"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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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Collaborating to Stagnation

The new Common Core standards are supposed to develop students with "21st century skills" and "higher level" or "critical" thinking skills. (I'm still waiting for someone to tell me what a 21st century skill is that is uniquely different from the skills k-12 education taught in that last century)  It's that second part that has a lot of people and businesses popping up and nodding their heads. Who wouldn't want kids with critical thinking skills? Just watch your average teenage driver with a permit take out the family car and begin setting those 4,000 lbs hurtling down the main drag of town past stop signs, pedestrians, bicyclists and pot holes and take note of how many times you pray that child has critical thinking skills. It's a laudible goal, but what does it mean in common core.

A post on InvisibleSerfsCollar.com delves into what the industry experts at Pearson think critical thinking means. "Pearson wants open-ended tasks to assess 21st century skills in authentic real-world problem contexts. And these tasks are to be done as a group in order to assess collaboration." The goal is not to complete the task, but to "assess collaboration." Pearson goes on to note that tasks which are “obvious” or “unambiguous” would offer “few opportunities to observe student negotiation because there is nothing about which to disagree.” True. So instead Pearson wants to create collaborative tasks that  “rely on stimulus materials designed to evoke cognitive conflict (ie, that reflect uncertainty, ambiguity, disorganization, and contradiction) which better elicit critical thinking skills than tasks that used stimulus materials that were orderly, well-organized, and coherent.

The critical thinking they want your child to have is thinking that helps them find a collaborative solution to a disorganzied and contradictory assignment. Higher order thinking skills will help them work on problems that have "no clearly defined parameters, no clear solution strategies, and either more than one correct solution, or multiple ways of arriving at an acceptable solution.” That sounds like something I'd like my child to be experiencing on a regular basis in school - not. Knowing that the teachers are encouraged in the new education paradigm to let the children struggle on their own to find a solution does not offer me any more comfort.

We all know that such challenges exist in the real world and we have to work with others, sometimes, to arrive at a solution that is acceptable to the majority. The difference for adults is that we have both content knowledge and experience to help us identify solutions. Elementary school children do not have these tools. While they might come up with an "out of the box" solution, it doesn't mean such a solution will be usable or effective. Then again, the exercise doesn't care about the solution itself. Pearson even says there may be no acceptable solution. The exercise is to work on collaboration. Is collaboration really a necessary 21st century skill?

This video disagrees.  It quotes Steve Wozniak the inventor of the Apple computer who said, "Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me. They're shy and they live in their heads. They are almost like artists. In fact the best of them are artists, and artists work best alone where they control an invention's design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don't believe anything revolutionary has ever been invented by a committee."

The video also notes that we have 60 years worth of study data to prove that concepts some business people believe are fact, like brainstorming being an effective idea generating tool, actually do not work. People in a group come up with few and less varied ideas than when they work alone. Collaboration or groupwork actually reduces innovation.

Once the pedagogy of group work is fixed in the classroom, we might actually be training our kids to be less creative and less productive. Collaboration certainly doesn't seem like a good 21st century skill.

What will it mean if your child is getting good grades in school then? Quite likely it will mean either they are enough of a bully to make the other kids in the group go along with their solution, no matter how bad it is, or they are sheep who will go along with anything just to get the grade. Not seeing a worker I want to hire in this century among those choices. Are you? 

The Wozniak quote in the video ends this way, "I am going to give you some advice that is hard to take. That advice is - Work Alone. You are going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you are working on your own, not on a committee, not on a team." But why take advice from Mr. Wozniak. It's not like he has a track record of success or anything.


  1. Dewey, the father of modern education, believed that the purpose and proper goal of education was the socialization of the individual, as with this from his "My Pedagogic Creed":

    "I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction."

    Of course... he was also seen as the father of the USSR's educational system... so ... surprise!

  2. This whole thing sounds like a psychological science experiment using our kids as guinea pigs. How about teaching some basic skills. Great they can "collaborate" well with others. Can they read, write or do basic math? Parents, please pay attention to what is going on in your childs school. Make frequent visits and ask questions daily. Know what they are being taught to "think" in school. First red flag - this is already happening. Parents don't even know.


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