Is Working Well Within a Group the Essence of Education?

Published January 11, 2018

According to a new twist to an international test, American students are much better at group collaboration than they are doing academic work on their own. If true, is that an advancement or setback for education in America?

One thing is certain: This first-ever attempt at assessing collaborative problem-solving (CPS) — the holy grail for workplace-oriented education reform — did succeed in vaulting American teenagers to a much more respectable ranking among the world’s developed nations than their scores on individual tests of mathematics, science, and reading ever have.

On previous triennial testing of 15-year-olds by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. students’ performance has been mediocre, at best, and often closer to worst than first.

For instance, the latest batch of PISA scores from the 2015 round of testing, which were released in November, show American individual scores in mathematics ranking 40th out of 70 nations and other entities. (Average PISA score: 490. U.S. average: 470.) However, on the new assessment of the so-called “soft, 21st-century” social skill of CPS, the United States ranked 13th, rarefied air for Americans in these international comparisons.

PISA officials said they ventured into the collaborative realm because business leaders informed them the ability to work in groups is what they seek from their workers. That is no surprise, because business, government, and foundation elites have put preparation of children to solve problems in workforce groups high on their school-reform agendas, beginning with the Outcome-Based Education craze of the 1990s and continuing through the current drive for Common Core standardization.

On the Common Core State Standards website, a set of frequently asked questions provides this indication of the importance the standards assign to student collaboration: “The middle school and high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real-world issues and challenges. Across the English language arts and mathematics standards, skills critical to each content area are emphasized. In particular, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and critical-thinking skills are interwoven into the standards.”

PISA had received related criticism for focusing too heavily on skills transmitted expertly via the structured educational systems of South Asian nations, which emphasize the sort of repetitive drills and memorization detested by American progressives. Thus, adding CPS to the testing mix could help apologists for U.S. government schools soft-pedal their failures to teach kids the basics of literacy and computation.

Indeed, a relatively good grade on CPS could help excuse results of a separate international literacy test recently showing U.S. 4th-grade literacy skills tanking since 2011, the very year Common Core began to infect the government education standards of most states.

Interestingly, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea were the highest scorers in the softer-skills CPS testing, despite lacking the U.S. elites’ obsession with compulsory teamwork. They also were top-10 scorers for individual achievement.

A legitimate question arises as to the accuracy of the first-year assessment of collaboration. At this point, CPS-PISA is more comparable to an experiment than an established form of testing. For instance, computer simulations are used to assess a student test-taker’s ability to adjust to the human dynamics within the supposedly cooperative group. That method must have its limitations.

A much more important question is whether functioning as part of a workforce team should be such an all-consuming feature of education — or corporate management, for that matter. Legitimate criticisms of groupthink are out there, just don’t expect them to be the feature of any lavishly financed educators’ or workforce-preparation conferences.

In an article, “Collaboration Creates Mediocrity, Not Excellence, According to Science,” Geoffrey James cited a study of collaborative work environments that found “cooperative contexts proved socially disadvantageous for high performers.” It turns out that instead of viewing top performers as inspiring models, “mediocre employers tend to see them as threats, either to their own position in the company or to their own feelings of self-worth.” What often results are internal efforts to sabotage the work of the stars, or to steal credit for it.

Open, unwalled working or instructional areas intended to foster togetherness and collaboration pose special problems for introverts, who need privacy to be productive. Susan Cain has devoted a book and a blog to fighting what she calls “The New Groupthink” and advocating for introverts. Cain reminds us that “solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence.” As Cain notes, Picasso said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

“A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community,” Cain added.

Obviously, teamwork can play a role in final decision-making. However, education should be about preparing well-informed, independent-thinking individuals who can bring fresh ideas to the table. That’s hard to do when children are trained to become nothing more than cogs in elites’ exceptionally large wheel.

[Originally Published at American Thinker]