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.”

February 27, 2010

Another “Wake-Up Call” for Education?

Nicolette over at Richer Dialogue has posted the trailer for a new movie called “We are the People We’ve Been Waiting For.” She also wrote up a synopsis of the film. Go ahead, check it out– I’ll wait. 🙂

Now, when I watched the trailer, I thought that it seems like a lot of the same old rhetoric: we need to spend more on computers, because that’s the only way they’ll be able to compete with developing nations (to be followed shortly by articles in the Times proclaiming, “If you kid is awake, he’s probably online! They’ll probably be stupider for it! ZOMG!”)! kids are the future! be all you can be! More of a snooze-fest than a wake-up call, really.

I found it especially ironic that Sir Richard Branson was up there saying “There are only two ways to learn entrepreneurial skills…either get out there in the jungle and get them, or (pause for dramatic effect) teach it to them in schools.” As massively successful as he is, which method did he use? Considering that he was a notoriously poor student in school and only holds honorary university degrees, I think it’s safe to say that he didn’t waste any time sitting around in a classroom.

Higher, better education for all is an admirable goal in theory. However, education was never designed to be the great equalizer. Why else would we have professors who only give out a certain number of As, regardless of the quality of the students’ work? The way we rank students, from A to F, is competitive by design. Grades are inherently meaningless: they only have value if there are “winners” and “losers.”

And I also found it really funny that they were showing footage of deforestation and global warming while talking about the need for more education to conquer these terrible things. Do they not realize that the CEO of the company who has hired the lumberjack to cut down those trees is probably college educated, several times over? As well as all the CEOs and managers of companies whose factories and/or products CAUSE global warming. Whereas we didn’t have wholesale destruction of the planet before the institutionalization of education. To quote an old friend, “I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.”

However, Nicolette told me that the film uses a lot of the resources and arguments that she used to write her thesis on deschooling for ecoliteracy, which sounds a lot more radical. Maybe whoever put the trailer together for them just didn’t “get it.” She hasn’t seen it either, so I guess we’ll reserve judgment until the movie comes out.  What did you think of the trailer?  Or if you’ve seen it, do you think it proposes some new, exciting solutions?  Or is it just a rehash of the same old rhetoric?

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September 28, 2009

How Standardized Tests Punish Nonconformity

In a previous post, I linked to an article by a former standardized testing grader, Todd Farley. He has an op-ed piece in the New York Times today entitled “Reading Incomprehension,” which is also very eye-opening. He talks about the difficulty of scoring open-ended items on a standardized rubric and he gives a few examples of especially confounding student responses.

I disagree, however, with his opening claim that “the problem [with standardized testing] is not so much the tests themselves–it’s the people scoring them.” Open-ended questions are inherently subjective and therefore difficult to grade according to a rubric.  Even if the scoring was done “only by professionals who have made a commitment to education,” a lot of the results would still be influenced by personal bias.  For example, take the review of the X-rated “Debbie Does Dallas” which Mr. Farley encountered.  While he described it as well-written and hilarious, normally qualities that would merit a 6 (“genius”) grade, it ended up being given a 0 because it discussed a pornographic movie.  This student obviously possessed a sense of humor, the ability to think independently and question authority, and enough writing skill to craft a “comprehensive analysis” that was “artfully written.”  Yep, sounds like that kid needed to be put in his or her place with a big, fat zero.  Would a “professional who was committed to education” have made a different call?  It would depend entirely on the individual professional.  While one who appreciated the student’s wit and individualism might have given it a higher grade, one who was offended by children and teenagers exploring their sexuality might have given it the same zero.

In another example, Mr. Farley tries to decipher whether a drawing of a child wearing a helmet while riding a bike over a flaming oil spill properly demonstrated “an understanding of bike safety.”  Since the student had just read a passage about bike safety, and most children don’t encounter walls of fire while tooling around the neighborhood, I would say, “Yes, of course.  The kid in the picture is wearing a helmet.  He’s just trying to inject some humor into the lifeless, eternally dull process of taking a standardized test.”  Mr. Farley, however, was stumped as to how many points he should assign.  The experience showed him that “the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.”  I think that the student’s score would depend, not on the scorer’s background or “commitment to education,” but on the scorer’s “commitment” to enforcing conformity and punishing those who color outside the lines.  The scorers are hired to judge, not to educate.  Because of the way standardized tests are set up, we can’t just ask the student about their intentions with the drawing.  That would require a sense of humor and respect for a child’s thought process.  I’m sure the test designers thought that having the students draw a picture in response to a reading passage would be a creative learning exercise.  I hope that child wasn’t penalized too harshly for being creative in the wrong way.

Ultimately, Mr. Farley and his colleagues had trouble with some of these responses because the rubric doesn’t work if the student refuses to conform, not necessarily because they were only “temporary employees.”  The problem is still with the test and what it demands of students, not with the people who score it.

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