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Anis Haffar Writes | The Magic Of Cooperative Learning - An encounter with Yale University

Tue, 11 Nov, 2008

In the 1990s, while teaching in a school district in the United States, I came across a leaflet announcing some scholarships offered by Yale University for student summer internships.

With the term already packed with various activities, an initial impulse suggested ignoring the leaflet. But curiosity and a bold wish prevailed, and I added the flyer to my to-do-list.


In the early afternoon, I announced the flyer’s contents to an English class in a GATE programme (Gifted And Talented Education). They seemed unsure, so I let the idea fade, for then.


The next day or so, I re-introduced the subject. This time around I added details. The scholarship was a national one – across the United States. The County – containing many school districts - had been allotted a few possible places. The internships could be possible turning points for larger scholarships and lush careers for selected students.


“Sir, too many people will contest, and our chances are small,” said one small voice. 
“That is true,” I agreed. “Regardless,” I insisted, “consider this chance, just for the fun of it. Remember, nothing ventured - nothing gained.”


The class was quiet and unresponsive, wrapped in self-doubts. The likelihood of growing a bunch of wimps kept gnawing in my gut. I was uneasy with that prospect. “Listen: if you take the chance you may win. If you don’t try you will never win!” I thought it well to make no promises while not excluding hope.


I sensed a calm resistance. A good many of the youth had never left home once. Again, even if they won, they would have to buy their own tickets to New Haven, Connecticut – on the other side of the continent.


That first uncertainty was a mere state of mind. The other fear could be resolved also, if need be, by passing a hat among the faculty and administration. Americans are ever so supportive of the go-getter; it is in their genes.


With a few more proddings, enough bold sports were garnered. I wrote to Yale committing names and other information. The Rubicon was crossed. The die was cast. There was no turning back.


The D-Day arrived – much sooner than I expected. A parcel from a courier was duly dropped in my lap by a school secretary. It contained two sets of examinations: a diagnostic test, and an essay type.


On scanning the diagnostic test, faith deserted me on the spot. Though the instructions gleamed like beacons, the test pages were scattered with a mesh of puzzling correlations and illustrations. I spotted the ideal case for a cooperative experiment in problem solving! The test, I discerned, was to screen prospective candidates for brain types suited for particular research tasks impending at Yale. Every renowned school has a way of selecting and picking its troops.


Through the GATE programme, and the California Education Code, I had on occasions participated in statewide workshops for accelerated learning through “specialized learning experiences” beyond the regular curricular methods. Rather than the normal lock-step approaches, the training helped to design instructional modules that taught to real life, and assured group successes in complex tasks. The rationale is that not only do learners have to succeed as bona fide individuals, but group successes are equally as important.


Providence is ever so near, and ever married to risks (as we shall soon see). Having practiced aspects of cooperative learning in small groups, this class was familiar with group synergy and skills in decision making, and problem solving. A serendipitous opening to transfer previous learning experiences into a new and unexpected situation presented itself. That was a safe guide on the horizon, and also a chance to practice what I taught.


The candidates were thus arraigned into small working groups of 3 or 4 pupils, and the diagnostic test duly passed out. I capped my apprehensions, and took on a gallant bearing. There is no worse blunder in leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. My heart hummed with this anxiety.


Group diligence and enthusiasm - picked from earlier guided practices - attended the first test, and the end arrived finally. After the required break from the first, the desks were re-arranged for the candidates to tackle the essays individually. At the end of it, the papers were collected, arranged in the prescribed order, and sent by registered mail to Yale. I awaited the results.


After a couple of weeks, a telephone call came from Yale. The lady on the phone was courteous but regretted that the candidates’ answers to the diagnostic test were too similar in some ways. It informed her department’s suspicion that some candidates copied answers.


Two possible poisons seeped from that sting. From the look of things, without the proper antidote, our school could be blacklisted against future participation, and shamed. My professional credentials, for which I had toiled and devoted years and a fortune in mind, body, and soul to earn, were on the line.


