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Ignorance is an Island

Posted Jan 20 2013 12:00am
Think back, way back. All the way back to when you were in school. Do you remember working on your homework in elementary school, middle school, high school? Do you remember asking if you could have a friend come over to study with you? Did your parent, guardian, or even your friend ever ask you "are you allowed to work together?" Maybe you've recently asked the question yourself. I know I did. This weekend my teenager wanted a friend to come over so they could collaborate on an art project and also work on their social studies homework. Their social studies homework, if I understand it correctly, is a workbook assignment about the Constitution (capital letters, baby- it's an important document).

There I was, being that mom. I said it.

"Are you allowed to work together?"

What? This isn't a test, and workbook pages should never be an assessment. Don't get me started on how they're used for grading, because that in and of itself is ridiculous, but workbook pages, if anything, are a tool for learning. In college, I often heard professors tell us that if we wanted to truly learn something, we needed to take what we knew and explain it to someone else.  It's a great exercise, really. It makes you take what you know, talk about it, analyze it, re-synthesize it, and think about it in different ways. When you've been able to teach it to someone else, you've had to get to know something better than copying a word you found in the text onto a fill-in-the-blank line.  

What does this have to do with working together? Kids who study together, who are actually focused on the work have the opportunity to ask their peers questions when they don't understand something, rather than just guessing what word goes on the line and moving on, willfully accepting that their answer won't be right, and that this piece of knowledge will either become clear to them in the future, possibly through osmosis or by someone reprogramming their up-link to the Matrix while they sleep, or that this piece of information will simply go unlearned and accepting that not knowing is okay. Sure, a few will go back into the source material and keep re-reading for clarification until they understand, but that's not every student, so why would we want to close off any possible means of better understanding?

Of course, the answer is one that was deeply ingrained into us through our own experiences with group education. We ask ourselves, "What if they cheat?"

Cheat? Yes. What if they cheat. What if one student finds the answers and the other student doesn't even read the questions but copies the answers into the blanks provided? I'm sure a lot of you remember a time you were accused of cheating in school. Maybe you even got a zero or an F on an assignment or test you worked hard on because of it. Maybe someone did cheat off of you and you were both punished. Isn't that the prevailing logic? "If two of you appear to have been cheating, you will both receive a zero."  It's the threat that has students hunkered over their in-class work, placing a second book on the desk and sometimes using their non-dominant hand as a shield in order to prevent prying eyes.


Are we that afraid that we're going to mis-assess what children have learned? Do educators truly not trust students, or their ability to teach them and model appropriate assessment behaviors? Instead of instilling academic ethics, we're teaching kids to fear the perception of cheating, when in fact, sometimes, working togetgher when learning things is a valuable tool.

It isn't as though educators don't know this. They promote this philosophy, every few weeks asking the students to form reluctant groups in order to work on projects. Then they bemoan their student's reluctance to collaborate, and their lack of skill when it comes to group endeavors. "Why don't they learn better in groups?" educators ask. "Why do they hit a wall when asked to collaborate?" Of course, we've trained them not to collaborate. We've instilled the notion that they should be an island of academic achievement, never turning to their peers unless specifically assigned to do so. We punish them for coming up with the same answers, if they aren't the answers we expect to see, even if it was a half hour debate on why that might be the best answer to a question. We assume that one student thought it up, incorrectly, and the other didn't bother to find out what the real answer was, and thus teach them not to work together.

One of the philosophies people toss about so often that it seems to lose meaning, "united we stand, divided we fall," speaks to this. Throughout history, the truly great things have been collaborations. (Someone out there is thinking Tesla was sort of a lone wolf, and yes he was, which is why he died penniless and alone: great example there.) So let's stop asking if they're allowed to work together. 

Invite your child's classmates over to study. Encourage out-of-school discussion on what they're studying, on the homework questions, on ways these topics and issues touch their lives. It sounds dorky. It sounds like your kid will hate you. It sounds like your kid's friends will think you're that mom or that dad. Be that mom. Be that dad. Be that afterschool care giver. You don't have to hound them, but be willing to facilitate if they show interest. Yes, they can work together. Yes, they can study together. It's called learning, and no matter how many people get involved, it's a good thing. A healthy thing. 

Then, when a teacher calls to say "your son and his friend both had the same bizarre answer to their homework, I think they're cheating," be prepared to say, "no, they were learning together. I overheard the discussion which led to that answer, and while they arrived at the same errant conclusion, they were both thinking about it, and that's how learning happens."

Teachers aren't evil. They aren't the enemy. They're not perfect. They're people, and they are people who were raised with the same anti-collaborative notions that keep getting instilled into the next generation. We're not going to start a colalborative revolution here on my blog. I wish, right? But we all have opportunities, every day to help our children learn to work together better by simply allowing it when they ask.

So yes, yes teenager, your friend can come over to study the Constitution, and if you both have the same wrong answer, at least you talked about it.
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