Group work does not equal collaboration

[This is my last guest post for this stint. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for having me, and thanks to Rachel and Michael for your excellent co-blogging.]

Often we hear that in today’s workplace, there’s increased need for collaboration, since projects are typically complex and require the combined efforts of many. Education policymakers then turn to schools and say, “OK, kids need to learn to collaborate, so there should be more group work in the classroom.” (This argument came up in a comment on my recent NYT piece.)

The problem here is one of translation. Collaboration and group work are not necessarily the same. You can have strong collaboration with minimal group work, and vice versa.

Suppose you have submitted a piece to a journal. You wrote the piece alone–but later receive comments and edits from the editor. Even if you never speak with the editor (except by email), these edits will inform your revision. Thus, by the time your piece reaches its final version, some collaboration has taken place.

Or say you are co-teaching a unit on the Renaissance. Your own contribution to the unit (which focuses on literature) requires much independent thought and planning–but when you hear what the other teachers are contributing, you adjust some of your presentation and questions, in order to play off of theirs. The independent planning is essential, as is the planning with your colleagues.

Or consider a musical ensemble. If rehearsal time is to be spent well, the members must learn their parts on their own. Then, when they come together, they can shape the music. Sometimes they will spend rehearsal time going over a new piece–but they still have to take it home and work on it, unless it presents no difficulties (in which case they will still need to practice the instrument on their own). In addition, to play well in an ensemble, you need to be able to play your instrument in the first place–and that requires years of practice, most of it solitary.

Also, many research projects are collaborative–yet the various pieces may not come together for a long time. Individual contributors may be working on their own pieces for years, only occasionally consulting with the others. (This could be good or bad; it depends on the nature of the project.)

Even a lecture is collaborative in that it requires joining of efforts. An attentive, inquisitive audience can make the difference between an outstanding lecture and one that falls flat. Likewise, the lecturer must respond, even subtly, to those in the room and to the room itself.

How is group work in the classroom different from what I have mentioned above? Too often, the group is expected to do most of the work together, in company (and surrounded by many other groups). There’s little room for independent work and thought. The scope of the project is typically limited; it may amount to nothing more than a Venn diagram. In fact, group work, when overused, can diminish collaboration by limiting what students do and learn.

Now, some people favor group work because it exposes students to social situations they will encounter later. Even this argument misses the boat. Good social interaction requires a degree of solitude. If you are constantly forced to negotiate with others–over ideas and problems–then you do not get a chance to bring anything of your own to the table. Imagine lawyers negotiating before they had researched their cases. The one with even a slight edge on the research would have the advantage. To negotiate over ideas (and information), you need to have them in the first place.

Sometimes group work in the classroom can result in something substantial. Often it does not–especially when the group work is there for group work’s sake. Yes, it’s important  for students to learn collaboration, but group work is not necessarily the way.

Addendum: In April I took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service’s flagship program The Forum, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li. At one point we discuss the overemphasis on group work in schools. The entire discussion is interesting–and can be heard online until July 28.

A desk of one’s own

It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.

There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.

By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.

Why is this important, and why is it rare?

First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)

I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.

Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.

Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.

There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.

Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)

Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk? [Read more...]

From near-death to Silicon Valley CEO

As a 22-year-old Marine in 1984, Ramona Pierson was hit by a drunken driver while running. Her body shattered, she spent 18 months in a drug-induced coma. When she woke up, she couldn’t walk, talk or see. Without any family, she was shuttled through VA hospitals, then sent to a senior citizens’ home in Colorado.

Pierson is now a Silicon Valley CEO, reports the San Jose Mercury News. She sold her first startup, an educational software company called SynapticMash, for $10 million. Investors have put more than $5 million into her new company, Declara.

Pierson’s comeback started at the retirement home, where the seniors helped her learn to speak and walk. It took three years. Still blind — after 11 years, a corneal transplant restored her sight — Pierson enrolled at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. She went on to earn a doctorate in neuro-clinical psychology.

Declara’s “radical collaboration” engine uses a “very powerful cognitive map” to help teachers connect with other educators trying to solve similar classroom problems.

Designed initially as a tool to connect educators to information and analysis about how people learn, the software was shaped by Pierson to mimic her own experience, particularly her years in the old folks home. “I think that helped me see these elders as experts,” she says, “and that’s where the radical collaboration came from.”

The technology is in wide use in South America and Australia. Pierson hopes to expand in the U.S.

Time-tech swaps can raise teacher pay

Blended learning can personalize instruction — and enable teachers to earn at least 20 percent more, write Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel on Education Next.

In Time-Technology Swaps, excellent teachers “reach more students, for more pay, within budget, without having to increase class sizes,” they write. Lower-paid aides supervise the online-learning time.

Blended-learning teachers can also use some of their freed time for planning and collaboration.

Change without reform

After all the education reforms, what’s really changed in classrooms? Not a whole lot, writes Larry Cuban in his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

Cuban looks at a 1:1 laptop program in a Bay Area high school in 1998-99 and 2008-10,   writes Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.  The project started with generous federal and state grants and funding from Silicon Valley donors, Cuban writes. Teachers were enthusiastic. But problems soon emerged.

The principal who’d spearheaded the idea left just as it was getting started; the school went through four principals from 1998 to 2010. Faculty turnover was high too and some teachers made little use of technology. Those who did rarely changed their teaching.

The school’s test scores fell, pressuring teachers to focus on test prep.

“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops are, at best, indirect and, at worst, nonexistent,” Cuban concludes.

It’s not just a problem with digital learning, Cuban writes. Changes in governance, school size, curriculum, and organization “have had few effects on classroom practices and, consequently, students’ academic outcomes,” he concludes.