The path into trouble is paved with good intentions. This telephone conversation was happening inside the administration office, right next to the principal’s door. Ears everywhere popped out and creaked anxiously on their hinges for the outcome. It was no secret that some ambitious girls and boys had staked claims to Ivy League pastures. Any dark hint could enlarge into bad whispers and disappointment. Failure is one thing; disgrace is another.


Of all the heroic places to be! Wondrous souls must have come to the rescue: Jesus himself - bearing his cross; Mahatma Gandhi – spinning his yarn; and Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr - alighting from the mountaintop. Martyred for the audacity to practice what they taught, the spirits wove spells to unravel times like these. One may dare the status quo, but to champion the change you must lead it. That was my lot.


With a revived determination, I removed my elbows from the counter top, and stood upright, with the receiver in my hand. It was now or never! The essence of my provoked, unplanned speech, as I recall, ran along these lines:


“I think, madame, you misunderstand some brave new methods in California. Here, we support cooperative or collaborative teaching and learning. You see, in industry people work together. In research, especially, the focus is on group collaboration.


“The best enterprises are built on team spirits, and cooperation. Human beings are built to cooperate. Remove that, and we risk becoming mere dispassionate, grinding clogs in machines.


“In the class in question, I find group work very useful in engaging and matching the aptitudes of students, and getting the best out of them.


“Cooperative learning develops lifelong habits of mind where, with commitment and diligence, learners can heave mountains....”


I ran the gamut of the basis for cooperative learning. I trusted my methods, and exerted them with candor and sincerity. The force of example is hard to ignore even when the thrust is provocative and unorthodox.


“How exactly were the tests done?” The question suggested a critical but appreciative audience.


I laid it out in steps; and for a measured finale I added: “The method, I believe, may augment your research. My students are already at that cutting edge.”


The ears in the vicinity could tell something was amiss. None knew what - not yet. With your back against the wall, you face the dragon. Winston Churchill captured such a moment in the most dramatic fashion: When you find yourself astride a volcano, the least you can do is smoke!


I was smoking; I wasn’t quite sure what. But I mimicked, on the quiet, a line from Thomas Hardy (Author of “Far From the Madding Crowd”, “Mayor of Casterbridge” et al): If a discomfort come out of innovation, better is it that the discomfort come than the innovation be concealed.


“Sir, please excuse me for a minute. I’ll call you right back,” the voice said, and hanged up. The jury was out. I had been smoking a dragon’s fire and inhaling its frenzy, I now realized.


So matters stood till the phone rang. The voice came back on the line as promised - now mellow, sweet, and lovely: “Sir, I’m pleased to inform you, now, that all your candidates excelled.”


“And frankly,” the lady continued, “the way the results look, we could pick all eight prospects from your class. But I’m afraid we have to cover the whole county, and have decided to select two of yours. Who would you recommend?”


Cleared and cheered by this victory, I breathed much easier, and relaxed my elbows on the counter. “Thank you. But it will be hard for me to pick the two. I will suggest, however, that you choose the two with the highest scores in the essays,” I responded. May the most deserving pupils win! I prayed.


“In that case, let me see, a moment please - they will have to be …” she named two mavericks. The revelry that followed was soul deep. In short, monies appeared eagerly from the school staff for two tickets to New Haven for the two pioneers.


My visit to the winners that summer at Yale was a prized occasion. I used the time to indulge in architectural photography of the Boston area.


[The writer is founder of GATE Institute (Gifted And Talented Education). He designs and conducts Teacher In-Service Training in Ghana in Teaching Methodologies, Cooperative Learning, and English Language skills. He just completed three workshops at the British Council, Accra in 1. Power Writing for Power Thinking; 2. Techniques for Teaching Poetry in the Classroom; and 3. Leadership Centred Teaching .He is a product of Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast, and California State University. Email:] 

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