Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is lack of sociability the biggest problem for workplace collaboration?

Among today's education experts, the answer would appear to be a resounding "yes." This is, after all, one of their biggest reasons for having students spend so much time working in groups. Many of the comments on my Atlantic article, for example, claimed that the difficulty that group work requirements pose to socially awkward children are outweighed by how much they prepare all students for 21st century jobs.

As I've argued repeatedly, however, the social demands of K12 classroom collaborations differ so much from workplace collaborations that there's no reason to think that they prepare kids for jobs. Plenty of people who work in collaborative environments now did not attend highly social classrooms a generation ago. Do we have any evidence that today's professional collaborations are impaired by yesterday's more individualistic classrooms?

From what I know of workplace dynamics, the biggest impediments to successful collaborations aren't people who had insufficient experience with classroom groups or got bad grades for "cooperative learning." Rather, the biggest impediments come from three other sorts of people:

1. Those who, for all their high grade point averages and impressive performances in job interviews, turn out to lack the basic reading, writing, and analytical skills necessary to do their part.

2. Those who lack the work ethic to do their part.

3. Those whose superior social skills are accompanied by a drive to manipulate and backstab.

The irony is that current classroom practices, particularly the increased emphasis on group learning, enable all three types. The growing numbers of people in type 1, for example, are a byproduct of the failures of today's classrooms to provide sufficient instruction in core academic competencies.

The growing numbers in type 2 (overlapping with type 1) are a byproduct of two trends. The first is the tendency of today's in-class and homework assignments, for all the busywork they demand, to require little in the way of rigorous argumentation and problem solving--little of the kind of mental activity, in other words, that truly exercises the brain. The second trend is that of the group-based assignments in particular: those with slacker tendencies learn that they can often get away with free-riding off of their more capable or diligent classmates. And they spend at least 12 years honing this skill before entering the workforce.

Also enabled by classroom groups are those in type 3 (overlapping with 1 and 2). These sorts of people thrive in groups. In grade school, they earned top grades for sociability--and for charming their teachers. Under the radar, they also managed to make many of their peers miserable--and continue to do so at work.

When it comes to the interpersonal aspects of today's workplace collaborations, it is this highly social, sociopathic subtype that poses, by far, the biggest problems. Such people sour the workplace for countless fellow employees. Particularly if they feel insecure about their own professional skills, they often specifically target, and ultimately chase away, many of their more qualified co-workers.

If today's schools want to improve the social climate of tomorrow's workplaces, and, while, they're at it, that of their very own classrooms, they could start by ceasing to enable their most toxic, socially charming bullies.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem might be a disconnect between what you see as the workplace of the future for your child and the most probable workplaces of the future for any given public school child.

Ten most common jobs:
1. Retail salesperson, 4,270,550
2. Cashier, 3,314,870
3. General office clerk: 2,828,140
4. Combined food prep and serving worker: 2,799,430
5. Registered nurse: 2,724,570
6. Waiter/waitress: 2,289,010
7. Customer service rep: 2,212,820
8. Janitor: 2,068,460
9. Freight/stock mover or general laborer: 2,063,580
10. Secretary/admin assistant: 1,955,570

These are the jobs public school prepares you for. These are not jobs you are thinking of for your kids. These are not jobs that require math or critical thinking skills. The kind of mindless group work our public schools are moving towards is not all all inappropriate training for these jobs.

Of course, they can't come right out and say that; they have to say the opposite. But our public schools don't have preparation of STEM professionals anywhere near their top priorities.

Anonymous said...

STEM jobs, on the other hand, are only about 5% of the total labor force (7.6M out of 153M).

Why assume that preparation for STEM careers is the main (or even a significant) purpose of public education, especially given that 10% of kids go to private school and 3% are homeschooled?

momof4 said...

You should hope that your nurse has both critical thinking ability and mastery of algebra and all its precursors - and the schools aren't doing well at the latter.

There is enormous variation in the public schools and the one-size-fits-all model doesn't work at all well. There are many affluent areas, with highly-educated parents, where the schools should be operating on the assumption that the vast majority of kids should be STEM-ready, at elite-college level, because their school populations are likely to have IQs of at least 120. My kids' schools were like that; before most of the current fads hit (groupwork, Writers'Workshop, spiral math, groupwork etc.) In fact, their schools were more academically demanding than most of the local private schools, but the kids who went to those privates tended to (1) be zoned for less-competitive high schools or (2)were zoned for top high schools but would not be on the most demanding track. At my older kids' HS, a 3.0 average (no honors or AP classes) was in the bottom half of the class, even though those kids were prepared for real college work - so a number of them went to privates where their class rank would look much better. However, there were many schools in the county system where only a few kids would be competitive admits for the flagship state school and most kids would be far better off with solid voc ed than "college-prep lite" - but it's heresy to suggest that.