Encouraging teachers to collaborate and easing test-based accountability might change inside-the-box teaching for the better, Cuban suggests. But he makes no claim to have the answers, Bauerlein writes.

‘Teacherpreneurs’ — and free e-books

Teacherpreneurs tells the stories of eight classroom teachers who are shaping policies and practices at their schools.  All are members of Center for Teaching Quality’s  Collaboratory.

Download free-e-books: Michael Petrilli’s The Diverse Schools Dilemma and Education Reform for the Digital Era are available.

Also available as a free download: Mark Schneider’s The Accountability Plateau analyzes No Child Left Behind’s effect on NAEP scores (math achievement is up) and warns that gains may be leveling off.

Teamwork for what?

“Social-emotional skills’ such as teamwork, collaboration and communications are fashionable these days, writes Diana Senechal. She thinks students need to learn “a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.”

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

If students get together to study a work of literature or music, they “come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions,” Senechal writes. In her eighth-grade English class, she “came to know my classmates, and they me,” in discussing The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie and  more.

Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial.

Most group work  “degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on,” Senechal writes. “Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone).”

Teamwork is not good in itself, she argues.

Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. . . . Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

. . . schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

I think people learn teamwork only when they’re on real teams coming together to dramatize Romeo and Juliet, sing in the chorus, march in the band, win the game, put out a newspaper and so on.

In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors

In high-scoring Shanghai, all teachers have mentors — not just novices — and teachers collaborate in lesson and research groups, writes Marc Tucker in an interview with Ben Jensen, of Australia’s Grattan Institute, in Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog. (A longer version is here.)

Every teacher has a mentor and new teachers have two, one for subject matter and one for teaching, says Jensen. The mentors observe and provide feedback.

Only .2 percent of teachers reach the “master teacher” level and then they don’t have mentors, but they will still work together and have their work evaluated and appraised.

In Shanghai, you will struggle to get promoted if you receive poor feedback from the people you mentored. That means the people who get promoted are collaborative and committed to helping teachers, and they have a proven track record in this area.

In most schools in Shanghai, teachers form lesson groups that discuss students’ progress and research groups that explore new strategies, says Jensen.

In Shanghai, you don’t get promoted as a teacher unless you are also a researcher. You have to have published articles, not in academic journals but in professional journals or even school journals. In fact, one of the first stages in a promotion evaluation is to have one of your articles peer reviewed. Every teacher will work in a research group with about half a dozen other teachers, often of the same subject area but not always. If there is a young teacher, that teacher’s mentor will often be in that group as well. They will meet for about 2 hours every 2 weeks.

At the start of the year, the group choses a topic—a new curriculum or pedagogical technique or determining how to help out a particular student—and the principal will approve that topic. The first third of the year is spent on a literature review. The second third of the year is spent trying out strategies in the classroom that the group identified as promising during the literature review. As they try these strategies in the classroom, other members of the research group will observe.

Senior teachers with strong research experience serve as leaders.

About 30 percent of Shanghai teachers’ salary is performance pay, reports the New York Times. “Teacher salaries are modest, about $750 a month before bonuses and allowances — far less than what accountants, lawyers or other professionals earn.”

Cheating is a valuable workplace skill

Homeschool your kids so they learn to cheat, writes Penelope Trunk on her homeschooling blog. What schools call cheating — getting the right answer from others — is “effective workplace behavior” and a valuable skill, she argues.

Some 85 percent of students admit to cheating, Trunk writes.

. . . Stuyvesant, a New York City magnet school that’s harder to get into than Harvard, had an incredibly organized cheating system that rivals best practices for productivity types in Fortune 500 organizations.

. . . What made Stuyvesant’s cheating system so effective was that everybody had a certain topic that they would be expert on, and everyone else knew how to get the answers from that person.

That’s a great workplace skill, and you do kids a disservice by training them to think that it’s improper behavior.

Compared to their elders, Generation Y is “incredibly productive because they’re great collaborators.”

In the age of information, sharing information rules the day, and there’s no longer a place for a Lone Ranger at the office who works independently of everyone else. Today’s business world is too complicated and too networked for people to work so independently as to not be getting information from other people.

Teachers have been pushing collaborative work on projects and peer tutoring for many years now. Collaborative work on tests is another matter.

Does Trunk have a point?

Teaching the core — and social competence

California educators are trying to integrate social and emotional learning into Common Core Standards, reports EdSource Today.

SACRAMENTO – School is nothing if not an intensely social experience, which is why teacher Michelle Flores posed this question to 24 third graders at Aspire Capitol Heights Academy: “When someone makes a mistake, what do we say?”

“That’s cool,” the third graders responded in unison. “We are experts at making mistakes,” said Flores, who incorporates social and emotional instruction, including the idea that making a mistake is not cause for embarrassment, into academics at the charter school using an approach called Responsive Classroom.

Students need to work in teams, understand different perspectives and persevere in solving problems, said Nancy Markowitz, director of the Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child at San Jose State University. “To be able to do a ‘pair-share’ in class, where each kid takes a different perspective on the Civil War, listens, empathizes, and represents her point of view, the prerequisite is that students know how to share ideas,” she said.

Flores’s third graders use “professional discourse” and “academic discourse” to discuss math.

“Javon, why do you concur with my thinking?” asked Meranza, who stood beside a document camera and an overhead projector to explain her math results. “I concur with your thoughts because,” began Javon, launching into a math proof.

“Could you please project your voice, Meranza?” asked Niema. “Absolutely,” replied Meranza. “It would be my pleasure to.”

I’m not sure if this is social and emotional learning or just good manners, but I like it.