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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July 21, 2009

Why report cards represent everything that is wrong with the world today

Imagine that one day, your child comes home from school and announces that she received an A on her final exams.  In fact, she tells you, everybody got an A.  How would you feel?  Shocked?  Surprised?  Perhaps you’d feel that the grade she’d gotten was meaningless.  You might possibly get angry at the teachers for shirking their duty.  Maybe you wouldn’t be able to feel as proud of your child.

Of all the thoughts and emotions that might go through your head,  I bet happiness that the No Child Left Behind Act finally worked and all children would now be equally knowledgeable and skilled was not one of them.  Which should tell you something about the true purpose of grades.

This story was illustrated by Denis Rancourt, AKA the Anarchist Professor, who was (somewhat) recently spotlighted on Chris Guillebeau’s inspiring blog, The Art of Nonconformity.  He gave every student in his class an A+ and encouraged them challenge the grading system and syllabus of their other classes, and to take back their power from their professors.  Subsequently, the university had him arrested.  (For more stories of Schools severely overreacting when their system is threatened, read Chapter 10 of John Taylor Gatto’s eye-opening book, Weapons of Mass Instruction.)

I especially found the commentors’ reactions to Professor Rancourt’s actions very interesting.  It dovetails nicely with John Taylor Gatto’s observation of the fundamental hypocrisy of schools: that even though they claim their goal is to get students to be at the same level and give them all an equal chance at a great future, people FREAK OUT if all the students in a class get A’s.  This is because an ‘A’ grade has no independent value.  It won’t put dinner on the table, that’s for sure.  Letter grades only function as signifiers of rank.  And with ranks, for one person to be on top, someone else has to come below.  To paraphrase him, parents tend to think, “My child’s ‘A’ doesn’t mean anything if everyone in the class gets ‘A’s.”  Why do we raise our children to expect that they cannot all be great?  Perhaps this is one of the seedlings that encourages us to live from mindsets of scarcity instead of abundance.  We believe that there’s only a limited supply of excellence (or: ‘A+’s)  to go around.

Mr. Gatto often uses the phrase, “We grade children like vegetables.”  Meaning, some are of better quality than others.  Well, that’s just ridiculous.  Even the idea that there is an objective standard of quality is laughable.  Do you remember the old story about the guru asking the student to go out and find the perfect stick?  It begs the question: what does the perfect stick look like?  The answer depends on how you plan to use it.  The perfect stick for roasting marshmallows will be different from the perfect fire-fueling stick will be different from the perfect playing-fetch-with-the-dog stick. In this light, how can we claim that the A students are the smartest and hardest-working children?  What about the F students who realize that pushing papers for gold stars is a waste of time, so they choose to devote their intelligence and hard work to a project of their own choosing?  Admittedly, these are few and far between in our current culture.  But bear in mind that the first American woman to circumnavigate the globe solo began her journey as a high school dropout at age 18.

As it goes, some children will be better at playing the game of school than others.  I happened to be one of them.  But does that mean that I have had more success in my life than some of my classmates who received lower grades?  Not at all!  For example, being very good at following instructions and doing what I am told make me an excellent employee (when much of the research shows that being an entrepreneur and business owner can put you in a far more powerful and financially secure position).  My addiction to the approval of my superiors ensured that I didn’t try anything unless I was sure I could accomplish it, which meant that for most of my working life I limited myself to applying for minimum-wage retail jobs.  (This was before I realized that I could parlay my lack of visible piercings and/or tattoos into a more “professional” office position, for much higher pay.)  I have a good friend who, when we were in school together, received lower grades than I did, and has always admired how well I did in French class.  But he has already made his first million as an entrepreneur, and is well on his way to his second (Check out his latest project: deep sea diving!), while I was working long hours in the low-pay, dead-end (yet character building!) service industry.  Lucky for me life isn’t a contest!

But school is.  And impressionable young children are told every day that the rest of their lives will be determined by how they perform in this contest.  AND there can only be a few winners.  I’m sure many of us have had the experience of being put on a certain “track” for different subjects in school.  (I know I have!  My strength was more in letters than numbers, as you can see.)  Once you’re put on the “dumb math” track, you are virtually guaranteed to start falling farther and farther behind other students.  You will never know as much about math as they know, and you will never be as good at it.  So you tell yourself, “There’s no point in pushing harder.  This is where they told me I belong.”  And you go through the rest of your school career only learning what they decide to teach you.  (Until you graduate, whereupon you never have to think about trigonometry again.  But they don’t tell you that when you’re in class, now, do they?)

I can already anticipate people’s reactions of, “Well, this whole each-child-is-special-in-his-or-her-own-way thing SOUNDS nice, but what it mainly results in is little terrors named Marshwillow running around with their underpants on their heads, shrieking whilst creating a chocolate-pudding ‘masterpiece’ on somebody else’s white couch, while their parents sit exclaiming, ‘Isn’t s/he UNIQUE?  Ah, the Magic of Childhood!’ ”

I certainly don’t want that either.  But hear me out when I say: Lack of school is not lack of discipline.  There are many, many unschooling/deschooling/homeschooling families that require their children to do chores that are necessary to maintain a household.  What they DON’T require is for their children to do arbitrary paperwork based solely on their chronological age.  Children shouldn’t be sorted and judged based on their submission to such an absurd system.  In my (capitalist-influenced) opinion, only the marketplace has real power to judge the value of our work.  If people are not interested in our product or service, they vote with their dollars and the business fails, or we fail to find a job, and we are forced to try something new so that we do not starve.  However, many people associate failure in the marketplace with failure as a human being, in general.  I wonder if that has something to do with compulsory schooling, where we are vilified as lazy and stupid if we receive a ‘failing’ grade.  Or perhaps it is just a natural consequence of evolution: we tend to act out of fear, rather than courage, because in the olden days, the guy who didn’t cower and run from a woolly mammoth generally got trampled to death.  But we live in a far more sanitized world, so perhaps it’s time for us to teach our children a different way.  Instead of trying to force them to develop as a team of governmental “experts” has dictated they should develop (based on their age group, natch), perhaps we should let them find their own path.

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