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.

Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

The listening deficit

A few weeks ago, I held a “parents’ philosophy roundtable” at my school. Parents came to discuss passages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the eleventh graders had been reading for their course in political philosophy. When the parents read the passages out loud (their first encounter with this text, in most cases), I was struck by how carefully they read, how much they relished the phrases. Their listening bolstered the discussion.

Do today’s students know how to listen? Many lack the practice, from what I have seen. It is not their fault; entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. Moreover, their days are filled with rush and noise.

Listening may be more important to education than we realize. In a recent post, E. D. Hirsch points out that we actually listen to texts when we read them silently:

The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading.

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. Then one can appreciate a passage like this (from Mill’s On Liberty):

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Part of the meaning lies in the syntax. If one listens to the repetition of “tyranny” and “eccentricity” (or “eccentric”) in the first sentence, one hears the clash of the two. One may question Mill’s assertion that eccentricity has generally been proportional to genius, etc. (this sounds plausible but cannot be proved)—but this is subordinate to the larger point: that the loss of eccentricity suggests the loss of much more, and that we should keep eccentricity alive, if only to break through the forces that squelch it. I would say the same about listening.

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly.

I worry that schools are placing far too little emphasis on listening. The Common Core ELA standards for listening and speaking make almost no reference to listening; almost all of the standards in this section refer to speaking. I think I understand why: listening (without an accompanying assessment) is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, anyone taking the Common Core literally may assume that classrooms should be abuzz with student talk and activity. The author and educational consultant Sue Cowley captures a common sentiment when she writes, “As far as possible, keep teacher talk to a minimum and active student learning to a maximum.”

Other rubrics reinforce this message. The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in many districts, gives highest rating to teachers whose students initiate discussion, arrange their own instructional groups, and select their own material—and not to teachers who lead the lesson and have something to say. Some curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, treat listening as essential, but far too many others would push it to the edges.

This is a shame. When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.

Helicopter-ed kids in the classroom

At 50, after a successful career selling magazine advertising, Rod Baird became a high school English teacher at an affluent high school near New York City. Counterfeit Kids criticizes education fads — Baird thinks the “sage on the stage” makes a lot of sense — but the book’s real target is overprotective, esteem-boosting, college-obsessed parents.

Baird’s privileged students don’t like to read books, think or learn. Victims of the “cult of college,” they’ve been pushed by their parents to earn good grades and get into a “good” college. Nothing else matters.

In his first year, he taught non-honors English to 11th graders — B and C students — who’d figured out they’d already lost the college race.

“A palpable contempt had set in, they way they slouched in their seats, the way they openly cheated. . . . they no longer cared.”

Thanks to their parents, they had way too much self-esteem to blame themselves for their lack of success, Baird writes. Instead, they assumed the system was unfair.

Teachers are too student-centered, Baird writes.

We are trying so hard to teach that we are accepting their responsibilities. With all of our elaborate rubrics and review sheets and methodologies and layers upon layers of special education services and ever-changing pedagogies and assessments, we are smothering them, preventing them from learning the basics, from how to think for themselves, to self-discipline, to English grammar, stunting their growth . . .

Students who’ve been told they learn by doing believe they have no obligation to listen or read, Baird writes. Group work — “collaborative learning” — teaches them to follow the group leader, who does most of the work. “We love group work,” a student tells him. “Usually you don’t have to do anything until the teacher comes around with her clipboard and rubric. Then we pretend we are doing what she asked us.”

His students are good at following specific directions — if there’s a grade to earn. Asked to think for themselves, they flounder.

Baird shares his techniques for jolting students out of their complacency and getting them to think.

Lonely groundhogs: Where’s the math?

Oak Norton, a Utah blogger, predicts the Death of Math after reading a new secondary math textbook circulated by the state education department. For example, the Lonely Groundhog assignment, adapted from the Interactive Mathematics Program, sets up a game:

. . . Once winter is over (groundhogs) live in fancy houses that are decorated with the most beautiful shapes. Since groundhogs aren’t very creative, they live in houses that look just like the house of at least one other groundhog. Groundhogs that live in identical houses always play together. However, one groundhog has a house different from all the rest. Sometimes this groundhog is left all alone. If you can help find the lonely groundhog, perhaps you could introduce it to all the other groundhogs.

Each group gets 40 cards with pictures of groundhog houses, which are evenly distributed face down. One card only has no match.

Your group’s task is to discover the singleton card of the lonely groundhog. When your group thinks they have located the house of the lonely groundhog the task is ended, whether or not you are correct. Therefore, you must be sure that everyone is confident of your answer before you announce that you are done. 

The rules ban showing, trading, passing, drawing or looking at cards or putting cards in a common pile when duplicates are found. However, “you may set your cards face down in front of you once you think you have found a match.” And anything else is legal, so presumably kids are supposed to describe the shapes on their cards.

