January 9

Team Formation

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford discusses heterogeneous vs. homogeneous teams. He cites a 2009 study where college students were given the task of solving a murder mystery problem. Some of the groups were composed of four friends, others included three friends and a stranger.

The groups that included a stranger were much more effective at solving the mystery. 75% of the time, they came to the correct conclusion. The homogeneous groups correctly solved the problem only 54% of the time, while people working individually were successful only 44% of the time.

Interestingly, Hartford writes, the participants in the heterogeneous teams “didn’t feel very sure that they’d gotten the right answer” and “felt socially uncomfortable” [p. 50]. The homogeneous teams “had a more pleasant time” and (falsely) were more confident they had found the right solution. In other words, the team members’ perception of how their team performed was out of sync with their actual performance.

The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogeneous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, p. 50.

The debate about team formation in K-12 education continues to thrive. In this Edutopia article, Ben Johnson argues both sides, but ultimately concludes students blossom more in homogeneous groups. In 10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams, Dr Spencer Kagan argues for only heterogeneous groupings.

In education, we often look at grouping through the wrong lens, wondering how effective it will be to put students with different abilities in the same group. My hackles raise with the term “ability,” since it is based on a questionably valid definition (and data) as to what “ability” means. It also assumes a steady state, in other words that a student will always have the same level of “ability.”

One way #PBL (project-based learning) shines is that it accepts (just like the #realword does) that each student has different assets to contribute to a team. When (heterogeneous) teams are formed, the key to success is in identifying which role(s) fit each member of the team based on their unique talents and skills. As they succeed in the given role(s), students develop confidence and a growth mindset, the understanding they have the power to become ever more accomplished learners.

April 30

Rhizomes

I have been wrestling with the many out-of-control #rhizomes in the garden. Ferns are my current nemesis, as they are encroaching on the hostas and astilbes nearby, boldly erupting right in the middle of them. Since some of my PLN are rhizomatic learning zealots, I have dabbled in trying to understand that learning theory, and its parallels to rhizomes in nature.

My approach to gardening is fairly lackadaisical. I do not coddle the plants, nor play music to them. In general, I pay attention to what kind of lighting environment they need (sun? shade? some of both?) and in the heat of summer, I soak them, using the same method as for the lawn grass, “heavily at infrequent intervals,” which helps them develop a deep root system. Beyond that, I have faith the plants will thrive.

Maybe students would benefit from these same conditions. Maybe we need to provide them with a positive, nurturing environment combined with high expectations for their success and see what happens. John Hattie places “teacher estimates of achievement” as the largest factor which contributes to student learning and achievement. Instead of hovering and intervening at the first sign of struggle, we need to let students dig deep, help them develop a growth mindset. We need to teach them that failure is normal and acceptable, something from which we learn.

The one thing I do not do infuse into my garden is any form of chemical toxins. No chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticides. As I pondered the “toxins” commonly found in school environments, the first thing that came to mind is the ongoing focus on student, and by extension, teacher success based on standardized achievement tests. In a 2014 survey, the NEA found 45 percent of surveyed teachers “have considered quitting because of standardized testing.”

As if to echo my thoughts, in this Sir Ken Robinson chat, he states “…certainly by the time they are in secondary school many kids are disengaged, bored by what’s happening, and far too often suffer from stress and end up leaving the system entirely…” Robinson thinks these have been long-term problems in schools, but “they’ve been made very much worse… by the emphasis on competition and standardization…The US for example, has spent billions of dollars literally on commercial testing programs for the past 15 years and seen no improvement to speak of… It’s based on a false premise… that education is in some ways still an impersonal process, that it can be improved by standardizing and removing the human factor …”

Robinson then makes an analogy to industrialized agriculture, and how pesticides were introduced, “because these systems for the most part were deprived of the natural process of self-protection, so pesticides were needed to keep away pests and so on, and to protect the crops. Now, it kind of worked, except that it’s destroying the environment, it’s polluting water systems, and it’s eroding topsoil…” He then describes how organic farmers “…promote diversity, they look at the health and ecology of the whole system, but the emphasis is on the soil. If you get the soil right, the plants will grow and be healthy. And, these are sustainable and natural processes. … we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning… He finishes by positing that we need to “create optimum conditions in schools where [students] want to learn…”

…we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning…

So, as I continue to dig rhizomes out of my garden, I will simultaneously think of ways to nurture the spread of student rhizomes through the use of high-quality #PBL, which incorporates relevant, real-world and authentic teaching and learning.

