Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

March 19, 2010

There’s No ‘I’ in Team

When I was working for a different company, I had to go to an all-day training seminar. A co-worker, also a buddy of mine, sat next to me. At the end of the seminar, we were given a fun little throwaway exercise to complete: a word-search puzzle filled with the “buzz words” we’d been learning about all day. Whoever finished first won a prize.

Now, I am good at word search puzzles, so I was excited. So a little while into the exercise, I was surprised to learn that while I may have been good, my buddy was really good. He had already found twice as many words as I had. Because we were friends, right then and there I started thinking of us as a team. I realized that if I started looking for the words he hadn’t found yet, we’d finish the puzzle in half the time. When I found a word, I’d nudge him with my elbow and point at my paper. He’d nod, and circle the word on his own sheet. I have to admit, in a sea of people with their heads down and their “eyes on their own work,” it felt a bit like cheating. But the leaders hadn’t specifically instructed us to work alone, so I knew we hadn’t done anything wrong. A minute or two later, my friend put down his pencil and raised his hand to signal “done.” Someone came down the aisle, checked his answers, and announced, “We have a winner!” She handed him the prize:a $5 gift card to Blockbuster. So we had ourselves a movie night, complete with microwaved popcorn. Victory was sweet.

But There is a “Me”

But it got me thinking: why is it that when we were handed that puzzle and asked to solve it–in no particular way–we all had the same instinct to hush up and work alone. Dr. Peter Gray may have partially answered my question with his recent post, “Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education.” Sin Number Three is “Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance.” Dr. Gray explains:

“We are an intensely social species, designed for cooperation. Children naturally want to help their friends, and even in school they find ways to do so. But our competition-based system of ranking and grading students works against the cooperative drive. Too much help given by one student to another is cheating. Helping others may even hurt the helper, by raising the grading curve and lowering the helper’s position on it. Some of those students who most strongly buy into school understand this well; they become ruthless achievers.”

It’s a real shame that traditional School methods haven’t been able to adapt with the times super well. When we first imported these methods from Prussia at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, they were perfect for training the next generation of lever-pullers and widget stampers: You definitely should NOT talk to your neighbor in those cirucmstances. You might lose a limb, which would cause the widget line to back up, which might damage some of the machinery, which would totally dent the company’s bottom line. However, modern employers seem to value teamwork skills.

Collaboration or Compilation?

In response, most curricula these days include some group project assignments. But I posit that this is a pale substitute for actually working with other people. In every group project I have ever worked on (with one notable exception), the class is divided into two reactions: the students with low GPAs go, “Great, someone else will be able to do most of the work.” The students with high GPAs go, “Great, I’m going to have to do the work of four people by myself. AGAIN.”

So where are the influences of Schooling? Let’s unpack.

-Again with the ranking. After a few years in school, people know what category they are in: “smart” or “dumb.” And then they behave accordingly. People tend to relax into their assigned roles, unable to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from and help others.

-There is very little real ‘teamwork’ to be found. Generally, these groups meet twice: once to figure out who is doing what, and again before class so they can staple all their sheets of paper together. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it seems that most group projects are merely a compilation of individual work, not real collaborations (which seems counter-productive, somehow). After so many years of being told not to chat with neighbors, we don’t quite know what to do when we are told to work with them.

Consequences for Today’s Employee

These attitudes carry over into the modern workplace (which is why my fellow trainees were so eerily silent). The competition continues as well, but we fight over limited numbers of promotions instead of grades. We become so preoccupied with making ourselves look good that we can’t take the risk of making a co-worker look better. Hardly anyone seems to be able to “do” the teamwork thing properly, so those who do find themselves increasingly in demand. (See Keith Ferrazzi, who is slowly building an empire based on his skill of combining relationships and business.)

If we would stop training our children to believe life is a competition and happiness is a finite resource, we could open our minds to a better way. What Chris Guillebeau means when he talks about “expanding the pie.” What Steve Pavlina means when he talks about “creating value.” What Rumi meant when he wrote:

“The small man builds cages for everyone he knows. While the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low, keeps dropping keys all night long for the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.”



  1. Curricula.

    Comment by John B — April 3, 2010 @ 7:19 am | Reply

    • LOL! Fixed–thanks, John!


      Comment by christinag503 — April 5, 2010 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for as long as it’s been up, but life has most definately gotten in the way.

    Your group project examples are the very same ones I experienced. It didn’t really seem as if anyone really benefited from them, other than the slackers who were in for the ride. In adult life that’s the 80/20 rule–the Pareto Principal–that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.

    The other thing that’s a real issue is the enforced notion that there’s a “right” answer, and that it’s in the book. THAT most definately doesn’t train anyone for the real world! There’s seldom a right answer in the real world, and it’s almost never in a book. There usually is no right answer, but there are plenty of good ones that are worth trying, and that needs to be emphasized. We need to be free to think and to try different things. Anything less, and we’re more indoctrinated than educated.

    We probably need to revise education to elevate thinking, even thinking out of the box. That’s the tool that’s given so much emphasis in theory, but gets squashed in practice. I’m not sure how that can be done in educating millions of students, but until we find a way we’ll keep getting what we’re getting now.

    Very interesting connection on the origins of modern education coming from Prussia! That was a very militaristic culture that favored order above all else, which is essential in the military. It’s my personal conviction that a fundamental problem in the economy is a lack of innovation, precisely because our society is working hard toward conformity and a weak immitation of synergy.

    Comment by Kevin@OutOfYourRut — April 14, 2010 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

    • And I’ve been meaning to reply to your comment ever since you posted it…but you know how it goes! 🙂

      I especially appreciate your point that “there usually is no right answer, but there are plenty of good ones worth trying.” In school, too much emphasis is put on results and ranking–it is better to play it safe and trot out the same old ideas, instead of doing something exciting and new while taking the risk of “getting it wrong” and failing.

      Most out-of-the-box thinking comes from sharing ideas with others, and it is ironic that so many people seem to think that sending their children to school to be educated will promote this kind of social and intellectual experience. Those who promote radical child-led education maintain that creative thought and imaginative problem-solving are skills that everyone is born with. They believe that School, instead of cultivating these skills, serves to homogenize thought, emphasize conformity, and ensure that all children remain safely In The Box at all times…


      Comment by christinag503 — April 26, 2010 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

  3. Great post! The question I’m seeing now is, how do we encourage collaboration among students while avoiding the situation where one student ends up doing all the work for the group?

    Comment by Anny — September 22, 2010 @ 12:21 am | Reply

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