Friday, May 14, 2010

Collaboration Agent

Collaboration is a very important skill to have. If you are a teacher or parent, you know how cumbersome group projects can be. Sometimes the project itself is the least of our concerns.

But is it possible to collaborate too much?

I took some class time to show my students these videos on Stanley Milgrim's Shock-Obedience Experiments. My students were fascinated and disturbed, as I was, by the results of this social experiment. I also plan on using this with my staff as a professional development activity.

Take a look. This might be your next lesson plan.

If you can see why we should teach children to be mindful of the consequences of their actions, then you have to see why teachers too must be mindful of their own actions.
When I relate this to education, I see teachers taking orders from all kinds of authority figures (politicians, superintendents, principals) as if the teacher was simply an agent of the state.

After all, they are just following orders.

After administrating a standardized test, the follow-up interview with a compliant teacher might go something like this:

Q: It looks like you were under some stress?

A: I found it quite stressful. Yeah I did.

Q: But you went on.

A: I did. Yeah. Because my principal said that these tests wouldn't damage the kids long term. So...

Q: So if by chance these tests do hurt the kids, whose responsibility would that have been?

A: Well, in the eye's of the Lord it would be my fault. Morally, it would be my fault. And I could argue that I was following procedure layed out by my government, superintendent or principal. Perhaps I could blame them. But in reality it would be me prepping and administring the test.

Q: And even with the burden of the knowledge, that morally you are responsible - you went on?

A: Hmm. I'm not entirely pleased about that, but I did. Yeah.

Q: How do you interpret the kid's reactions to these tests seeing that the bulk of a student's intelligence evades the clutches of these kinds of tests?

A: I didn't... I don't know... I didn't actually actually think about it - maybe I probably should have - but I didn't think about it that much. So... my job was to teach the curriculum and prepare them for the test. So...

And the interview with a non-compliant teacher might go like this:

Q: You were involved in an important exercise in educational accountability and the principal told you to go prep and administer the test. Why did you disobey?

A: It sounded a little bit like the Nazis in the Second World War Germany. It wasn't my fault - it wasn't me, I was told to do it.

Q: The majority of teachers go along with this testing - they prep their kids and administer the test.

A: I find that scary. I find that very scary.


I get that there are strong external pressures on teachers to comply.

I get that there is a "real world" out there that teachers must face. The stakes are high for all of us to comply.

Evidently, we can convince ourselves, in certain circumstances, that these harmful assessment practices are absolutely justified. When I started to look into assessment, I thought of bad assessment practices as something bad teachers- other teachers - did.

And now I see for the first time that this apathetic compliance is not some malevalent force out there. It's very much in us.

In you.

In me.

In everyone of us.

If we aren't prepared to think for ourselves and stand for something - to move for something - then we will reconcile ourselves to the perpetual status quo, spending our time getting children to accomodate themselves to playing the game. We educate them in the elaborate tricks and subtle nuances of maneuvering through the game.

And if we do this...

Nothing will change.

The recipe for all this is simple - all we need is for good people to say nothing.

At some point, your silence is betrayal.

But here's the good news. If you asked any of the test-subjects from the videos above to participate in Milgrim's shock experiments again, they would likely not mindlessly comply.
Their conscious reflection would enable them to replace their mindless compliance with mindful subversion.

Now it's your turn...


  1. The experiments were illuminating. I studied them in university. They were also unethical by today's standards. The damage you allude to is clearly seen in the discouraged students I taught in the high pressure grade environment of high school. I notice it far less in my elementary classes now.

    There are so many ways we can hurt the young people in our charge. It is not simply testing. I think I did that today when I snapped at a ten-year-old lost in his own social world at the front of the room while we tried to transition to a new activity. I advocate social compliance in the highly organized school of today. There are times we must move together, conscious of our impact on others.

    The impact of testing is no greater than the other ways we can hurt. It is something we can consciously change. I might take a revolutionary stance on it, call for its abolition; instead I will suggest that knowing its potential for harm, we should marginalize its relevance to our groups learning.

    This may be more difficult in the States where second and third hand accounts suggest testing looms larger than it does in Saskatchewan.

  2. I agree, Alan. You could take any number of things school does and make it applicable to this experiment.

    Teachers continue to use punishment as a means of social control and behavior management when there is absolutely no evidence to support the use of punishment as a means of educating someone to become a better person.

    Teachers continue to use grades as instruments of evaluation when they should know better.

    Parents use bribery to get compliance from their own children.

    All this might mean that education reform will be successful when we can enact a kind of social reform.

    It's no accident that school creates compliant creatures. After all, those who graduate from the system are most likely to teach in that system.

    And so the system perpetuates itself, and we are so snowballed by it that we actually think its just natural.

  3. Joe,

    I have sympathy for you when you said your colleagues sat and fiddled. One of the things I struggle with the most with trying to change my classroom is when I am met with apathy from students. No matter what you do sometimes...

    I do believe that students don't know any different form the old model of education, the set and get. It takes time to get them used to doing things differently, especially the ones who flourished with set and get. Having said that, differentiated learning/instruction is the big idea that computers should allow. great read on this one is "Disrupting Class".

  4. @tcomfort I have read Disruptive Class and I enjoyed it. I wrote about it in a post called The Shelf Life of Grading & the Factory Model.


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