But the point isn’t to learn to identify or describe shapes. Students are asked:

What were your group’s strengths and weaknesses? How can you help your group work together better and improve your individual participation? How did you know when you were done? How confident were you in knowing you had solved the problem? Why were you so confident?

The homework asks students “to reflect upon the way you participate in groups within a math classroom and outside of a math classroom.”

1. a. Think of a time when you or someone in your group was left out of the discussion. Describe the situation. Did anyone try to include that person? If not, why not? If yes, then how?

b. What might you have done to help with the situation?

And so on and on. I came across a teacher who’d assigned Lonely Groundhog homework — and work on quadratic equations. So we’re not talking about little kids here.

Norton is afraid that under Common Core Standards, the state will force all districts to use the same, inane learning materials.

Teachers, is this game less stupid and time-wasting than I think?

Teaching students to ask questions

What would education be like if students knew how to pose, prioritize, and use their own questions? Vastly better than it is now, argue Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). If students learned how to formulate good questions, according to the authors, they’d be that much closer to becoming “independent thinkers and self-directed learners”  and practitioners of “democratic deliberation.”

On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. The ability to ask good questions can enhance both individual lives and common culture. Many people need special instruction in this skill; most of us have room for improvement. I am not convinced, though, that any of this requires the elaborate group processes that Rothstein and Santana describe.

The research started when the authors were working in a dropout prevention program. They heard from parents that they wouldn’t come to meetings at school because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” Rothstein and Santana began by giving them questions but then realized that this was only increasing their dependency—that they needed to know “how to generate and use their own questions.” Over time, the authors developed a technique for teaching just that. They and others founded the Right Question Project, now known as the Right Question Institute, which teaches the technique to people around the country and abroad.

The book explains the Question Formulation Technique, which consists of six components: (a) a Question Focus; (b) a process for producing questions; (c) an exercise for working on closed and open-ended questions; (d) student selection of priority questions; (e) a plan for the next steps; and (f) a reflection activity. The authors provide numerous case studies to show how these components have played out.

Before starting the process, students are introduced to the four rules: “(1) Ask as many questions as you can; (2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; (3) Write down every question exactly as it was stated; and (4) Change any statements into questions.” Students are supposed to reflect on these rules before proceeding. The authors explain:

The rules ask for a change in behavior, officially discouraging discussion in order to encourage the rapid production of questions. Students thus need to think about how they usually work individually and in groups. They name their usual practices and become aware of how they generally come up with ideas. They then must distinguish their present learning habits from what the rules require of them.

After receiving their Question Focus from the teacher, the students begin producing questions in groups. They are reminded to ask lots of questions and to refrain from judging, answering, or editing them. The teacher is not supposed to give examples of questions, even if the students are having difficulty.

From here, the students work on improving the questions. [Read more...]

The Danielson Framework: what is engagement?

I look forward to the next twelve days of guest-blogging with Michael Lopez. I will begin with some thoughts about the Danielson Framework for Teaching and its assumptions about student responsibility. A question for readers: is an “engaged” student one who starts projects, initiates groups, and selects materials? Or do you have other definitions of engagement?

The Danielson Framework (created by Charlotte Danielson, an education policy adviser and consultant) is now the standard teacher evaluation rubric in New York City and hundreds of other districts around the country. It will be used with  a point scale, Danielson’s discomfort notwithstanding. (She told Peter DeWitt in an interview, “In general, I don’t like numbers of any kind. Teaching is enormously complex work and it is very hard to just reduce it to a number of any kind. However, it’s important to capture, in a short-hand manner, the relative skills of different teachers, so I suppose numbers or ratings of some kind – are inevitable.”)

As reading material, the Framework generally preens my feathers instead of ruffling them (though the two are not necessarily at odds). It consists of 22 components, which are distributed across four domains: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. The explanatory text fills in some of the subtleties and caveats.  As a rubric, though, it affects not my feathers but my gut; some of its key premises seem shaky at best. For instance, it assumes that student “engagement” is essential to learning and that students manifest such engagement overtly through initiative and leadership. The first part makes sense; how can you learn unless you put some effort into it? It is the second part that leaves me uneasy.

Let us consider the Framework’s third domain, “Instruction,” and the domain’s third component, “Engaging Students in Learning.” [Read more...]

Twitter, text, talk, but no time to think

Everybody’s connected all the time, “sharing” every 140-character observation, updating each other on their latest cup of coffee, tweeting and texting. But there’s less time to think, writes Diana Senechal in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

An English teacher quotes Senechal’s critique of the stress on group work and collaboration.

“Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.

