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 30, 2009

How Unschoolers Fare in the Real World

Filed under: unschooling — christinag503 @ 11:54 pm
Tags: , , , ,

One of the main criticisms of homeschooling and unschooling is that children who are raised to be independent and self-directed will not be able to ever find a ‘real’ job.

To that I say: GOOD.

Most adults with the types of ‘real’ jobs these critics have in mind find them distasteful. They don’t like being stuck inside, behind a desk, for most of their waking lives. They don’t like the stressful commute, or being unable to spend time with their families or prepare a decent dinner. They don’t like dealing with bosses who force them to perform tedious or unpleasant tasks, sometimes for no apparent reason. However, they have to do everything their boss says, with a smile, because the boss has the power to punish them.

Why do we teach our kids that this is a stable and fulfilling life to which they should aspire? I know that there are exceptions to this situation, and there are many people who enjoy their desk jobs. (I know I do!) But there is a fundamental disconnect between what adults say to children about work, and what we actually train them to do. While graduation speeches and “little books o’ wisdom” exhort young people to dedicate their lives to doing what they love, we spend twelve years teaching them that misery and boredom is a necessary part of every weekday. We teach them that they should devote nearly all their time to subjects and busywork that they barely tolerate, let alone “love.” They learn to constantly submit to randomly assigned authority figures, instead of looking up to and learning from people who actually inspire them. What we have here is a severe case of failing to walk the talk.

“But Christina,” I can hear you say, “that’s the way the world works.” Baloney! The only reason people put up with crappy work situations, such as mentioned above, is because we train them to do so, when they are young and their brains are malleable. Our institutions teach this lesson, and then we reinforce it with example. Many adults are caught up in the cycle of spending their weekdays at a meaningless, maddening job, looking forward only to when they can dull their psychic pain and get a hit of artificial stimulation by watching TV, going shopping, and/or getting hammered (or high; pick your poison). Does that sound like a life you’d want to get used to?

Which brings me to my main point: yes, it probably is difficult to get unschoolers to join the rat race of the ‘real world.’ I’m sure there are some who do. But for those who try and fail to fit in with corporate culture, it’s not the end of the world. There is a way that they can continue to do what they did previously (namely, doing work of their own choosing, under their own direction, that they enjoy so much that the work is nearly indistinguishable from play)—it’s called SELF-EMPLOYMENT. The number one thing an individual can do become a productive member of society while (is this actually possible?!) still truly enjoying his or her life is to “CREATE and DELIVER real value.” I’m quoting from Steve Pavlina’s inspiring article, “How to Make Lots of Money in a Recession.” He continues:

Creating value means expressing your unique talents and skills in a way that can potentially benefit others.
Delivering value means ensuring that other people are actually receiving and benefiting from the value you’ve created.”

That sounds much better than devoting your time to becoming a well functioning, albeit miserable, cog in a large machine. I really encourage you to take the time to read the whole of this inspiring article. (I know I just said the word ‘inspiring’ twice within the space of a few sentences, and normally I hate that, but I use the word ‘inspiring’ a lot with Steve Pavlina. It’s just so apt! It’s hard to think of a more fitting word, other than ‘electrifying,’ ‘eye-opening,’ and ‘motivating.’ Not that I necessarily agree with everything Steve says, but…the man is thought-provoking!)
And if any parents are still worried about their children eventually entering the marketplace on their own, without large, well-financed corporations to feed, protect, and entertain them, I’ll leave you with this idea to chew on, also from Steve Pavlina’s brilliant (Brilliant! That’s a good one) article, “10 Reasons Never to Get a Job.”

“Does putting yourself in a position where someone else can turn off all your income just by saying two words (”You’re fired”) sound like a safe and secure situation to you? Does having only one income stream honestly sound more secure than having 10?”

It takes a lot of hard work to start your own business. But so do many of life’s most enjoyable and rewarding activities: growing a garden, playing an instrument, raising a child. The time will pass anyway. Why not spend your limited days doing hard work that brings you joy? And give your kids the same chance, while you’re at it.

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