Monday, January 10, 2011

The Cubicle and The Classroom

Imagine your boss asks you to work on a design for a new product your company is soon launching. He gives you a time frame for completion and some guidelines. He also tells you that he is not available to help but you can check in with him from time to time to let him know how it’s going. And, on a certain date he’ll want to see what you come up with.

Now, imagine you begin this task and soon discover you need a team to help you because you have a few ideas but you need more, and you feel stuck. You then ask several members in your department to work with you on this project. Before long you and your team have come up with something you think meets the criteria and you are excited about sharing it with your boss. You’ve even worked on this project outside of normal working hours because you all had other work to do and didn’t want to get behind in that during this project.

When the time comes to show your boss the new design he…

(Scenario 1)… looks at the design, listens to how you and your team have developed it, is impressed and congratulates you and your team on your design, which is still a work in progress. He gives you more goals and guidelines and asks that you and your team continue with your collaborative work toward making the intended product. He doesn’t expect you to work overtime on this, but just during the workday. He is excited about the design realizing it is very forward thinking and may even help the company make a name for itself.

(Scenario 2)…looks at the design, listens to how you and your team have developed it, is impressed by it but scolds you for gathering a team to help you work on the project. He says he had asked YOU to do it and if he had wanted a team to do it he would have told you that from the start. Even though the design meets all the criteria, and the product will make a name for the company, he lowers your pay for that week and tells you not to work collaboratively again unless he asks you to.

I’ve heard from many parents who share stories like this with me, but the scenario is school, not the business world. Their son or daughter was caught “cheating” because they chose to work on an assignment or project with a group of kids instead of doing it alone. When the time comes to turn in the assignment, all students who worked together have the same answers so the teacher gives each one of them a failing grade for that assignment or project. Even when the students ask the teacher to quiz them verbally to see if they know the material, the teacher refuses and calls them dishonest.

I’m pretty certain that Scenario 2 (above) doesn’t happen very often (if ever!) in the business world. Yet Scenario 2 (substituting student for employee and teacher for boss) happens on a regular basis in classrooms across the country.

I posted a blog entry about “The Global Achievement Gap” by Tony Wagner a while ago. You can read it here.

Tony Wagner highlights what business people say about new employees:

(26) Kids just out of school have an amazing lack of preparedness in general leadership skills and collaborative skills…They lack the ability to influence versus direct command…the only kind of leadership young people have…is one that relies on obedience versus the kind…demanded by…teams and networks.

If you run into a situation with your son or daughter where they have been accused of cheating when they were working in a group, I suggest you give his or her teacher a copy of this book. I also suggest you have a polite but firm conversation with the teacher to explain that it’s more important for your child to be creative and collaborative in doing assignments than it is for him to get a certain grade. We are so focused on grades and competition in the classroom that anything creative or collaborative looks like cheating.

As Ken Robinson says, “We’ve been told for 10 years in school there is one answer, and it’s in the back of the book, and don’t copy, that’s cheating. Outside of school, cheating is called collaborating.”

Any thoughts?


  1. Hmmm... I don't usually post on blogs, but this one caught my interest.

    When the students are assigned a project (or assignment) it's done to see what that student can come up with. It's often used as an alternative to testing to see what the students comprehend and it's a nice diversion from a standard test for everyone involved.

    However, I also think it's important to consider the many times good teachers assign group work and find that a number of the students in the group aren't actually working. The end result happens when those with drive take over. How should the teachers grade that kind of work?

    As educators we are trying to give a variety of options for evaluation. (At least I do.) There's a time and a place for the students to collaborate and we try to allow for that often. You just have to be sure you understand what the teacher is looking for before passing judgment and lumping them all together. No one wants all the students lumped together, and the teachers should be allowed the same graces.

    Just my humble opinion. :)

  2. Hi Kerry,

    This is a very good post...
    I'm not keen on suggesting that school should foster business world activities, but the skills our children will need to succeed in life should be a part of schooling. The focus of school should be encouraging and guiding of children's natural abilities to learn, not evaluation.

    The biggest difference in the two scenarios is that the adults at work have a choice....the kids have none. Where the adults contributing to the project are doing so because they want to and are interested, the children "assigned group work" have no choice. As a result, you will have children who are not interested and who don't participate. But there's no allowance for that. Those kids are blamed for not participating when the real problem is that they just didn't find the right team.

    For me, the teacher's role is to find a project for all the kids. Each child should be excited and interested in what they're doing and be encouraged...not evaluated.

  3. No teacher on the planet can find a group project that interests every child nor one that every child is excited about. We do our best (most of us) by varying the activities so the chances of success and interest are their greatest and so that it encourages the strengths.

    Not all group work is used as an evaluation. In the previous post that was just to point out that it is sometimes used as an alternative to a test. We do collaborative work to get the students thinking in a new way and learning from others. These are the things they will need when they leave school.

  4. Good post. Provocative. I'd say the analogy starts to break down when the goals are considered. As a boss I want the best product individual, group, etc I don't care how I get it. It will move the company forward and that's what I want.
    As an educator I would want good work out of my students but that wouldn't be the defining piece of a product. I may want to see creativity, initiative, additions to a students fund of knowledge etc.
    So, outcome vs. process. While I want to prepare a student to work in a world where (many times) only the outcome matters. I may have to pay attention to process to get them there.