A "Group Work" Defense

There are all sorts of hombres and hombrettes who make a charter school click. The kindly "faculty spirit" person who arrange for gifts for every other staff member's birthday, who is constantly cooking for all.

The big donor.

The math department chair who remains for years -- often shepherding a small group of teachers, occasionally creating a team that achieves great results.

The volunteer who keeps increasing her involvement over the years, until at some point she's full-time.

The trustee willing to look at the mind-numbing real estate finance issues.

But I'd bet MATCH is the only charter school in history where everything above was done by a single human. Ann Sagan. She's may be cringing right now. Very modest, likes the behind-the-scenes moments.

We just had an email exchange. Monday, I blogged about Diana Senechal's intriguing observation (in her new book) about the predisposition to have kids work in groups.

Ann wanted to challenge my thinking. So she used the deadly alt/replace function to turn elements of Diana's essay into one about basketball. Ann re-wrote:

I've been thinking a lot about how we teach basketball in high school especially high school teams that are taught by first year coaches and I have big concerns about kids doing scrimmages when the time could be better spent practicing lay-ups, free throws, and throw-ins, running sprints, studying strategy, watching films of great historic games. Letting students scrimmage can be dangerous at best, messy and chaotic most of the time, particularly with students who have no experience doing scrimmages.

Allow me to elaborate:

First, because students lack experience with playing basketball, they are likely to make passes that don’t make immediate sense. They may focus on those parts of the game that help them finish the task quickly. If someone in the group sees a problem with the entire premise, that person will likely be ignored.

Second (and related), because scrimmages tends to focus on a task,usually scoring, the players may not take time with moves or strategies that require time. They may take the shortest route to the goal.

Third, because scrimmage work can easily devolve into chaos, it is often highly structured, with specific roles assigned to the members. This, ironically, can lead to a miniature society of leaders and laborers.

Fourth, the very noise and bustle of actually playing or doing scrimmages can interfere with good thinking. It can be hard to concentrate in a room full of noise.

Fifth, in a scrimmage, the social relationships become paramount. If the team members are friends, they may enjoy what they are doing together. If they don’t get along, they may stare at the floor most of the time. Players need some respite from social interaction. Schools should give them room to learn without social activity at every turn. If given respite, they will ultimately have more to bring to scrimmages, as they will have had a chance to form their own thoughts.

Sixth, people want to fit into a group, even if they don’t want to want to fit in. They may try to maintain the group’s approval; they may hesitate to say or do things that challenge the group. The group may appear to be in agreement when in fact it is not. How often have I heard a player yell "here, here" or "I'm open!" when in many cases they were not or if they were everyone knew the player couldn't shoot if her life depended on it.

Seventh, scrimmages takes an awful lot of time, and much of that time could (and should) be spent on extended instruction, question-and-answer dialogue, and whole-team discussion. Having scrimmage work in every lesson means that other things won’t happen.

Now, if all of these drawbacks of scrimmages are kept in mind, one can find a place for it.

Sure, I’ve seen incredible scrimmages sometimes in various no excuses schools. But it’s pretty tough to coach this way, sort of an “intermediate” to “advanced” coaching technique. We advise our coaches-in-training to avoid dividing kids into small groups or doing scrimmages during the rookie year of coaching — at least not until they can run consistently tight “traditional” (every kid at 100% effort and focus) exercise classes and they can be sure players won't make too much noise, get off task, or hurt themselves on the boards.


My reply:

I'm not sure exactly what to make of your view of Senechal's essay -- annoyed or just provoked or amused.

I like your analogy. It'd be interesting to talk to Orin about his coaching of our boys team.

In the old days, when we had a diff MATCH corps coach each year, in fact we DID scrimmage a lot, and did not practice lay-ups and so forth very much. These were indeed all rookie coaches. And practice WAS frequently ugly to behold. Bob Hill and I would occasionally dream about having the time to coach the team. Practices tended to reinforce bad habits; they didn't change them.

Orin changed that. I don't want to over-extrapolate from the example. But there were 2 different aspects. One, he is not a rookie coach. My sense is his scrimmages as a coach go just as well as in classrooms when some of our strongest MATCH teachers break kids in groups. Kids are held to a high standard. There's a lot of nuance to that. I don't think many rookie coaches handle that well.