“One oft-touted practice in elementary school is the ‘turn and talk’ activity, where a teacher pauses in a story she is reading aloud, asks a question, and has the students talk to their partners about it. When they are done, they join hands and raise them in the air. Instead of losing themselves in the story, they must immediately contend with the reactions of their peers. Many districts require small-group activities, throughout the grades, because such activities presumably allow all student to talk in a given lesson. Those who set and enforce such policies do not consider the drawbacks of so much talk. Talk needs a counterbalance of thought; without thought, it turns into chatter.”

I memorized a sonnet by Wordsworth in the 10th grade. Forty-odd years later, it stills comes to mind: “The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . . “

Compulsive tweeting and checking of e-mail is harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes, according to a new study.

Putting group work in its place

My book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in November and is already available for pre-ordering. In the book, I discuss group work, the folly of the “big idea,” pitfalls of “mass personalization,” and more, with references to literature, philosophy, and mathematics.

It is unclear what the future of group work holds, but I hope that it will be given its proper place–that it will be used when it actually serves the lesson and not when it doesn’t.

The Common Core State Standards seem ambivalent over the matter. The English language arts standards state, for instance, that third-grade students will “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” The emphasis here could be either on clarity of expression or on the range of collaborative discussions.

Group work has its place, but its place has been greatly exaggerated by proponents of various “workshop models,” Balanced Literacy, “21st century skills,” and so forth. People often forget that its quality depends on the contributions of its members. To contribute something substantial to a group, you have to do a great deal of work alone.

Working alone is not merely individualistic or competitive. It allows one to sift through thoughts, absorb information, commit information or literature to memory, think about it in different ways, try out ideas, slow down, speed up, and return to something one has learned or read before. For many, it is the happiest and most fruitful part of learning, along with the instruction itself.

When group work becomes a mainstay of instruction, it can limit the lesson and even the subject matter. The most common complaint about group work is that some students do much more work than others. But there are many more problems.

First, because students lack perspective on the subject, they are likely to disregard opinions that don’t make immediate sense to them. They may focus on those points of view that help them finish the task quickly. If someone in the group sees a problem with the entire premise, that person will likely be ignored.

Second (and related), because group work tends to focus on a task, the group members may not take time with questions that require time. They may take the shortest route to the goal, which for some topics and subjects is not the best. [Read more...]

Kundera, Rhinoceros, and group work

I have often thought about the classroom scenes in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. There’s a scene where two American girls, Michelle and Gabrielle, present their report on Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. They are enrolled in a summer school course for foreigners in a small town on the Rivera. They do their work dutifully, writing down every word that the teacher says. They have concluded that Ionesco has the characters turn into rhinoceroses in order to create a “comic effect.”

So now they’re about to give their oral report, and they don cardboard rhinoceros masks for the occasion. They let out “short, shrill, breathy sounds”; the teacher, Madame Raphael, answers these sounds with her own version.

Now an Israeli girl named Sarah takes this opportunity to come up and kick both of them from behind. The class starts howling. The two girls start crying. Madame Raphael interprets their crying as laughter and decides that the prank was part of a plan. She, too, starts laughing; the girls, hearing her laughter, cry all the harder and begin writhing. Madame Raphael takes this writing for a dance. She takes their hands, and the three begin dancing in a circle. Then something strange happens. They begin to rise up into the air, higher and higher as they circle around. Now the ceiling yields to them, and they rise through it. The chapter concludes (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim, Penguin, 1981):

First their cardboard noses vanished, then only three pairs of shoes remained, and finally the shoes vanished as well, leaving the stupefied students with nothing but the brilliant, fading laughter of the three archangels from on high.

What is going on here? First of all, the girls miss the point of Rhinoceros, because they are inexperienced and have no one to guide them to a better understanding. No one challenges the idea that the play’s main purpose is to be funny. (It is indeed a very funny play, but it is also a scary allegory of group conformity.)

Missing the point of Rhinoceros, they unwittingly reproduce it. Madame Raphael, whose goal is to affirm whatever they do (and thus to bring them over to her own beliefs) misses the point as well. She takes their tears for laughter, laughter that coincides with her own. She starts up a circle dance with them–and this great success, the success of agreement and ascension, results in their vanishing in the upper air, with only the traces of laughter remaining (like the Cheshire Cat’s grin).

In the name of creativity, the two girls are trying to do exactly what the teacher wants. Both they and the teacher miss the point of Rhinoceros, and the teacher misinterprets what is going on in their presentation. All these misunderstandings result in the upward-spiraling circle dance, which isn’t too different from a world of rhinoceroses. The laughter of the angels and the stampede of hoofs have something in common.

What does this have to do with education? A lot, but the lessons are not direct. It points to some of the problems with group work and the problem of reading something for what one wants to see in it, not what’s there. Perhaps these problems are related: Michelle, Gabrielle, and Madame Raphael join hands and make a perfect world of something disturbing–by misinterpreting it entirely. They rise up into the air because they are not grounded. There is nowhere else for them to go. They become angels of unavowed error.