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.”

August 25, 2009

How NOT to Teach Writing

I did not understand Stanley Fish’s assertion on NYT.com today that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.” If students taking so-called “writing-intensive” courses are not learning how to write, obviously something needs to be corrected. But I’m not convinced that a course focusing “exclusively on writing” is the best way to fix that. Mr. Fish thinks that courses in composition should teach “grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.” First of all, it is a waste of time to drill nearly-adult students in grammar. Most native speakers of English instinctively know the grammatical rules governing the language. If they fail to translate correct spoken English into correct written English, I think that goes beyond simple ignorance of grammar and into the territory of fear of failure and murky thinking.

If I were in Mr. Fish’s position, faced with all these incomprehensible essays, I would ask, “Why haven’t these students proofread their papers?” No native English speaker that proofread their paper would overlook a sentence that didn’t make any sense.  As a former writing major, I know there were plenty of occasions when I didn’t proofread a paper because I knew I had done a bad job. Sometimes I had too many projects due and not enough time, and sometimes I just couldn’t understand the question. For whatever reason, the essay would become just another task to slog through, another milepost on the academic marathon. Basically, I resented every minute I spent working on those assignments. If I had taken the time to read back through them, my pride would have forced me to try to improve them. And I would have ended up feeling frustrated and humiliated if I couldn’t. The curriculum designers first need to address surrounding circumstances like these when trying to solve the mystery of “why Johnny can’t write.” Poor grammar skills are merely a symptom, not the disease.

Secondly, I don’t think you can teach writing in a vacuum. You cannot coerce people into becoming good writers just because it’s a valuable life skill everyone needs to have. That would be like forcing a senior citizen to become proficient and skilled on a computer. Writing is, like a computer, a tool. The computer can be used to store music and photographs and to keep in touch with loved ones. These useful capacities motivate the technologically illiterate to learn how to use a computer. Similarly, writing can be used to persuade others, to introduce a new idea, to entertain, or to try to express the very essence of your soul, if you’re going to be poetic about it. I don’t think most students realize this. They tend to think of writing as something somebody else is trying to get them to do, rather than something they want to do for themselves. So of course they do a half-assed job.

Our culture actually has played a large part in the demise of the craft of writing. As John Taylor Gatto wrote in Dumbing Us Down, “We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most and so our children talk (Reluctant Teacher’s note: or tweet) constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach the “basics” anymore because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.” I don’t think Mr. Fish’s proposed solution, moving the art of writing even further away from things students are actually interested in, will help them to master, retain, or even learn this craft.

I seem to have a lot to say on the subject, so I will take the rest of this week, and probably some of the next, to explore the art of writing. I’d like to share the story about how I finally began to learn to write. I might also talk about some of my experiences as a writing tutor. Please leave a comment if you have a story about being a writer, learning to write, or teaching others to write. I’d love to hear from you! (Yes, YOU!)

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