Also, many of the best EXPERIENCED youth bball coaches do precisely what I described -- early in the season, practice is heavy on skill and conditioning. Some don't even allow basketballs! Once kids prove they can do a certain set of tasks, they add in scrimmage. My junior high coach, Tony Cassamassa, used our 4 weeks of before-the-season coaching this way -- the first 2 weeks, no scrimmages at all. The 3rd week, scrimmages maybe the last 10% of practice. My job was last man on the bench, by the way.

Ann wrote back:

I think I am all of the above.

I believe the question has been incorrectly framed. It's not an either/or. There should be no doubt that group work is an important and necessary component of a great high school education. Done well, there is SO much that one can get out of these experiences and students must learn how to work in small groups if they have any chance of succeeding in the real world. They can be highly motivating, sticky, surprising, exciting.

The issue, as with everything we do, is when and how to do it well.

How do we teach the teachers, and how do the teachers teach the kids to do the sessions well? I think both are very do-able.

Yes, you need lots of practice with lay-ups and passing. Yes you need to work up to it. Yes you need to stop bad habits.

But you don't not play the "real" game just because it is too hard to do. Playing the real game is what we have are here for, and WE HAVE TO teach them to do it really well. Can you imagine being on a team for a whole year and, because you are with a rookie teacher, you NEVER play? Would you even want to suit up and sit on the bench if you never got to mix it up?

I can't imagine I've got many readers still with me here, but I find this such an intriguing topic. So here's me again, with another rejoinder by Ann in parentheses.

1. We agree there is value to small group work done well. A year ago I asked Travis about his classes, and the challenges/value of group work at BU stuck out to him. (Travis is an alum who is graduating from college in 2 days, so Ann and I were talking about going; he is then going to work for Fidelity Investments).

(Ann: YES). 2. I think we agree it is challenging to do well.


3. I would also contend it's possible to have a great, engaging, useful individual class for a whole year, with nominal to zero group work. Here you may disagree. I think we've had examples at MATCH, though. I certainly have had many school and college classes like this.

(Ann: YES, we could. And students could pass their standardized tests. But don't you think it would be even better (more interesting, deeper understanding, better communication skills) with some group activities AND better prepare them for all types of college and life experiences if we provided these opportunities?) 4. My lens to date is all middle and high school math and English teachers, each of whom is in charge of about 1/6th of a typical kid's day. I.e., if a rookie were to do little group work because she was not yet ready, from a kid's point of view, there still might be a bunch of meaningful group work in a typical week.

(Ann: TRUE, as long as we don't have a whole school of folks who can't or won't do group activities). The question changes with elementary teachers, I believe, as they typically are in charge of perhaps 5/6th of a typical kid's day.

5. Our collective MTR hive mind in watching scores of classes has been: rookie teachers who haven't yet mastered some version of teaching a "basic" lesson to a reasonably strong degree do even worse when they move to group work.

(Ann: FAIR ENOUGH. But does this take them all year? Aren't they better off trying group work with a class they know and control reasonably well than with a whole new class at the beginning of next year? Or are you proposing they wait 18 months?) But let's set aside whether small group work is a good example of the following; I would just ask this: are there ANY types of teaching that we should ask beginners to avoid?

(Ann: AVOID? Do you teach them how to know when it is time to try? Do you teach them how to do it well when they are ready?) In many professions, there are tasks/procedures/moves that we simply don't ask newbies to EVER do.

Are there any types of teaching that you believe we shouldn't ask of new teachers?

(Ann: The Problem is that there is so little supervised apprenticeship for teachers compared to say doctors and lawyers, plumbers. Most teachers, your teachers, will start and probably never return for any more intensive instruction --right? So if they don't learn these things from you and practice them, when will they learn how to do these harder things well?

I understand that newbees need to start out simple and strong. How do you teach them to start trying more complicated/challenging techniques? How do you prevent them from getting stuck in a comfort zone and not wanting to try these harder techniques, especially as the first time they try it they will almost certainly fail [because you -- or a supervisor -- will not be there for support]).