School is not work, students are not experts (some thoughts on group work)

In continuation of my previous post, some thoughts on one of progressive education’s favorite tools: group work. 

A good deal of fuss is currently being made of the importance of preparing students to work collaboratively in groups, in preparation for the twenty-first century economy. In the context of these discussions, group work, much like “critical thinking,” is typically presented as a formal skill that can be developed in the absence of any specific context.

On the surface, this is one of those claims that seems eminently reasonable. Because many well-paying jobs in the current economy do in fact require some degree of collaboration among workers, it seems logical that children should be trained to work collaboratively.

But a school is not the workplace, and the embrace of group work as a goal in and of itself overlooks the fact the real-life conditions under which adult workers collaborate are markedly different from the conditions under which students are expected to do so.

First, when adults are hired for skilled, white-collar jobs (presumably the type of “twenty-first century jobs” schools are currently devoted to preparing students for), they are typically hired because of their expertise in a particular field.

When they collaborate in groups with their colleagues, it is not for the purpose of fulfilling some pedagogical imperative but rather because their particular areas of expertise make the individual group members particularly well-suited to working together toward a specific goal.

In addition, it can normally be taken for granted that while members have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, they all possess a full array of basic competencies; indeed, it is reasonable to assume they would not have been hired otherwise.

In sharp contrast, the primary purpose of school is not (or, at the very least, should not be) to have children share their expertise in the service of a particular goal, but rather to acquire a broad range of fundamental knowledge. With the exception of a minuscule percentage of students who are truly capable of performing at an adult level in a particular area, children are not experts in the same way that adults paid to do a particular job are.

Whereas employees are contracted to serve their employers’ bottom line, schools exist to serve children — not in the sense of waiting on them hand and foot, but rather in the sense of assuming responsibility for equipping them with the skills necessary to become functioning members of society. This is a fundamentally different paradigm from that of the working world, and for that reason, the two cannot truly be equated. 

As is the case in so many other areas of education these days, part of the compulsive focus on group work results from the confusion between behaving like experts and actually being experts. The assumption is that if students are taught to display the same behaviors that experienced adult professionals display, then they will actually come to possess the know-how of those adults (the “cargo cult” theory of education, or “rote understanding”). Doing is substituted for knowing. 

Furthermore, children are not hired by schools as a result of their meeting specific professional criteria, but rather are placed in them according to a variety of geographic, socio-economic, and academic factors. The range of basic skills to be exhibited in a given classroom thus tends to be far wider than those exhibited by adults collaborating in a professional setting.

So while groups composed of adults are of course sometimes plagued by slackers and whiners and generally difficult personalities, there is usually a baseline level of competence that can be taken for granted; in contrast, groups of students are considerably more likely to contain members who are genuinely lacking in basic skills.

As a result, stronger students inevitably end up covering for weaker ones (why struggle with something unpleasant when you can pan it off on someone else?), regardless of whether teachers are careful to assign each member a specific role in an attempt to preclude that possibility.

Is that really the lesson that group work is intended to impart — that diligent, knowledgeable students should learn to cover for their less diligent and knowledgeable peers, while the latter should learn to exploit the generosity of the former?

That is undoubtedly how the world actually does work sometimes, but it is highly questionable whether schools should be going out of their way to facilitate those types of interactions in the name of promoting an amorphous ideal of “collaboration.”

Let me cite Hannah Arendt here:

The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening…

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others…

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority.

(But obviously, children jabbering away at each in their groups look so happy and engaged that this sort of coercion could not possibly be taking place!)

As a matter of strict practicality, there is no way that any teacher can control each individual group in a classroom designed to resemble a three-ring circus. Adult group dynamics can undoubtedly be toxic at times, but at least they take place in the context of people with fully developed prefrontal cortexes. And at any rate, a student whose primary takeaway from years of group work is a finely honed ability to foist responsibility onto others is hardly anyone’s dream employee/colleague. Experience can cut both ways.

Furthermore, the practice of letting students consistently play to their strengths in the service of pretending that they are experts deprives them of the less-pleasant but essential experience of gaining important competencies that do not come easily. Learning to master the basics is a crucial part of what school is for. If students fail to gain fundamental knowledge in school and do not have parents or tutors to fill in the gaps, where, then, will they acquire these skills? 

The attempt to prepare students for the working world by having them imitate a common workplace behavior thus has the paradoxical effect of making them less prepared to join the adult world. If employers complain that their younger hires have difficulty collaborating, they are still talking about people who had the skills to be hired in the first place. People who lack the skills to do the job are, for obvious reasons, not part of the equation — and one of employers’ biggest complaints involves recent graduates who lack the skills necessary to be hired in the first place. 

