Monday, March 19, 2012

Making people squirm--or inspiring them

For all my qualified support for art in academics, making things relevant, and child-centered classrooms, there are two trendy educational practices in which I see absolutely no virtue: making students share personal feelings, and making them work in groups. Not only are these activities particularly ill-suited to children on the autistic spectrum; they also detract from all students’ educational experiences and appear to irritate a much broader range of kids than teachers may realize.

Particularly irritating are the practices of a teacher-blogger (thanks to FedUpMom for the link) who appears to think it’s a good thing when personal reflections assignments make her middle school students squirm.

As for group work, several recent articles explain just how misguided the typical group activities assigned by today’s classroom teachers are. A study recently reported on by the Wall Street Journal discusses how certain people tend to clam up in groups and become temporarily less intelligent:

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."
The clamming-up phenomenon seems to be more common in women and in people with higher IQs, according to the report, published in January in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
And in a lengthy article in the January 30th New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer, recapping some of what Susan Cain says in a January 13th New York Times opinion piece, discusses evidence that brainstorming only stimulates novelty (rather than stifling it) if people work apart and later pool their ideas, and if they are specifically instructed not to withhold criticism (the standard protocol), but to engage in debate and critique one another’s points. Moreover, the best brainstorming happens not in contrived meetings, but in relatively brief, incidental exchanges when coworkers (or workers in related fields) bump into one another in hallways. Overall, people are most productive and creative, Lehrer notes, when they spend most of their time working independently.

The most successful workplace collaborations thus stand in stark contrast to the regular, lengthy, teacher-imposed, teacher-contrived, heterogeneous groupings that predominate (and dumb down, stifle, and intimidate) in so many of today’s classrooms--at the same time that educators keep claiming that these activities are preparing students to be successful real-world collaborators.


Anonymous said...

I told my children to make up a fictional persona to write about, and that I would back them up completely if they were ever questioned or criticized about it. The poor child who shares honestly, who doesn't realize or isn't capable of putting on a front, will be teased mercilessly (speaking as having been that child). For others, it's license and endorsement for fake honesty.

Barry Garelick said...

The link to Jessica Lahey's piece about making her middle school students squirm by writing about something personal appears to have been removed. I doubt that Ms Lahey has changed her mind about the value of the assignment, but probably just got tired of hearing negative comments.