J.D. Salinger said...

Why assume that preparation for STEM careers is the main (or even a significant) purpose of public education, especially given that 10% of kids go to private school and 3% are homeschooled?

Because education is about preparing students for opportunities not slamming doors shut in their face. Since you don't know what a middle schooler is likely going to pursue as a career, the object is to give students the best preparation possible. If they have good grounding in algebra, that opens the doors to further math courses and science courses. If they don't, because you assume that so few students go into STEM careers, then your neglectful approach becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Katharine Beals said...

I would add that algebra provides a much better preparation for future employment than K12 group work does.

Again, my point here is to question whether there's *any* job for which working in groups in K12 classrooms provides useful preparation.

And to raise the possibility that K-12 classroom group work fosters the kinds of personalities that make professional collaborations difficult.

Anonymous said...

Katherine, it's demonstrably false that algebra provides a better preparation for future employment. The vast majority of future employment requires no algebra whatsoever.

Algebra might provide a future preparation for better employment, but that's a different matter.

I don't assume that few students go on to STEM careers. I'm just reporting the fact that few do. Few will in the future too. I hope your kids are among them.

It doesn't much matter what they do in classrooms if the future is punching pictures of hamburgers on a cash machine. Deluding ourselves about what most people do all day and deluding ourselves about what the purpose of school is won't get us anywhere.

Katharine Beals said...

It would be " demonstrably false that algebra provides a better preparation for future employment" than K12 group work does if there were a study that actually demonstrated this.

My contention is that k12 groups provide no useful preparation at all for any career opportunities. Algebra prepares students for a number of career opportunities. It's hard to say how many, but it is *more* than is the case with K12 group work.

Even jobs that don't require algebra may require things that algebra practice fosters or reinforces: arithmetic and logical, step-by-step analysis, for example. Let's not burn any bridges, for anyone, unless and until we know better.

Anonymous said...

Here's your demonstration:

A. The vast majority of adult careers require no algebra.
B. Only a minority of adult careers require prior knowledge of (let alone use of) algebra.
C. Therefore algebra is not an important preparation for most adult careers.

There's no further "study" needed than this simple proof. Your suggestion that knowing algebra makes you a better retail salesperson or McDonalds cashier is more outrageous, and is the point requiring proof.

The focus on K12 group work teaches most kids to shut up and be agreeable as a minority of kids mouth off and control everything. Is that not a perfect microcosm of our society? The majority of children don't need to learn algebra, they need to learn to shut up and be agreeable.

The cash register buttons at McDonalds don't even have numbers anymore, just pictures of french fries and hamburgers. Who needs numbers? If people are to be happy with such a job, they don't need to think more, they need to think less. Don't argue with your boss and smile as you upsell. If they could learn that from K12 group work, then it's more important than algebra.

If your assertion were that schools are poorly preparing your child for his future career, I'd agree. Algebra prepares kids for a small number of good jobs. This is why it should only be taught in the college prep track.

Katharine Beals said...

"The majority of children don't need to learn algebra, they need to learn to shut up and be agreeable."

Wow. Well, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree about that one.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that you are confused about the fundamental purpose of school.

You seem to think that the purpose of school is to help children learn things their parents don't know so they can get ahead by moving up socioeconomically.

But America is a country with comparatively low socioeconomic mobility. As one of our biggest public institutions, school is part of this system. It doesn't help kids get ahead, it just holds them X hours a day so their parents can work.

Not even your kid is going to get ahead in school. You're upper-middle class, and he's going to to learn the things he needs (both in and out of school) to continue to be upper-middle class. Much more of that has to do with you than his school. His school's primary job is to take care of your kid during the day so you can work.

Most of the other kids in school are lower-class or working-class, and they will learn the things they need to continue to be lower-class or working-class. Some of them will get ahead, but very few.

Our society has never had a place for huge numbers of well-educated people. Our schools were never intended to produce them and they're not going to start now. The move towards K12 group work is entirely consistent with their historical purpose.

Katharine Beals said...

"it seems to me that you are confused about the fundamental purpose of school."

The fundamental purpose of school (especially if "purpose" is construed normatively, as opposed to descriptively, as it generally is throughout this blog) is something about which different people have different opinions.

