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.”

July 31, 2009

Celebrity Chefs: the End of Civilization as We Know It?

Initially, I was sucked in by the photo of what Julia Child’s famous cooking show, “The French Chef,” was like behind the scenes.  I love how there are five professional-looking adults sitting on the floor around her, hiding behind the counter.  I always thought Julia looked a little distracted from time to time, like something was going on off-camera, but she wasn’t supposed to say what.  Now I know!

“I really should be writing something new for ‘Confessions’,” I thought.  But the aformentioned photograph, plus my mounting excitement over the upcoming “Julie & Julia” movie, seduced me into “taking a quick peek” at Michael Pollan’s article about the rise of the cooking show.

It turns out that in Mr. Pollan’s hands, a story about Julia Child and the rising popularity of cooking shows becomes a cautionary tale about an industrialized culture of passive consumers who spend more time watching celebrity chefs on TV than actually cooking for themselves.  As he observes,

“It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else.”

John Taylor Gatto predicted this in his 1991 essay, “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher.”  I’m thinking of the fourth lesson this New York State Teacher of the Year taught his students: dependency.  By being the voice of authority that decided where children must direct their attention and what tasks they should be performing at all times, he robbed them of a chance to learn self-directed thought and action.  He taught them “that [good people] must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meaning of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.”  He goes on to explain, “The food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them…We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know any other way.”

Michael Pollan has the research and the proof that corporations have a vested interest in cultivating the helplessness of American consumers:

“Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating…It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking.”

Around this era was when compulsory schooling really started to mold the next generation of Americans into consumers rather than citizens.  Eventually, schools stopped requiring students to take Home Economics.  Have you noticed that schools no longer teach any skills to prepare children to live independently?  I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about college freshman hauling weeks’ worth of dirty clothing on visits home because they have no clue how to do their own laundry.  Or the young adult in making his first home-cooked meal for his sweetheart (normally they’d just get take-out but he promised her something special for Valentine’s Day), and having his mother on the phone to walk him through the steps of preparing food.  Not only do these kids not learn basic life skills in school, but homework and extracurricular activities (that they need so desperately to succeed in life—or at least to get in to a good college) keep them too busy to learn these things from their parents.  And Schools are clamoring for still more hours of our children’s lives!

And since I’ve already quoted abundantly from the article, here’s one more passage for the road:

“The Food Network (blogger’s note: AND SCHOOL!) has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch. The formula is as circular and self-reinforcing as a TV dinner: a simulacrum of home cooking that is sold on TV and designed to be eaten in front of the TV. True, in the case of the Swanson rendition, at least you get something that will fill you up; by comparison, the Food Network leaves you hungry, a condition its advertisers must love. But in neither case is there much risk that you will get off the couch and actually cook a meal. Both kinds of TV dinner plant us exactly where television always wants us: in front of the set, watching.”

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