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.”

January 13, 2010

New study demonstrates that autonomy increases well-being

“Weekend Effect makes people happier regardless of their job, study says”

This article describes the results of a study which indicate that people tend to feel better mentally and physically on the weekends, when they are free to spend their time as they like.  This holds true regardless of the status of the job, how many hours they work, “how educated they happen to be,” whatever their marital status.

If the feeling of autonomy improves mental and physical well-being for adults, even those with ‘interesting, high status jobs,’ when are students supposed to recuperate?  They are not only told what to do, where to sit, when to eat, and when to go to the bathroom for seven hours of the day, they have to work on all their homework on evenings and weekends, in the free time left over after extracurricular activities. This would indicate, in the terms of the study, a high level of feeling ‘controlled,’ which correlated to negative feelings. As the researchers were surprised to learn, “the analysis also found that people feel more competent during the weekend than they do at their day-to-day jobs.” (Emphasis mine.)

Please allow me a small extrapolation from the results of this study. It’s kind of ironic that although School purports to “educate” children to make them more competent, the very act of controlling what, when, and how they learn, could make them feel less competent. It’s almost like School ends up convincing students that they’re too stupid to ever amount to anything without constant instruction and supervision. I once had an employer who never said outright, “You’re incompetent and would single-handedly ruin my business if I ever took my eyes off of you,” but she implied it. She never let me (or anyone else) make a decision without first consulting her–even if the decision was as small as what part of the store to clean first. She was a kind and generous boss in many ways, but the total lack of autonomy made me miserable.

However, I at least got to escape once my shift was over. School extends its control into one’s “free time” via homework. When I remember my time in school, the strongest sense memory I have was that feeling of my stomach sinking. Yes, the bell had rung and I was out of class, but as soon as I’d had my afternoon snack, I had to finish reading assignments, study for quizzes and tests, complete worksheets, write essays, work on projects that would take a month to complete… There was never, really, any free time. There was always something to do. And even if I did manage to finish everything on my plate–well, you know, a good student always works ahead.

I touched on this briefly in a response to a New York Times op-ed piece that suggested lengthening the school day and eliminating summer vacation. I hope this study helps Harold Levy and other like-minded administrators to understand: Free time is essential to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of all people, “regardless of age.”

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July 27, 2009

Extreme Credentialism

Paul Graham’s essay on credentialism, which I linked to and wrote about last week, points to imperialist China as the birthplace of testing. He argues that testing/earning credentials displaced nepotism and bribery as a method of selecting government officials. While that was a beneficial change, the tests were indicators of wealth as much as of knowledge and skill–only the privileged would have the opportunity to study classical literature. In time, such tests gave rise to ‘cram schools,’ where those who could afford it were able to learn how to get a good score on the test, rather than taking the time to build the skills that were supposed to be measured by the test. (SAT prep, anyone?)

Modern-day Chinese students have recently stumbled upon a new permutation of ‘test hacking’: identity theft. According to an article that appeared in the New York Times yesterday, all Chinese students have a personal file that contains their grades, test results, peer and teacher evaluations, diplomas, etc. These files are physical and supposedly kept under lock and key by government agencies. Lately, however, the files of students from poor families have been ‘vanishing.’ These students suspect corrupt government agents of selling the records of their achievements to young people from wealthy families. The victims of this scam are sentenced to low-paying jobs, as they are virtually ineligible for government or private-sector employment without their files. All the time and money they invested in their education has been completely and utterly lost, for while they still have all the knowledge and skill they worked so hard to develop, potential employers only care about credentials. I especially appreciated Tony Z.’s comment (it’s #6) on the ramifications of this crime for Chinese society. He writes, “[Don’t] ask why these corrupt officials weren’t caught. Ask why on earth is a man’s life predicated on one file? Ask what happens to a society when it prizes the Gold medal over the discipline to achieve it legitimately?”

On the other hand, the Chinese economy seems to be thriving. Perhaps it’s an indication that all the specialized knowledge that universities claim only they can bestow, is not really necessary. Only time will tell.

It is only more evidence that the system of credentialism can be, and often is, skewed to favor the wealthy. This means that wherever an individual’s ability to earn income depends on the pieces of paper they possess (and whether those papers are name-brand), there exists a society where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. It is a shame that the bright future these students traded their youth for has been denied to them, due to the greed of others. I am encouraged by Paul Graham’s assertion that the American marketplace is moving towards rewarding performance rather than credentials. I hope that these young students will live to benefit from a similar trend in China, although, as Tony Z. suggests, credentialism seems to be an ingrained part of Chinese culture. As he says, “If you’re Chinese, ask why you care more about a number on a piece of paper than the man in front of you.”

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