"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

STEM Students Need Their Privacy

Whether it's called collaborative learning, group projects, or collective education, we've all seen instances of modern education's love affair with kids doing projects together. It is usually justified by the notion that they will have to work together as a group in the business world so they may as well develop the skills needed to do that while they are in k-12. However, if the future focus of American education, the course work that is going to save our economy, is STEM courses, that justification may just have to be jettisoned. A now famous study, Coding War Games, looked at programmers (you know, people that excel at a STEM subject) in 92 companies and found that those who had a greater degree of privacy and autonomy were happier and more productive. Our society is traveling down a path that promotes, what author Susan Cain calls, Groupthink, the idea that creativity and achievement are arrived at by committee or through brainstorming sessions. But in the creative and technology world, this strategy may in fact be counterproductive and our current education process may be training our STEM students for failure.

In her new book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts, Cain sheds light on the introvert mind and shows how there is a currently a cultural bias against introverts.
"It’s playing out in schools and workplaces where everyone is expected to sit and work together. This enforced collectivism, she explained, in which nobody has a room of their own any longer, is creating a socialized, “groupthink” culture in which we are no longer thinking for ourselves."
This is not to say that introverts should be left alone to create and problem solve.  A balance in all things is necessary.  In the New York Times, Ms. Cain reminds us of the introverts role as she tells the story of the technical genius behind Apple, Steve Wozniack.
"Rewind to March 1975: Mr. Wozniak believes the world would be a better place if everyone had a user-friendly computer. This seems a distant dream — most computers are still the size of minivans, and many times as pricey. But Mr. Wozniak meets a simpatico band of engineers that call themselves the Homebrew Computer Club. The Homebrewers are excited about a primitive new machine called the Altair 8800. Mr. Wozniak is inspired, and immediately begins work on his own magical version of a computer. Three months later, he unveils his amazing creation for his friend, Steve Jobs. Mr. Wozniak wants to give his invention away free, but Mr. Jobs persuades him to co-found Apple Computer.
The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.
But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself."
What does this mean for education? For starters, the organization of the classroom into learning pods of grouped desks may work for some students but not for introverts.  It should not be accepted norm.
Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it. 
Maybe the incidences of students to acting out, being  distracted or taking a very long time to get their work done are actually due to the teacher's use of work groups.  This use of groputhink in was taken to the extreme in one class.
In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.
Anyone who has sat on a committee that was charged with reaching a consensus will know the ultimate frustration in this scenario.  Cain's book says groupthink may have its place, but it is a very specific place. She points to studies that have shown that the best brainstorming is done by extremely large groups (think the internet), but that individual contributions to this mass collection are often developed in private.

Back in the classroom where the teachers are forcing group projects under the guise that this is developing useful job and coping skills, consider this study by Marilyn Ford and Jenny Morice.   They looked at the perceived fairness group assignments in class.  Their study showed the greatest dissatisfaction with group projects came from the highest performing students.  This is not surprising.  The second highest dissatisfaction level comes from the lowest performing students who are unhappy at the frequent complaints and efforts of their teammates to make them work. The same study also found that teachers were the least aware of problems in work groups. This was partly explained by the students perception that bringing these issues to the attention of the teachers was pointless as the teachers just told them to work it out. In the business world, slackers are not tolerated for long because they bring down the productivity of everyone. The world of education can't boot the slackers out.  Teachers telling the kids to "work it out themselves" is a cop out for their inability to find a way to motivate the unmotivated student. Not exactly teaching the kids a real world skill, unless that skill is telling co-workers "not my problem."

Did the old layout of the classroom, where every desk was an island, have some merit? Could charter or private schools have a leg up on public schools because they can group kids into the two categories,  highly social learners and introverts, and allow each group work in environments that allow them to progress more rapidly? If public schools could do this, could they have an impact on achievement at the low low cost of rearranging the classroom furniture and providing independent study options?

Technology is not just centered in problem solving.  It also involves an element of dreaming, of creativity. This is one of the reasons America has continued to excel in technology.  We allow our students to dream the impossible. Like Steve Wozniak, we ask the question, "If you could create anything for the future, what would it be?" Other countries, who we are so fond of comparing ourselves to, ask, "Have you memorized information that everyone already knows?"  This gives them great scores on things like the PISA test, but leaves them to wait for someone else to develop the next great "earth changing" thing and then copy it.

STEM subjects may hold the promise of resurrecting America, but only if we allow the introverts who are attracted to those subjects to work in the way they need to work to excel.

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