It is also highly debatable whether employers and teachers even have the same definition of group work.

In school, it has come to refer to the classroom practice of dividing students into small groups of three to five, in which each student is assigned a specific role, with the expectation that they will teach one another as well as demonstrate that they are learning actively. Meanwhile, the teacher circulates, monitoring interactions, gathering data, and occasionally providing clarification (but not, heaven forbid, direct instruction!) tailored to individual students’ and groups’ unique learning styles. (If you think this is a caricature, you probably don’t have much experience with contemporary educational pedagogy.)

It seems reasonable, however, to assume that employers would have a somewhat broader definition of what constitutes group work. In a real-world setting, successful participation in group work involves, among other things, the ability to work autonomously for long stretches (projects often stretch for weeks or even months) and to summarize one’s clearly work to others; to interact with people of different ages and experience levels, in-person and electronically, and to adjust one’s communication style accordingly;  to express one’s ideas clearly and and succinctly in writing, complete with proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.; and to complete assignments by their deadlines.

The development of these skills is hardly contingent on the amount of group work one has participated in throughout school. In fact, students whose primary mode of interaction involves chatting with their peers are unlikely to accrue the skills necessary to communicate effectively with anyone over the age of 21. Again, the effect is to keep students in a prolonged state of immaturity.

Finally, the notion the students will fail to acquire the soft skills necessary to flourish in the twenty-first century workplace unless schools reject direct, teacher-led instruction in favor of small, student-led groups runs counter to both history and common sense. Participating in groups is part of participating in life. A family is a group. A class is a group. A sports team is a group. (American children probably spend nearly as much time participating in extracurricular group activities as they do in school.) Adults have successfully worked in groups for thousands of years; modern civilization could not have been built otherwise. 

The economic shift toward high-knowledge jobs and away from manual ones should therefore not necessitate the knee-jerk replacement of pedagogical techniques that, after all, have remained pretty effective throughout centuries of upheaval. It is the height of arrogance to assume that the recent proliferation of digital devices suddenly nullifies an entire body of accumulated wisdom — that because years now begin with 20- rather than 19-, we are so unique, so modern, that the past can no longer inform our approach to learning. 

And on a practical note, as someone who has now hired a number of people for various positions, I can state that in some regards, things haven’t really changed all that much. A person who possesses the requisite skill-set for a job, presents themselves professionally, is reliable, pays attention to details, writes clearly, has a healthy dose of common sense, and is generally pleasant to be around, will not have an outsized amount of trouble finding or retaining some sort of job in most fields — even in the twenty-first century.


Note: for one other great take down of group work, see

If I were in school today…

A couple of days ago, I came across this article from Boston WBUR, courtesy of Diane Ravitch’s blog. It tells the story of David Weinstein, who has taught first grade at the Pierce School in Brookline, MA, for 29 years but is retiring because he can no longer tolerate being a data-collector for six year-olds.

As Weinstein explains: 

[Retirement is] something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, just in terms of how the profession has changed and what we’re asking of kids. It’s a much more pressure-packed kind of job than it used to be. And it’s challenging.

The pace is intense and I feel for kids, because they’re rushed. They’re constantly being rushed. You only get to be a child once. And you don’t get to enjoy childhood when you’re constantly being rushed from this place to that place to this, and being assessed in this way.

There’s a lot more data collection than we used to do. Data collection is important; part of education is assessment. Data collection isn’t inherently bad.

What becomes problematic is when an outside party is asking you to collect data which isn’t tremendously useful to my tailoring instruction to children. And that — that becomes frustrating to me as an educator, when I’m spending the limited time that I have each day collecting data, as opposed to developing lessons and working with children.

I went through the Brookline public schools, K-12. I didn’t attend Pierce, although I did live down the street from it for a while. Based on when Weinstein began teaching, some of my high school classmates would have been members of his first class.

The article would have leapt out at me under any circumstances, but it seemed particularly relevant given the recent series of posts by a colleague of mine, describing the chilling effects of various “reforms” on her classroom.

The article made me think back on my own first grade experience in Miss Dunne’s class at the Heath School. Most of it is pretty fuzzy at this point, but I do remember that it was considered a big step up from kindergarten: desks! chapter books! homework! (albeit only a few times a week).

It was pretty academic but, as I recall, it was also pretty low pressure. We did most activities as a class and some in smaller groups, but at no point did anyone suggest that anyone other than the teacher was responsible for teaching us, or that the teacher was responsible for doing anything other than teaching.

