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You Are Alone

May 1, 2015

What is the derivative of the function sin(2x2 + 1)? That was the math problem going through my head when I had the idea for this particular post. I was in my precalc class, and as always, we students were left alone after a lecture to complete a problem set for the next day. As some of us sped along through the textbook pages, I noticed something that might seem pretty obvious, but I think still has something very important to say about our mindset on education. While some of us sat quietly in our seats punching numbers into calculators or scribbling furiously, the majority of the class came together into small groups of three to five students each, and discussed the problems that were given to us. That "talking" included sharing and checking answers, of course, but it also included people who already had some understanding of the topic explaining what they knew to others who were new to calculus, as well as the usual, healthy dose of socialization. Had our precalc teacher been one from the usual bunch of math teachers, he might have quickly dismissed the groups back into individual students and made them work alone. But luckily, that wasn't the case (Thanks, Mr. Watson!) and contrary to the fact that most people would see "academic dishonesty*" in this sort of a situation, I think it made for a much more productive class precisely because of the collaboration that occurred. In fact, the culture of collaboration in learning is something the general public's picture of education has avoided, especially for assessments, and I don't know why -- In my opinion, it's the other way around: collaboration in learning is increasingly vital.

Maybe it comes from the American economy's heavily leaning towards capitalism than anything else; maybe it comes from the academic competition across different cultural groups and social classes; maybe it's been there since the notion of education was introduced to humanity. But regardless of its precise cause, our modern culture of education is built atop a very narrow and old-fashioned mindset that everything in education must be individualized**, and collaboration makes for poorer individual achievements. The prevailing logic goes that everyone in a community must understand and remember a set of basic facts and skills that make for a good "education". And how can we make sure that everyone knows those basic pieces of knowledge unless we isolate the population into each individual person, then make sure if each and every person knows those set of facts or skills? At its roots, it's the same logic that drove the adoption of No Child Left Behind Act*** -- we can't afford to leave behind some people while the more privileged part of the population pull everyone else along. And the idea was that if individuals were constantly being evaluated at a person-by-person level, we wouldn't need to worry about high-performers overshadowing some of the less fortunate students -- we would see them right away, and be able to pull them back up. In this way, individual assessment was a kind of a safety measure, to make sure that everyone was on track.

We learn best and make better decisions together, in collaboration. So why are we forced to work alone for the first twelve years of education?

Of course, there is a lot of merit to that idea, and I support it to an extent. Individual assessments are needed in education to enable educators to better find areas that they need to address, so the most number of students can benefit. But while the world chased the idea of making sure nobody was falling behind, I think we also fell into the rut of preventing collaboration, or at the very least eschewing them for assessments and evaluations, leaving them for projects that require a lot of work or time. In other words, metric of achievements in schools are very personalized. Most of the time, assignments are given out to individuals rather than groups. And even in the group activities that we have, grades are often given out in individual bases, based on individual performances in the group. So why aren't there more group activities, collaborative projects, and even the rare "partner tests"? I think we generally avoid these ideas because they bring with them the risk of not everyone learning exactly the same material to exactly the same standards. In collaboration, members stronger in one area can make up for those that are weak in that area, and for some reason, we find that impossible to tolerate. We've developed a stigma against the idea that different people could be good at different things, and that stigma has lead to an obsession with individual assessments.****

In collaboration, members stronger in one area can make up for those that are weak in that area, and for some reason, we find that impossible to tolerate. We've developed a stigma against the idea that different people could be good at different things, and that stigma has lead to an obsession with individual assessments.

This kind of an individual-level assessment and learning is good for one particular thing: training in rudimentary skills, like grammar, arithmetic, and rote memorization of facts. But while those are important skills nonetheless, they are nowhere near comprising a large part of our educational careers. And more importantly, the workplaces and careers emerging in the next decades aren't more bankers, secretaries, and fact-checkers -- the most important and needle-moving careers in the coming years require more complex, creative, and collaborative skills. And both scientific research as well as anecdotal evidence suggest that for these more complex and creative tasks, collaboration is ever more important than individual performance.

In other words, in actual working environments, it doesn't matter how good of a scientist you make on your own. It doesn't matter how difficult of a math problem you can solve by yourself. It doesn't matter how complex of a computer program you can write alone. And it certainly doesn't matter that you can analyze Shakespeare more complexly than the next guy. Because nobody works completely alone, in isolation, anymore. What matters more is how you can use the unique skills that you have to contribute something meaningful to a community. The future of careers is collaborative, and the fact that I can solve a second-order differential equation ten minutes faster than you -- that won't matter when we're working as a team to solve some of the biggest challenges facing the developing worlds. The fact that Alice can write a program that runs twice as fast as Bob's -- that doesn't matter if bob's teamwork and leadership skills allows Bob's team to be more productive than Alice's. And when the world calls for an increasingly collaborative working environment, maybe it's time for our mindset on education to reflect that shift: we can't be so obsessed with individualized performance. What matters more is how we work together, in a group environment, to reach a goal.

Nobody works completely alone, in isolation, anymore. What matters most is how you can use the unique skills that you have to contribute something meaningful to a community.

At the end of the day, I'm not advocating for a complete shift in mindset. I certainly believe that everyone must live up to a very basic standard, and that individual evaluation has its place in a functional educational system. What I'm advocating is not a complete reform, but a slow and conscious move across the collaboration spectrum, moving away from isolated, individual assessments and training to more collaboration-based ones. instead of looking at chemistry grades of each individual student, how about letting them discover something new in groups? Instead of making everyone take a test over Shakespearean theater, how about allowing groups of students to perform excerpts? In place of isolating, machine-like ways in which we quantify achievement today, if we can replace those cold numbers with opportunities and experiences of working collaboratively to solve tangible problems, I think it would make for a much more relevant, much more motivated culture of education.


* Honestly, I'm pretty sure there are better words for teachers to use in place of "cheating" than "academic dishonesty".

** Everything, that is, except for the one thing that actually benefits from individualization, evaluation and assessment, which are standardized by large groups.

*** Hasn't that been a fantastically successful piece of legislation? Why, I have no doubt it's completely achieved its intended goals.

**** Full disclosure: of course, there are large exceptions. Most high schools allow elective courses, and there are numerous collaborative projects that serve as evaluations. However, the truth remains that within those differentiated, elective courses, the work is again assigned individually, and anyone would be lucky to come across the collaborative projects that serve as assessments.