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.”

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September 4, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

When we last saw our heroine, she was about to dive into the underworld of academia, the dirty little secret of many overachieving students: cheating.  Only in order to save her GPA (and her smart-girl reputation), of course.

I wasn’t going to do anything as crass as purchasing a ready-made essay from the internet.  After all, I genuinely wanted to do the work; I just couldn’t figure out how.  I decided I’d check out every book of literary criticism of Kafka from our library.  I’d pick passages relevant to my assigned story, paraphrase them, and cobble them together to form a cohesive essay: my own brand of Plagiarism Lite.

As I read through these books, however, an amazing thing happened: I learned how to think about Kafka’s writing.  I remember literally saying at one point, “Oh, so that’s what my professor wants me to do!”  While reading these other writers, I found myself thinking of other citations from the story to support their claims, sometimes disagreeing with their arguments, and sometimes drawing my own, unique conclusions about Kafka’s words.  At the end of the course, both of the papers I turned in were wholly original.  I never had to plagiarize a single word.

Unfortunately, it seems rare for other students to have the same revelation I did: that writing is an opportunity for me to engage with a writer, an event, or a way of seeing the world.  I am so glad that I got a chance to learn that writing is not about telling a professor what she wants to hear.  It’s about finding out what you have to say.  Of course, when writing, you should consider what the reader wants.  If no one is interested in what you have to say, no one will read your words, and then your writing becomes an exercise in one hand clapping.  But I think having something to say is the foundation of all good writing.

Ironically, that is ultimately what led me away from a major in literature.  Although I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of literary criticism and there are people who turn it into a career, I realized that whatever I wrote in that genre wouldn’t be anything I really wanted to say.  While I believe great literature can be relevant no matter how long ago it was written (that’s what makes it great), I just don’t think what critics say about it matters that much.  Anybody who reads literary criticism probably already has ideas of his own about the text, anyway.  And that’s how the author meant his or her writing to be: an intimate conversation between himself or herself and another individual, multiplied thousands or millions of times over.  I have no desire to get in the middle of that.  Now that I can enjoy books without a professor’s agenda hanging over my head, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t understand why everyone thinks The Brothers Karamazov is so great.  I can just accept that Dostoevsky’s message in that book wasn’t meant for me, and I can move on to something that really resonates with me, like Notes from Underground.

So I was greatly encouraged to see last weekend’s New York Times article spotlighting teachers who don’t assign and “teach” certain books: they let their students choose what they want to read.  Instead of the teacher leading a discussion to “teach” the book, they all take turns giving mini-presentations to the class, talking about the book and often recommending it to their classmates.  Sure, the occasional student picks Captain Underpants, but many students have been inspired by their peers to read major literary works like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.  The students may not fully grasp the subtext or be able to “unpack” certain passages, but I think authors have a reason for embedding their perspective on certain issues within a fictional story, instead of just writing an essay.  It’s OK to just enjoy the story, and if you’d like to learn how to peer into the author’s deeper meaning, I suggest checking out How to Read Literature like a Professor.

Nevertheless, it is completely possible to enjoy great literature without being “taught” how to do so.  After all, The Last of the Mohicans sold the modern equivalent of 10 million copies in the early 1800s, long before every man, woman, and child was expected to sit through an English class to learn how to properly appreciate great writing.  Come to think of it, some of them even managed to learn to write that great literature without the benefit of instruction.  Maybe we should give today’s budding readers and writers some of the same trust and freedom.

August 28, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 1

(This article is part of a series about writing, inspired by a column written by Stanley Fish on NYT.com.)

I have long felt that the only purpose of writing is discovery.  Writing helps me to look at my topic in a new light, to clarify my thinking on the topic, and to explain my ideas to others.  I, of course, have not read the same essays Mr. Fish cites as inspiration for his column: the papers for a “graduate literature” course that had no “clean English sentences.”  But from my personal experience as a college student and a writing tutor for high-school and middle-school students, the real reason students can’t write is because the process of School has disconnected them with the most compelling reason to write: discovery.

John Holt, in How Children Fail, claimed that in Schools, children are distracted from learning their subject matter by the politics of the classroom: namely, their status in relation to the other students, and the teacher’s behavior.  He argues that students mainly learn how to please the teacher.  As I mentioned in a previous article, many teachers spend a lot of class time trying to get students to jump through an exact sequence of hoops so that they can “interactively” learn what the curriculum dictates.  This does not encourage original thought.  Instead, it encourages students to guess what the teacher wants to hear.  By the time these kids get to college, where professors ask them to “choose your own topic” and “develop an original thesis,” they FIRST: wonder what the catch is, and SECOND: become really, truly confused.  They have never had to do this before.  So they fall back on a tried-and-true method (guessing what the professor wants to hear), and they produce this vaguely literary-sounding mumbo-jumbo without actually using proper English or critical thinking skills, because they have no idea what they’re talking about.  They don’t know what original thoughts or ideas they have on their subject, so they have no real motivation to explain these ideas to another.  At least, that was the case with me.

Although I considered myself to be a pretty good writer in high school, I stumbled through my first two writing courses in university.  I used proper English, for the most part, but my professor kept saying that my thesis wasn’t really a thesis, and that I didn’t even manage to support it very well.  I reviewed each revised draft with her, trying to pinpoint exactly what I was doing wrong, but I didn’t get the grade I wanted in that class because there was a fundamental disconnect in our communication: I kept trying to figure out what she wanted, when all she wanted was to know what I thought about the subject.  At the time, I didn’t even know how to think about the topic, let alone what I thought about it.

For my second “writing-intensive” course, I wound up in a class about Kafka.  At first, I thought Kafka was intriguing.  Then I thought he was challenging.  Then I started to panic as I realized the man was completely inscrutable.  I mean, I could kind of understand how the guy turning into the bug was a metaphor for isolation in the Industrial Age, but we weren’t allowed to write about that one.  We had to choose another of his short stories for our essay.  So I did what any desperate-to-keep-her-slipping-academic-status student would do: I decided to cheat.

Find out how well that worked for me next week, in How I Learned to Write, Part 2!

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