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Volume 26, Number 3
May/June 2010

Unleashing the “Brain Power” of Groups in the Classroom

The neuroscience behind collaborative work


History teacher Rachel Otty often assigns group work in her classroom to keep her teens engaged.

In a warm, stuffy room on the third floor of Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin High School, 22 tenth graders in U.S. History I start their day by jotting down their opinions on how much progress has been made toward gender equity in the U.S. since women agitated for and won the right to vote.

Taking direction from a slide projected onto the blackboard, they break up into assigned groups of three to read charges against men leveled by 19th-century feminists in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, and compare them with statistics on the status of men and women in the U.S. today. They cut up pieces of paper labeled “government,” “education,” and “employment” and debate where to paste them on a line extending from “fully redressed” to “not redressed” based on current statistics.

After students return to their seats, their teacher, Rachel Otty, announces that next week the class will be divided into groups to prepare for a debate on whether or not President Andrew Jackson should have been impeached.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

J. Boaler and M. Staples. “Creating Mathematical Futures Through an Equitable Teaching Approach: The Case of Railside School.” Teachers College Record 110, no. 3. (2008): 608–645.

E.G. Cohen. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1994.

———. “Restructuring the Classroom: Conditions for Productive Small Groups.” Review of Educational Research 64, no. 1. (Spring 1994), 1–35.

C.D. Frith, “The Social Brain?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 362 (2007): 671–678.

C.D. Frith and U. Frith, “How We Predict What Other People Are Going to Do.” Brain Research 1079 (2006): 36–46.

U. Frith and C. Frith. “The Biological Basis of Social Interaction.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 10, no. 5 (October 2001): 151–155.

J. Medina. Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008.

RSA Social Brain blog:

R. Slavin, “Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning.” Educational Leadership 48 (February 1991): 71–82.

J. Willis. “Building a Bridge From Neuroscience to the Classroom.” Phi Delta Kappan 89, no. 6 (February 2008): 424–427.

J. Willis. “Cooperative Learning is a Brain Turn-On,” Middle School Journal 38, no. 4 (2007): 4–13.