…and the bartender asks, “What’ll it be?” The group doesn’t say anything (cue the drum-kick).
I won’t mince words here: I really don’t like working in groups at school. I know that sounds very odd and anti-social, but let’s be honest with ourselves–does anyone REALLY like working in groups? We all remember what it was like in high school, when you were assigned to a group, and you were ready to divvy up the work and communicate, and half of your members either didn’t care or didn’t do their part, or never even showed up at all. Unfortunately, this type of assignment is still rampant in schools, and adequate policing of these group-communication-issues is still relatively low. I think the most I’ve ever heard in acknowledgment of this problem is a teacher going, “Now, if someone in your group isn’t doing their part, let me know.”
Well, it’s nice to know that we won’t be held accountable for another person’s lack of commitment, but that doesn’t solve the problem. It accommodates the problem. This is why I was a little skeptical when I read Johnston’s seventh chapter in Choice Words. However, upon reading, I realized that he notices just like me that schools need to help resolve group communication rather than just prepare for its failure.
Johnston tells us that group learning is actually critical for a student’s growth, saying, “Children must have the experience of such communities if they are to know what to aim for in constructing their own learning environments” (65). This statement makes sense to me. It’s not that I never understood why we were made to work in groups, it’s that it was never appropriately reinforced and so I knew nothing would come of it but frustration and resentment. Thankfully, Johnston wins me over by recognizing that we really don’t go about group work the right way: “Even when they work in groups, they rarely work as a group, sharing ideas and working toward a common goal” (65).
I believe that it is essential for students to learn at school the value and need for a safe, learning community as opposed to their own bubble of safety. Johnston is right, it is the teacher’s job to foster such interaction in his/her classroom, and to help the students along the path to conducting democratic, social learning groups. When we talk about conversing with the professional community during college years, the reference is to this very idea–that even though you have ideas and can adequately and soundly back them up, contributing to the world’s knowledge is a communal activity, and requires conversation and critical evaluation of your peers. Scientists accept this as fact in their formula of scientific inquiry. Why do we forget this when we are in the classroom?
One example that Johnston gives is is the “I wonder…” (68) example. I think this is a very important phrase that is underutilized in the classroom today. Johnston says that “wondering” encourages tentative inquiry without insistence, in essence bringing an idea into the light and allowing everyone to examine and poke at it, to see how it works or why it doesn’t. Johnston says, “For group discussions to take place, such lubricants, or “tentativeness markers” are necessary” (68). Necessary, indeed. If teachers don’t promote open conversation in the classroom, students won’t absorb the ability for use in later grades and in life problems.
I enjoy Johnston’s chapter and examples because he gives me hope for the teaching community that I may walk into when my career begins. As of now, I believe that teachers are only just realizing how much they’re lacking in the group participation portion of student assignments. Hopefully, as we in this class read Johnston’s book and other teachers perhaps read it too, we can all band together to encourage better communication in group activities and to heighten the productivity of such interactions for the students’ learning capabilities. Johnston tells us, “Normalizing the concept that there are multiple possibilities, and that alternative perspectives frequently help us arrive at a better, more nuanced understanding of the focus of our inquiry, or a more elegant solution to a problem, is a big deal” (70). Students, especially adolescents, need help from us in order to realize that other ideas and viewpoints are necessary to make democracy, and society in general, function in a positive way.
Johnston says, “Democratic living is about social problem-solving. Indeed, we can think of education in terms of efforts to increase learner’s’ problem-solving ability” (73). So often nowadays, teachers feel as if they must focus on what the standardized tests require or the district deems important knowledge, that they lose sight of the fact that memorization and learning are two different things. You know that really old, really cliched saying, “If you catch a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime”?
If we hand the information to the students in nice, neat lists and ask them to regurgitate information, yes, they will pass the tests. If we teach the students how to figure things out for themselves through problem-solving and community conversation and engagement, they will not only pass tests but develop the ability to figure things out on their own, without lists or study-sheets or assignment guidelines. It’s a really simple concept, and yet we continue to try to make it as complicated as possible. I wonder…why is that?