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BFTP: When groups are necessary

I've long held a fairly jaundiced view of that holy-of-holies in our profession - collaboration. (See: A Few Words About Collaboration) Short version: collaboration should be considered a means of achieving a desired result, not the result itself. 

I'm glad to see someone else has grumped about having to work with others. Scott (Dilbert) Adams lists 11 "reasons that teamwork will make any normal individual perform below his highest potential." These include:

3. In any group of three people, there's generally at least one disruptive moron.
5. To mediocre minds, a brilliant idea and a dumb idea sound identical. A team will vote out the best ideas along with the worst.
9. Everyone wants to do the fun stuff and not the boring-but-necessary parts.

That's my kind of thinking! I recently (2014ish) heard someone say that groups always tend to go with the safest option rather than the bold, the experimental, the risky. As I remember the example given was when asked to choose a dessert, vanilla ice cream will be the flavor that offends no one in a group, never rocky road.

Yet even I admit that teams, groups and collaboration are essential under some circumstances. These include:

  1. When good decisions require the opinion/knowledge of variety of experts. (Tech and curriculum, for example.)
  2. When decisions involve highly conflicting values. (Security vs. convenience and access)
  3. Ownership by a range of stakeholders is essential. (1:1 laptop program buy-in by teachers and administrators as well as techs and librarians.)
  4. When the only way to overcome a negative power by a situational leader is by creating a strong group to counter. (A group of teachers forms a policy committee to make recommendations on less restrictive filtering by a tech director.)
  5. When a hiring decision is made my a group, a larger number of people have a stake in that person's success. (No one wants to believe they've hired a loser.)
  6. There is a better chance of donuts appearing when there is a group.

Groups, meetings and collaboration have their place. When there is a reason for them.

Original post May 27, 2009


Why do we question 1:1 effectiveness?

In his blog post Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice, professor Larry Cuban writes:

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

The answers Cuban gives to each of these questions more or less boils down to: it depends, we don't know, and we can't tell.

Dr. Cuban, the ship has sailed on asking questions like this about 1:1 projects. Technologies, like tablets or smart phones or netbooks or whatever, have become for an increasing percentage of society so embedded in daily life that completing any information-related task or personal learning effort relies upon these "external brains" for a growing segment of parents, teachers, and especially, students.

We don't need to question the if or why of these devices that provide ubiquitous access to information - written, visual, and human - any more than we question whether the old technologies of paper, pen, and print are effective teaching tools. They are simply what our society uses to record, access, manipulate, and communicate information. And it is the application of the tool, not any inherent value of the tool, that should be assessed. (Which tool makes a student a better writer: a number 2 pencil or a ball point pen?)

And as the cost of these devices drop, Internet access becomes more widespread, applications become more powerful and less complicated to use, the remarkability of personal technologies in the classroom will decrease - and we can get back to measuring the efficacy of pedagogy rather than silicon.


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Tech = play - just admit it and be proud

Play is self-controlled and self-directed. ... Childhood [has been] turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building.
                                                  Peter Gray
Truth be told, I think I like working with technology because, at heart, the devices we support, teach, and promote are toys. Our work is play. I've often teased our PD coordinator that both my department and hers want to help teachers become more effective by modifying their teaching methods, but we in tech get to reward such changes with fun and toys and play. My tech integration specialists and librarians are especially good at making their PD sessions light-hearted and enjoyable and humor-filled. 

I thought about this after watching Peter Gray's TedTalk The Decline of Play and Rise of Mental Disorders  (recommended by one of my district's teachers to our school e-mail list).  After watching the video, I asked him: "I think our schools still do a pretty good job of giving kids recess time and other opportunities to play, don't you?" His reply:
Not really.  Most students in elementary schools get 15 minutes to play before or after lunch and then 15 minutes to eat their lunch. Certainly there are teachers who allow more time during the day, but they are the exception. We are almost discouraged from taking breaks because they take time away from instruction, which, heaven forbid, may result in lower test scores. I have found research to the contrary.  Giving students breaks actually increases achievement, not to mention that it is morally and ethically the right thing to do. Here are some of the articles I have accessed.
I found the reply distressing. But despite this teacher's concerns, I'm guessing (based on my own observations of playground use, library activities, after-school programs, continuation of art, music and PE classes, etc.) we are doing better in our district than in many others in honoring play. I do worry that in our attempts to "close the achievement gap" among ethnic groups (or more likely, socio-economic groups), we will allow our middle class kids chances to play, but not those aren't "reading at level by third grade."

So, fellow techies, keep calling your iPads and Chromebooks and laptops and such "tools" rather than "toys." Stress the educational value, rather than the playability. Librarians, document how your efforts are improving reading scores and information literacy. You'll probably sound a lot more valuable to your administration.

In the meantime I'll keep having fun playing with toys and reading for enjoyment and personal pleasure - and hope our students do as well - with a clear professional conscience.