July 5

Never Judge

Never judge. I was recently talking to a friend whose family is struggling financially. Her husband was laid off from his job, and is having difficulty finding another one that combines his skills and interests. This friend is (by choice) not working, so I asked her why she doesn’t look for a job, to help ends meet. The answer she gave me was not at all what I expected.

She explained that at a job she had a few years ago, she felt undervalued. That experience dealt a long-term blow to her confidence. She often thinks of seeking out a job, but then backs away, because of her lack of confidence. She rattled off a long list of skills and experience she has, in a variety of work environments. While she understands on a logical level that she is “marketable,” the emotional impact of one experience in a negative work environment has paralyzed her.

This woman is in middle life. She raised a daughter as a single mother, while holding down a full-time job. Not only did she provide for her daughter materially, she instilled a positive attitude and confidence. That daughter is a grown woman who has a successful career and family life of her own, so the positive outcomes of my friend’s parenting are apparent. She has every right to feel accomplished. But, she doesn’t.

Given that the unkind or thoughtless words and actions of a manager have created this handicap in a mature adult’s life, just imagine what we  have the power to do in the lives of the children we work with. Every time we speak harshly, or diminish, or demean, we are creating negative effects that last well beyond the immediate situation.

Similarly, when we have students who have an attitude, or are trouble-makers, or any other negative adjective we can assign, we need to never judge. What has their life experience been to-date? How many times have other adults told them they are incapable, or worthless, or similar? Our job, as educators, is to develop all students’ abilities, regardless of the baggage they have arrived with.

We need to provide them with opportunities to grow. Regardless of how small and wilted they are when they arrive, we need to send them on to their next experience taller, straighter, and more vigorous. What are some ways we can do this?

Within the #PBL model, there are ample opportunities to demonstrate to students that we value them and their contributions.  The first, and perhaps most important aspect, is authenticity. As Sam Seidel says, “keep it real.” When we ask students  to investigate driving questions they can relate to, they become more engaged. At the same time, we send the message that we believe in their ability to find solutions to complex, messy, open-ended problems. Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences has specific ideas on how to develop projects that have real-world connections that are meaningful to students.

To underscore our confidence in students’ abilities, we need to offer “voice and choice,” giving the students a significant say in the kinds of products they will develop; in other words, the method they will use to demonstrate their understanding . This is a grand, and liberating, departure from the assignment of yore, “write a 500-word essay,” or “on a tri-fold board…”. This flexibility in product choice often results in students developing 21st-Century media and technology skills, such as website design, or video editing, and most certainly deeper research skills.

Project development is an iterative process. This is true in PBL, and equally true in the work world. No project is complete from A-Z without some revisions along the way. This is often challenging for students (and educators) to accept. In traditional education, there are “rights” and “wrongs,” and making a mistake is a negative. PBL assumes that the first iteration will have flaws, and challenges students to improve their work, often multiple times. Peer and teacher (facilitator) assessments identify what a student has done well, and what areas of his/her work could be improved. My hero in this area remains Ron Berger, the master facilitator who inspires students to create “beautiful work.”

Many students arrive at a point during their education where they have a fixed mindset, wherein they “believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.”  As students work through the iterative process of PBL, however, they begin to develop a growth mindset, where they “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things—not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan—without years of passionate practice and learning.”

As a final reinforcement to students about the meaningfulness of their work, we need to seek a public audience. This audience serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly, many community members have a keen interest in fostering interest in the work they do. They are happy to act as consultants during the project development process. Secondly, community experts are enthused about attending a presentation of the work students have done, and often have insightful questions and feedback that further strengthen the point that students and their work are valuable.

The next time you have a “problem” student, never judge. Instead, use PBL to nurture that wilted plant into a strong, robust one that is prepared for the next challenge.

 

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