Monday, January 24, 2011

The Environment of Achievement, Part 1

Three words grabbed my attention. Ideas that can make the difference between a t-ball novice and A-Rod, between nephew Johnny’s string recital performance and a Yo-Yo Ma concert, between the weekend jogger and Paula Radcliffe.

No, not age, not time, nor even practice. (Though all these play a role.)

For decades, researchers have pitched their tents in one of two camps: either nature (i.e., genetics) makes us who we are, or nurture (i.e., environment) does. For every study claiming to capture the flag for one camp, a counter study contends that it retains the banner.

In The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that the interaction of genes and environment produces the individuals we become. Environment, contends Shenk, plays a leading role in how genes are “expressed.” But let’s set the science and the debate aside for now and simply consider what allows ability to reach its fullest potential.

This brings us back to those three words. They appear in the opening of David Shenk’s book, and they should play a leading role in education: hope, humility, and determination.

Word #1: hope. Of the three words, this one gets the most negative press. Cynics point out that hoping never made something happen nor brought anything into existence. Some even suggest hope is damaging, viewing it as wishful thinking that prevents the action needed to generate change.

Such arguments fail to look behind results; they fail to consider the causes of observable effects. They’re akin to arguing that the pleasure of a warm fire on a cold night is unrelated to, and certainly not dependent on, the match used to ignite the flame.

But hope is not disconnected from action or result; it is the drive that propels action and result. It is not an ungrounded feeling but a belief that action can bring about change. No great change has ever been attempted without hope, even if the belief was never voiced.

The dictionary associates several concepts with hope: expectation, belief, desire, good. I’d add another: resilience. Here’s why:

Resilience involves maintaining hope despite failure. Set-backs in life are inevitable, whether one is trying to strut across a narrow balance beam or learn to balance lopsided equations. Response to setbacks makes the difference between progress and stagnation, and hope motivates forward movement. Students need to learn to remain positive, believing that hard work can eventually overcome most setbacks and that the effort can yield beneficial and satisfying results. Relatedly…

Resilience involves embracing failure as an element of learning and progress.Hope can endure difficulties when the difficulties are seen as revealers of weaknesses that can be targeted and tweaked. Once recognized, weaknesses can become the focus of the efforts that lead to eventual success. (If students are not failing—encountering challenges—in your classroom, their learning may be minimal or even non-existent.)

David Shenk shares a compelling illustration. Basketball great

Michael Jordan would use

informal, pick-up games to work on

skills he knew were his weakest. While others in these games relied on doing what they already knew they could, Jordan

analyzed his setbacks, identified their causes, and then worked to correct them. The hope of eventual success made failure something to seek rather than avoid.

As teachers, we have a critical role to play in helping students perceive failure correctly. The feedback we give students can make the difference between failure that focuses effort and failure that is fatal to further attempts.

Finally, resilience involves being able to change direction. Failure is easy to repeat. You simply do the exact same thing you did previously while expecting the result to be different. (I believe this was Einstein’s definition of insanity.) It takes effort to consider alternative approaches and to maintain the hope that making such changes can yield better results.

To help students grow into individuals who do not view failure as fatal, we must nurture their spirits, helping them maintain hope, especially when learning is challenging.

Some questions I’ve been pondering lately include:

  • How resilient is my hope in the face of challenge?
  • How do I convey hope when my students face challenges and obstacles?
  • Is my classroom/school/district a place characterized by hope and its accompanying momentum?
  • How am I modeling resilient hope?

What questions would you add?


Shape of a hoper


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Using Groups Effectively: 10 Principles

Confession: as a student, I usually hate group work. I know, I know. Having students

work in groups reaps a bounty of benefits, including boosting students’ social skills and upping the number of “happy campers” in the classroom. Such findings filter through my thinking when I’m preparing to teach, so I do use group interaction, hoping that the promises from its advocates will be realized. Occasionally they are; often they are not.

