem.
Gary Kroesch is a teacher, college instructor and AVID staff developer. He is currently a teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School and San Diego State University. For over 15 years, Gary was the Director of the History-Social Science Project at the University of California, San Diego, managing and directing teacher workshops and professional development with university faculty.
He is a national consultant and trainer of trainers for AVID Center. Gary has authored AVID’s history-social science curriculum and contributed to the new Higher Education curriculum.
Kroesch can be contacted at [email protected]