No one worried if we weren’t yet fluent readers, or how our failure to get ahead on that all-important skill might affect the school’s standardized test scores or interfere with our progression toward “college readiness.” In the late 1980s, those kinds of conversations did not yet exist. The idea of administering a reading comprehension test to children who were still learning to sound out words would have been considered madness. 

To start teaching in the Brookline public school system of 1987 and gradually have it taken over by a more-sooner-faster and teacher-as-data-collector mentality must be akin to entering the Twilight Zone. Children deserve wonderful, experienced teachers like Mr. Weinstein, but there is only so much a person can reasonably be expected to take.

And in a system like Brookline’s, which has traditionally educated many of the children of Boston’s professoriate class and sends a very significant number of its graduates to top colleges (members of my non-data driven first grade class attended, among other places, Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Williams, Georgetown, and Wesleyan), there is absolutely nothing to be gained from imposing this type of ridiculousness. Incidentally, the Massachusetts state standards that were jettisoned in favor of Common Core were actually more challenging. 

Witnessing the insanity of what public education has devolved into, I sometimes can’t help but wonder how I would have fared had the current system been implemented when I was in elementary school.

At six, I had a rather impressive vocabulary, but my actual decoding skills lagged behind. I wasn’t even in the top reading group! But no one was particularly concerned about that, uneven development being quite common in young children. Everyone understood that learning is not a linear process but rather one that proceeds in fits and starts. It’s possible for one set of skills to be highly advanced while another is merely average. It’s a long, long arc, sometimes one that takes place over a period of years, and it can’t be controlled or accelerated by constant micro-assessments.

As Weinstein says:

There’s a lot of looking at standards — that’s the big thing in education — and really with the goal of trying to break education down into bits and pieces, so that we can have a clear understanding of where kids have mastery and where kids don’t have mastery. All these little pieces don’t necessarily add up to a whole. It’s hard to say that if you’ve mastered this and this and this, you have an educated person. That I don’t believe.

In my case, the assumption was that things would even out eventually, and sure enough, by second grade, I was devouring long books with relish. But had I been pushed to read in kindergarten, I don’t think I could have risen to the challenge. I was always among the youngest members of my class (in a lot of districts, I would have been required to start kindergarten a year later), and I just hadn’t hit that point developmentally. Considering some of the epic meltdowns I had in high school, when I was asked to complete assignments I lacked the tools to manage, I don’t think it would have been pretty. And although I’m what most people would consider a “natural” standardized test-taker, I think I would have been utterly baffled by something like the PARCC.

I’m also not someone who is particularly fond of working in groups. Under the proper circumstances, I am capable of collaborating with others quite effectively (and quite vociferously), but I generally prefer to work on my own. Given the current obsession with group work, I suspect I would have been a pretty unhappy camper.

Moreover, a perpetual refrain from my elementary school teachers was that I had difficulty “transitioning” — that is, I would get so caught up in whatever I was doing that I didn’t want to stop and move on to the next activity. If that was a problem when each lesson lasted, say, half-an-hour, I can’t imagine how I would have handled being asked to switch tasks every 10 minutes. And people wonder why students have trouble focusing! 

What I think I would have found most difficult, though, is the imposition of the idea that an effective classroom must be a busy classroom, one filled with constant chatter and noise and activity. Clearly some people have a high tolerance for that type of environment, but I, alas, am not one of them. (Interestingly, the “every child’s unique learning style should be honored” philosophy does not appear to extend to students who enjoy listening to people who know much more than they do explain new concepts in a clear and structured manner.) As a child, I was easily overwhelmed by noise and chaos; at six, I probably would have plopped myself in a corner somewhere and refused to participate. 

So I wonder: how on earth do children with personalities and interests like mine manage in today’s public school classrooms? Do they find ways to cope, or do they end up with a prescription for Ritalin and a half-dozen diagnoses? 

Teachers, at least, have the option of walking away from a crazed and out-of-control system. They can take early retirement, like David Weinstein, or they can simply look for another job. It may be a big hassle, but at least it’s an option.

But who, then, will be left to teach? Presumably, only the ones who either wholeheartedly buy into the current system or are cynical enough to pretend they do, or else those who are sufficiently unaware of any alternative to see what the trouble is.

Students, of course, will be left with the fewest options. If their parents cannot afford to pay for private school, then they’ll remain stuck in a system that seems determined to marry the worst ideas about education from both the left and the right. And never having experienced anything else, they won’t even know what they’re missing. 

