Archive for January, 2012

You hear about it everywhere today.  It’s in all the latest talk around offices, job interviews, and articles about keys to success in today’s world: collaboration is very much de rigueur.

And that’s a good thing.  Yet, like most things, there’s a context in which is is good/valuable, as opposed to just being good/valuable by itself.  This idea was taken up recently by Susan Cain in the N.Y. Times.  She wrote  about “The New Groupthink”, urging us to consider the important difference between coming together to  share ideas and learn from one another versus engaging only in a group setting.

Collaboration, to be effective, should mean “individuals who  engage in creative/productive thought on their own, generating ideas, then engage with others who have taken up similar or related questions in order to make connections and spurn one-another on”.  It should not mean “a group of people sitting around a table trying to ‘think collectively’ one the spot”.

The research supports this (see the NY Times article).

Schools talk a lot about collaboration, both as a mechanism for learning and as a tool that should be acquired in order to function well in today’s workplace.

As we transform education, let’s be sure to promote the appropriate understanding of collaboration.

Why is the distinction important?  It has everything to do with how the human brain functions and with intrinsic motivation.

The process of creativity involves careful thought, which cannot  be undertaken in  a room of people talking and sending ideas flying around.  It requires that you be able to  have a thought, turn it around in your mind, consider implications, integrate it with other things you know, and so on.  This  process is an internal one requiring calm, time and concentration.  A room of people bantering ideas about is not this.

Extreme forms of “forced collaboration” look like the  example Cain describes: a fourth grade classroom where the only questions that can be asked in a group session are ones that everybody has- you can’t ask your own question in the group if only you are curious about it.  If this is what collaboration  in schools turned out to be we’d be preparing children for  a dictatorship, not a constructive democracy.


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“Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”  (sing it with me.)  Yes, Pink was on to something.  Parents – leave them kids alone!

When did parenting become a vocation?  When did parents become artists whose children are the raw material from which to sculpt their masterpiece?  This is what too many parents do these days: from Baby Mozart (hopefully mostly debunked… right??) to prep-school for a prep-school for a prep-school…. getting into the “right” kindergarten, yes?  Otherwise it’s all downhill.  Helicopter parents who attend job interviews for their 18 and 22-year olds – then call up the employer when they don’t get the job to ask why.  I don’t make this stuff up.

When president emeritus of the American Public Media Group, Bill Kling, was asked what his parents were like, he said “They were wonderful.  They absolutely left me alone.”  What?! Come again.  Not in today’s world.  He talks about all the exploration he did and experiments he invented (and, yes, things he blew up!) – all in the pursuit of his own ideas, his own conceptions, his own thinking, innovation and curiosity.  That’s an education.  That’s a child given the space, the freedom to learn.  Not plugged-in, entertained and “activitied” (I made that up: it’s the parental over-scheduling act of having activities being thrown at you all too frequently).  No, this was a child left on his own to learn.

It really is that simple.  We are born to learn.  That’s the one huge gift we are given at birth: ready and powerful learners.  Naturally curious and explorative we will figure it out, whatever it is.  It’s what humanity has done all  along and will continue to do if we don’t short-circuit the system.  Leave them children alone, and all will be fine.

We need anxious parents to relax, take a step back and understand that this is how it works best.   There are too many parents motivated by good intentions but who are lacking some basic information.

A good new website provides some guidance: http://www.aidtolife.org

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From the minute a child is born she is learning.  Some will argue before.  This is literally true, and fascinating in its truth.  Think about  it.

Because  learning is happening in every waking moment of a child’s life, we should pay attention to what they’re learning – because they are.  Parents are teaching their child with every little thing that they do.  As an educator/administrator I remind teachers who are dealing with an unruly child that “they weren’t born that way” (Lady Gaga is talking about something else).  The point is that the child learned to be unruly by what she saw or how she was treated.

The parent who always brings to their infant the very thing that  the infant is seeking, so that they won’t have to exert so much energy and can be happy NOW, is teaching the infant that effort and persistence are unnecessary and that things will come easily.  This is what learning in every waking moment means.  The child has no choice about this- it’s how nature set the system up.  For this “now happy” infant: what a shame.

“Maybe their lives will turn out differently” says president emeritus of the American Public Media Group, Bill Kling, when talking about his childhood opportunity to explore things first hand, on his own.  “I think  we often undervalue the importance of giving kids that kind of hands-on experience.  It may not lead to their deciding what to  do with their lives, but  it’s surprising what they will  absorb- and maybe their  lives will turn out differently.”

Indeed.  Let’s step back from being so on top of our children.  Let’s give them space to explore, inquire on their own, make mistakes, mess up, fail, and of course… learn all the while.

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