Monday, March 7, 2016

The double whammy: group work in English class

As GoogleMaster pointed out on my previous post:

To advance as a software engineer, it's not enough to be a great coder. You have to be able to communicate with people who speak business language, both receiving and transmitting. On the other hand, if J just wants to code, there are probably positions for that, as long as he's okay not advancing up the career path.
That makes sense, and luckily there are indeed still positions in which coders work mostly on their own rather than in groups. Since J has no aspirations other living independently and having a nice stash of ceiling fans, non-advancement up the career path is fine with him. In this, I'm guessing that he's not alone.

But, interestingly, J has already had to work in groups in his computer science classes. And, knock on wood, that seems to be going OK. Hopefully his group mates see him as an asset; he is, after all, quite good at coding. Plus, he is quite capable of communicating about programming tasks.

But group work in English class is different. Here he cannot possibly be seen as an asset; only as a liability. So his group mates excluded him and did not respond to his email messages--and, adding injury to insult, his teacher blamed him for not managing to cooperate with his group and gave him a really low grade.

In other words, for the autistic child, group work in computer science classes and group work in English classes are completely different ballgames.

They're also completely different ballgames for everyone. While group work on computer science projects in computer science class may reflect an actual reality outside the classroom, as GoogleMaster suggests it does, group work in English class on writing assignments does not reflect an actual reality outside the classroom. Writers do not write in groups. We may collaborate and each write sections of a paper or chapters of a book, but we do not write together. We may ask our collaborators or other peers to review and edit our work, but we handpick people we trust, not just random people who happen to be around. And most of our actual writing we do independently.

Not only does group work in English class not reflect a reality outside the classroom; neither is it an efficient way to improve your writing. The way to improve your writing is to do your own writing and get expert feedback; group writing projects are conducive to neither.

Group work in English class, in other words, is not only autism unfriendly, but gratuitously so. And any school that purports to be autism friendly needs to provide better options--for everyone.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Were they actually required to write together in English class, as in, looking over one another's shoulders? If so, that does seem odd.

But, in the real world, scientists and lawyers do write together, in the sense that the document/work produced at the end is the group work of the collaborators. Usually, they don't write looking over each other's shoulders, but, that, even, I have experienced.

As I think I've cited before, I do really think that group work is going to become more and more the norm, as work that does not require collaborating is going to be foisted off more and more to machine algorithms.

In science, I do think there are still technical skills that can be assigned and done by individuals working alone (partially because humans still have much better physical abilities), but even there, automation is playing a significant role in tasks that can be performed without significant communication among individuals on a short term basis.

Brett Gilland said...

Like anonymous, I am actually quite interested in the specifics of the group work implementation, as well. I do not doubt in any way that they put your child at a significant disadvantage and it sounds like the implementation was particularly problematic.

However, to say that most people don't write together on group projects strikes me as inaccurate. I spent time off and on over the last week working on a presentation with someone, collaborating on written documents and a post-action report in addition to the expected collaboration on the presentation itself. Collaborative writing via email/ drafting is a fairly common activity for me, as I suspect it is for most white collar jobs.

Now, it may be that this is a bridge too far and your child is hopelessly incapable of such tasks, in which case, this is an unsalvageable situation. But there is a part of me that really wishes that the school was investing its energy in helping your child develop this skill (preferably through technical writing courses, as you have suggested in earlier posts), as this really is a vital skill for white collar work.

Anonymous said...

My husband is a web developer who works from home. Although he does all the programming by himself, he still spends multiple hours each week responding to questions about features requests, bug fixes, etc. He also frequently gets questions from the customer support staff when users have a problem. All of this means that he still has to have good communication skills. He is introverted and quite content to work by himself.

When I mentioned your frustrations about your son's future employment prospects, he thought it was unlikely that a person could find a job programming that didn't require good communication skills. Even the self-employed need to help the customers figure out what their wants vs. needs are, as customers often don't really know what to expect.

Katharine Beals said...

"But, in the real world, scientists and lawyers do write together, in the sense that the document/work produced at the end is the group work of the collaborators. Usually, they don't write looking over each other's shoulders" Exactly! Well put. I've done a number of collaborations, and the bulk of the writing is done separately (sentence and paragraph construction, organization, revisions of sentences, paragraphs, and organization). What's collaborative is the preliminary brainstorming process, the later-stage editing of one-another's-work process, and the joint contributions of different sections to a larger final product.

It's the over-the-shoulder, writing-from-start-to-finish component that is problematic, along with the writing-with-haphazardly-selected-novices component: problematic for autistic kids; problematic as a means of improving writing; and problematic as a representation of what happens in the real world.

And, yes indeed, that's what appears to be going on in my son's classroom, where the bulk of the time has been spent in group writing activities with students working together in the classroom.

Katharine Beals said...

"Even the self-employed need to help the customers figure out what their wants vs. needs are, as customers often don't really know what to expect."

Employment as a solo operation is probably one of the least conducive coding situations for someone on the autistic spectrum. Thinking outside what seem to be today's boxes, there are surely ways to pair autistic programmers with team members who can act, when necessary, as communicative intermediaries. So many of us love team work, but wouldn't it be nice if we could be a little more creative and flexible about the various ways in which team work can play out?

Jeff Boulier said...

"he thought it was unlikely that a person could find a job programming that didn't require good communication skills..."

As someone who has worked in IT for years: it is very possible to find a job that doesn't require good communication skills. I have worked with many people who fit that description. Ceteris paribus it is more pleasant to work with people are good at communicating, and people who are terrible at communicating are much more likely to plateau (or be subject to RIF), but, y'know, IT departments are more likely to set up procedures and systems that deal with poor communicators because talented programmers disproportionally suck at communicating.

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, I'm not on the spectrum, and I've only once had a pleasant experience in a group project for an English class. The exception was when I got to partner with someone who'd been a friend since elementary school. I could write a novel about the other group projects I was subjected to growing up.

Related to your post, the only group work I had to do in college was for a physics lab, and we very quickly divided the labor intelligently: I could whip out a technical write up quickly and easily, another could handle the mechanical side of lab setup, and another had calculus skill to give me numbers that made sense. It would probably not be what an education prof would like to think went on (I learned nothing about physics, but did hone my technical writing skills, and nobody else got any technical writing practice)...