I recently attended a conference session featuring Keith Sawyer. In addition to being a jazz pianist (a musical collaborator), Sawyer is an expert on the effectiveness of group efforts. His presentation focused on what has been and potentially can be accomplished through collaboration, but he hinted that just getting people into groups is not the answer.

This piqued my curiosity, so I bought his book Group Genius. In it I’ve begun to find some answers to my questions: When are groups effective as means of learning? What tasks are better accomplished collaboratively than individually? How do you structure groups for optimal effectiveness and results?

Though his focus is on creativity, I think Sawyer’s insights apply to our use of groups to foster learning. Here are ten principles I’ve picked up:

  1. Flow matters. Flow is a term used to describe a state of high engagement in which thoughts run freely and progress occurs, often without group members being conscious of it. However, flow is like intrinsic motivation; it can’t be created on demand. The best we can do as teachers is provide a classroom environment that fosters flow.
  2. Conversation is key. Sawyer succinctly explains this principle: “Conversation leads to flow, and flow leads to creativity.” When having students work in groups, consider what will spark rich conversation. The original researcher on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that rich conversation precedes and ignites flow more than any other activity.1 Tasks that require (or force) interaction lead to richer collaborative conceptualization.
  3. Set a clear but open-ended goal. Groups produce the richest ideas when they have a goal that will focus their interaction but also has fluid enough boundaries to allow for creativity. This is a challenge we often overlook. As teachers, we often have an idea of what a group’s final product should look like (or sound like, or…). If we put students into groups to produce a predetermined outcome, we prevent creative thinking from finding an entry point.
  4. Try not announcing time limits. As teachers we often use a time limit as a “motivator” that we hope will keep group work focused. In reality, this may be a major detractor from quality group work. Deadlines, according to Sawyer, tend to impede flow and produce lower quality results. Groups produce their best work in low-pressure situations. Without a need to “keep one eye on the clock,” the group’s focus can be fully given to the task.
  5. Do not appoint a group “leader.” In research studies, supervisors, or group leaders, tend to subvert flow unless they participate as an equal, listening and allowing the group’s thoughts and decisions to guide the interaction.
  6. Keep it small. Groups with the minimum number of members that are needed to accomplish a task are more efficient and effective.
  7. Consider weaving together individual and group work. For additive tasks—tasks in which a group is expectedtoproduce a list, adding one idea to another—research suggests that better results develop when individual thinking precedes the pooling of ideas in a group setting. Researchers also suggest that alternating between individual and group work helps keep the work focused but not fixated—i.e., not limited to one aspect or detail of an idea or issue. (By the way, this weaving of individual and group interaction may be reason why technological or “electronic brainstorming” is often effective.)
  8. “Divide and conquer” ≠ collaboration. When groups assign members to specific responsibilities for completing a task they undermine the thinking that collaboration can produce. Sawyer talks about creativity via collaboration as being “exponential,” meaning that it is constructed via conversation. One individual’s thought may inspire another group member’s insight, which in turn sparks new concepts for another. It is this emergent thinking that enables collaboration to accomplish what individual effort cannot.
  9. Think threefold. Group tasks that produce the best results often have three defining characteristics: 1) they are novel, something students have not done before, 2) they feature a visual component, something that can be represented in nonverbal forms, and 3) they are relational, meaning they require the combining of ideas or components to be accomplished.
  10. Be complementary. The best groups are composed of members who have enough familiarity with one another to be comfortable but who possess varied backgrounds and experiences. Again, because of how we typically use groups in classrooms, we tend to form groups around ability—if there is at least one “good student” in the group, we think something will get done. However, Sawyer suggests ability should be less of a consideration than diversity in experience. This can be challenging to accomplish but it’s worth considering when grouping students for collaborative tasks.

These insights have me rethinking groups, not whether or not to use them, but when and how to use them effectively. As with every aspect of teaching, using groups effectively requires mindful planning and attention to more than who works with whom. As Sawyer summarizes, “Putting people into groups isn’t a magical dust that makes everyone more creative. It has to be the right kind of group, and the group has to match the task.”2


  1. Sawyer, K., Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 43.
  2. Ibid., 73.