Writing alone

Brainstorming isn’t the key to creativity, writes Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker.  “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” says Keith Sawyer, a Washington University psychologist.

As a new teacher, Greg Graham would break students into small groups, telling them to “brainstorm” ideas, read each other’s writing and provide feedback. Writing in groups usually doesn’t work, he writes in Education Week’s Teacher.

. . . a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups.

With 36 teaching hours per semester, “I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit.” So he walks students through writing exercises, urges them to share their work with the class, tries to “connect the subject matter with their world” and acts as “a moderator orchestrating the interaction in my classroom.”

He provides class time for solitary writing, “providing writing prompts that provoke personal awareness, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity.”

In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture facilitates this kind of in-depth thinking. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance they will land in a group rife with anti-intellectualism, “getting by,” and conformity. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll act as a coach and mentor, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.

“Our students need to learn how to work out their thinking on their own,” Graham writes.

As an English and Creative Writing major, I did all my writing alone, though never in class. We read our work aloud and listened to feedback. We did not “brainstorm.”  Of course, this was the dark ages. We didn’t draw pictures or diagrams or little balloons either.

Study: Group discussion lowers IQ

Many people can’t express their intelligence in group discussions, concludes a Virginia Tech study.

If we think others in a group are smarter, we may become dumber, temporarily losing both our problem-solving ability and what the researchers call our “expression of IQ.”

Women and people with higher IQs are the most likely to clam up, according to the report.

I wonder if this holds true for students in middle and high school, when kids are conscious of their status within a group.

Intelligent groups

Collaboration” and “working effectively in groups” are supposed to be 21st century skills that students will need in the workplace, notes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. But teachers don’t know how to teach collaboration: Just putting students in groups doesn’t make them effective.

However, new research provides insight on what good group members do, Willingham writes.

Just as there is a general intelligence or “g factor” in individuals that predicts the likelihood the individual will solve a problem, there is a collective intelligence or “c factor” that predicts group task solution across a broad variety of tasks.

Second, you might expect that the “c factor” would simply be a function of the average intelligence of group members. It wasn’t. The intelligence of individuals mattered, but more important was the social intelligence of group members.

Social intelligence was measured by asking participants to judge what another person is feeling from a photograph of the eyes only. Women tested higher on social sensitivity and groups with more women showed a higher group intelligence.

Letting everyone take a turn in the conversation also contributed to group intelligence.

I spent many years on the San Jose Mercury News editorial board trying to reach consensus on the issues of the day.  I don’t think social sensitivity was my strong suit.

Fads trump effective teaching

Differentiated Instruction — grouping students by abilities, personal interests and “learning styles” — is a time-wasting fad that is backed by no evidence of effectiveness, writes education consultant Mike Schmoker in Ed Week.

. . .  I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious “kinesthetic” activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, “creative” students made things or drew pictures; “analytical” students got to read and write.

In these ways, Differentiated Instruction, or DI, corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction. With so many groups to teach, instructors found it almost impossible to provide sustained, properly executed lessons for every child or group-and in a single class period. It profoundly impeded the teacher’s ability to incorporate those protean, decades-old elements of a good lesson which have a titanic impact on learning, even in mixed-ability classrooms . . .

No research supports DI’s effectiveness, Schmoker writes. Cognitive scientists have debunked the “learning styles” theory that underlies DI. But it is now the reigning orthodoxy.

We know a lot about how to teach well, he argues.

First, we need coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum — that is, a curriculum which ensures that the actual intellectual skills and subject matter of a course don’t depend on which teacher a student happens to get.

. . . we need to ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum.

Finally, students learn when “lessons start with a clear, curriculum-based objective and assessment, followed by multiple cycles of instruction, guided practice, checks for understanding (the soul of a good lesson), and ongoing adjustments to instruction.”

In the comments, teachers argue that Schmoker’s definition of effective teaching is differentiated instruction. If so, there’s nothing “differentiated” about DI.