So this, too, is an area in which you and I will have to agree to disagreee.

J.D. Salinger said...

Since you insist on being a jerk about this, and choose to ignore what others are saying, let me say it again.

Because education is about preparing students for opportunities not slamming doors shut in their face. Since you don't know what a middle schooler is likely going to pursue as a career, the object is to give students the best preparation possible. Limiting algebra only to students in a college prep curriculum doesn't take into account late bloomers, or the fact that students change their minds about their interests.

It is true that there are many professions that don't use algebra. The problem is we generally don't know in advance what profession a student is going to choose. So we try to maximize their opportunities.

Anonymous said...

JD, you're presenting a sad spectacle. I am happy that mine prepared me to argue without puerile name-calling. I'm sure your shift manager wishes you'd done more group work in K12 to break you of the habit.

Katherine is quite right to point out that she is working in the realm of idealism rather than the realm of practicality. As such, an argument may be waged purely in the realm of competing ideals, without ever touching ground, where reality persists despite our best efforts.

Back down on ground level of the actual American society, only about 3-6% of kids who are born in the bottom quintile grow up to inhabit the top quintile. All of these noble top quintile professions you discuss are fantasies to them. The only opportunity we're really giving the masses is that of starting a menial career with massive college debt. They'd be much wiser to seek vocational training (which was the first thing sacrificed to the 'everybody goes to college' dogma).

Idealism is noble and useful. You should go teach school until it burns out, because it may make the difference for a statistically irrelevant number of kids. That might even balance out the crime of making a much larger number of children whose lives have no use for algebra feel like failures at an early age.

EricMR said...

Here is a conference presentation that the guy on The Autistic Me is planning on giving on the inappropriateness of modern school group work: http://theautisticme.blogspot.com/2013/03/collaboration-conundrum-mastering-group.html

EricMR said...

The blogger at The Autistic Me is going to give a pertinent conference talk: http://theautisticme.blogspot.com/2013/03/collaboration-conundrum-mastering-group.html

David Foster said...

I suspect that what "educators" have in mind when they talk about "group work" is something quite different from what exists and will exist in most real-life organizations.

Consider the work that is now going on at Boeing, their Japanese battery manufacturer, and the FAA. It involves collaboration among engineers of various kinds, lawyers, test pilots, software experts, government regulators, and finance people, just to name a few.

How relevant are the kind of "group-work" skills that the educators have in mind to this kind of real-world example?

Anonymous said...

I suspect that what "educators" have in mind when they talk about "group work" is 'good, you kids amuse yourselves while I put my head down for a moment and dig into the flask in my desk drawer.' It's the next best thing since filmstrips.

Hainish said...

"only about 3-6% of kids who are born in the bottom quintile grow up to inhabit the top quintile. All of these noble top quintile professions you discuss are fantasies to them."

Yes, let's pretend that the use of EM and the group work that Katharine describes aren't causal here. It's just an immutable law of physics.

David Foster said...

Things I have observed that inhibit group collaboration in real life:

1)Toxic political behavior, often perpetrated by people who are not nearly as good at politics as they think they are and who wind up doing themselves (as well as the organization) great harm.

2)Inability to clearly express oneself orally and in writing.

3)A brittle "self-esteem" that cannot withstand criticism or even challenge.

4)People who are so concerned with keeping everything "nice" that they inhibit important debates that need to occur. (I once observed this behavior from a jury forewoman)

5)Lack of sense of humor

6)Social cluelessness about power and influence relationsips

7)Lack of respect for people whose jobs are different from one's own.

8)In leaders: overcontrolling and micro-managing behavior. (Marissa Mayer, please copy)

Anonymous said...

Y'know, Hain, if you want to progress to the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, you should at least get to post hoc first.

It would be nice to pretend that current fads in elementary education had caused demographic trends that are already decades old, but as long as we're being utterly irrational it's much more fun to believe in elves.

If you want to start doing some good in the world, having a logical grasp of causation would be a nice start.

David Foster said...

Michael Schrage, writing at Harvard Business Review, on The Value of Arguing:

http://blogs.hbr.org/schrage/2013/03/the-arguments-your-company-needs.html

...doubt if the "groupy" educators would approve.

Hainish said...

Oh, so you've shifted the goalposts...how many years into the past, exactly? And what of the logical fallacy that there can be only *one* causal factor at work?

And, if you're so dead set against the argument that children are helped or harmed by the things that happen in the classroom, then why are you spending time on a blog that assumes that argument as its starting point? Seriously, why are you wasting everyone's time?