Leaving the Lectern: Cooperative Learning
and the First Critical Days of Students Working in Groups
By Dean A. McManus
Bolton, MA: Anker, 2005
Dean A. McManus, professor emeritus in the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington, has written accessibly and engagingly about his transformation from a conventional lecturer to an enthusiastic proponent of cooperative learning. In so doing he relates his anxieties, embarrassments and joys as he seeks to discover and employ teaching practices that will help his students learn more effectively. The result is a look at the reflective processes of a scholar in action, a scholar who brings to his teaching the intention, evidence orientation and literature awareness that he developed through a long scientific career. McManus was the editor of the research journal Marine Geology for twenty-three years and has a seamount named after him.
If there is one word that encapsulates the transition from lecture to cooperative learning, it is change. Indeed change appears in the title of each of the eleven chapters of Leaving the Lectern:
1. Before the Change
2. Change Involves Taking Risks
3. Change Can Be Piecemeal
4. Change Is Finding and Sharing Answers to Questions About Student Learning
5. Change Alters What You Put Into the Course
6. Change Emphasizes What Students Take Away From the Course
7. Change Must Be Assessed for Student Learning
8. Change Must Be Assessed for Teaching
9. Change Is Hard in Isolation but Facilitated by Connections
10. Change Means Changing Your Concepts About Education
11. Change Means Changing Your Concepts About Yourself
The chapter titles are very suggestive and need hardly be elaborated upon. Simply stated, cooperative learning changes everything, at least if you are starting from the conventional lecture. It is for that reason that McManus counsels: “As you begin to change the way you teach, change only a single course. Always have that one course in mind. You will have your hands full changing just one course” (26).
In a number of ways Leaving the Lectern can be thought of as a companion piece to John Tagg, The Learning Paradigm College (Bolton, MA: Anker, 2003). In fact, in chapters 10 and 11 the Teaching-Centered Paradigm—Tagg’s Instructional Paradigm—and the Learning-Centered Paradigm appear prominently. But whereas Tagg focuses more on institutional matters, McManus focuses more on the faculty person who is creating learning environments (and learning) for students. As a result one gets a sense of what it might be like for a perhaps-not-too-typical faculty member to embrace the learning paradigm.
The faculty person who is central to Leaving the Lectern is, of course, Dean A. McManus. He says that his “book is, in effect, a journal” (x), and that is a good way to describe it. But it is certainly a journal with a difference, for it is well-thought out (with abundant references to the relevant higher educational literature), as well as personal. So, although he relates his own story, he leaves one with the clear impression that it may well be the story of most conventional lecturers who come to embrace cooperative learning as a means of engaging their students and enhancing their learning.
The words of McManus are filled with the wisdom of someone who has been there and done that. He urges us to know our students (13), and speaks with experience and empathy of the anxiety and fear of the teacher (15-17). The whole discussion of risk is quite interesting in its own right, for he notes:
No one works on trivial problems at a research university and advances academically. We live by taking risks. That’s what we’re paid to do. But we have carefully consigned that risk to our research and barred it from our classrooms (20).
What would be possible for students if everyone embraced the risks of the classroom? It is clear that what enabled McManus to embrace the risks of the classroom is the realization that it is ultimately what students “take away from the course” rather than what “you put into the course” that matters (27).
A significant part of Leaving the Lectern is devoted to the details of the practice of cooperative learning and what McManus learned from reflecting on his results. It provides a clear and comprehensive view of much of what can be expected when transitioning to cooperative learning. For those who hold that material coverage, rather than student learning, is the sine qua non of academic rigor, it is worth noting that when McManus reached the end of the term in which he first embraced the cooperative approach, he found that he and his students “had covered only 40% of the topics I had covered by lecturing” (91). In relation to this he asks: “Which is more important? Covering as much of the material as possible or ensuring that the students learned the material” (107)?
The risks that McManus discussed earlier in his book were largely those of the discomfort of the teacher when dealing with something new. But there are also career risks that can emerge when one begins to embrace new and unfamiliar approaches to teaching, approaches that one’s colleagues either do not understand or appreciate. In relation to this he counsels caution for the new faculty member and support from those better established, echoing Maryellen Weimer (124).
In the Conclusion, McManus states the seven themes of Leaving the Lectern. They are:
Although these lessons were derived from the experience McManus had from a term of cooperative learning, they probably apply to anyone who would teach differently with student learning first in mind.
Leaving the Lectern is an impressive book, conveying much for faculty members who would create cooperative learning experiences for students and for the administrator who would support faculty members as they do so. Read it and welcome the joy!