The war on language

I’ve been following Diane Ravitch’s blog for a while now. I think she does a truly invaluable job of bringing to light the machinations of the privatization/charter movement and the assault on public education. (I confess that I’m also in awe of the sheer amount of blogging she does — somehow she manages to get up at least three or four posts a day, whereas I count myself lucky if I can get up that every couple of weeks.)

I don’t agree with her about everything, but I was very much struck by this post, entitled “The Reformers’ War on Language and Democracy.”

Diane writes:

Maybe it is just me, but I find myself outraged by the “reformers'” incessant manipulation of language.

“Reform” seldom refers to reform.

“Reform” means privatization.

“Reform” means assaults on the teaching profession.

“Reform” means eliminating teachers’ unions, which fight for better salaries and working conditions.

“Reform” means boasting about test scores by schools that have carefully excluded the students who might get low scores.

“Reform” means using test scores to evaluate teachers even though this practice has negative effects on teacher morale and fails to identify better or worse teachers.

“Reform” means stripping teachers of due process rights or any other job security.

“Reform” means that schools should operate for-profit and that private corporations should be encouraged to profit from school spending.

“Reform” means acceptance of privately managed schools that operate without accountability or transparency.

“Reform” means the incremental destruction of public education.

Reading Ravitch’s post, I couldn’t help but think about the linguistic games that the College Board is playing — the College Board under David Coleman having become a central player in the “reform” movement.

As Ravitch points out, however, the word “reform” has become a euphemism for a whole host of destructive practices.

The point of a euphemism is to make an unpleasant or potentially offensive reality more palatable by presenting it in neutral or even positive terms. “Reform” is, of course, a nice, neutral/positive word, which is why it makes such an effective euphemism, and thus why it was seized up on in the first place.

Now, “euphemism” is a word that is tested on the current SAT. It falls into the categories of both “hard” vocabulary and content knowledge: it’s a pretty sophisticated word, but it’s also the sort of specific rhetorical device that students are presumably (or at least should be) learning in English class.

Presumably, it’s also the sort of word that is now considered “irrelevant.” And that got me once again thinking about just what the College Board means by “relevant.”

When I considered  the words held up as examples — analyzesynthesize, hypothesis — it occurred to me that  relevant also means something like “neutral.” No one would argue that these words aren’t important in school, but they are also exceedingly inoffensive, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

In contrast, when I look back through recent SATs, I’m struck by the number of “loaded” words that appear on the exam — words like partisanobsequiouspolemicpunditjargonconvoluteddeference, transparencyobfuscation.

These are incredibly negative words, not to mention incredibly political ones. While these are certainly not the kinds of words most high school juniors encounter on a daily basis, in the classroom or out, they are most certainly “relevant.” They are words that educated people use to critique politicians and corruption and so-called reform movements. People — teenagers — do not “naturally” or spontaneously acquire the vocabulary to understand and follow these types of adult phenomena. Gaining access to these words means gaining access to these concepts. How could someone make sense out of Rush Limbaugh without the word pundit?

The conflation of “relevant” with “neutral,” I think, reflects a world view that conflates neutral language, or neutral tone, with objective reality — that there is only one answer, that what is simply is, and any possibility of criticism is therefore precluded. Moreover, any person who does attempt to criticize them can be dismissed as fringe, unstable, “irrelevant,” etc., etc. and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. 

Interestingly, by asking students to identify the author’s attitude in very neutral-sounding passages, the current SAT makes the point that sounding neutral is not the same as being neutral. That’s a subtle but exceedingly important idea: in reality, people can use extremely neutral language to propose all sorts of crazy things. The fact that their tone is reasonable does not mean that their ideas are reasonable (ahem, Ben Carson). Learning to think critically involves acquiring the tools to distinguish between those two things, and to spot inconsistencies. 

The new SAT, in contrast, barely deals with tone and attitude, never mind the distinction between them. (Because, of course, appearance is the same as reality, and things should be taken at face value, right?) 

Furthermore, the exclusive focus on second meanings is now beginning to strike me as suspect as well. Obviously, yes, a number of very common words in English have multiple meanings, and understanding when words are used in non-literal ways is an important component of comprehension. (I once had a student completely misinterpret a section of a passage because he thought execute mean “get rid of” rather than “carry out.”) 

Most “hard” words have one very specific meaning that is used to add a very specific connotation; learning how to use these words appropriately means gaining the ability to write in a more nuanced and sophisticated way. In contrast, the point of focusing on second meanings is essentially that words can be used to mean whatever an author wants them to mean. 

By that logic: 

“Black” can mean “white,”

“Reform” can mean “privatize,”

“Honor” can mean “destroy.”