On Sunday I stumbled upon an article in the opinion pages of the NYT titled The Rise of the New Groupthink. I had been working on a blog post about Solution Fluency which went into an exploration of different personalities as they operate in problem-solving situations. I had concluded that if people can recognize and put to use the best strength for the given situation, a group may produce a better result than an individual, toiling alone, might do.
Not so according to the article… or would author Susan Cain actually agree with the Myers Briggs concept that people operating out of different values and preferences might produce a good result when working together, if those differences are understood and are operating at their best? Certainly a group of people operating at their worst will produce a negative result in any situation.
Susan Cain argues that introverts like Steve Wozniak need to work independently, and if Woz were forced to collaborate in constant brainstorming groups, he would never have had the opportunity to make the magic of the personal computer happen. She does grant that without the “supernatural magnetism” of Steve Jobs, he might have given his invention away for free, or that he might never have gotten started on the project if not for a bunch of like-minded buddies getting together and outlining the parameters.
Though Cain, author of the forthcoming book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” seems to be speaking out against collaboration, she is operating out of a limited idea as to what collaboration is or can be. She cites the example of a 4th grade classroom she visited in New York City where: “students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”
What? Either this example was taken out of context, or the teacher she observed could probably use a bit more guidance on different learning styles. This technique might force the extroverts to think and consult their peers before they ask a question their group-mates can answer, but at its worst it would certainly produce what commenter ljn of New Jersey described on Jan. 15th at 12:49pm:
“…I was recalling that in elementary school in the 1970s, my teacher would ask who wanted to work in groups and who wanted to work by themselves. Usually I was the lone hand raised that preferred to work “solo”. But since most kids wanted to work in groups, that is what we did; often with mediocre results. Decades later, I know that my best work as a scientist has arisen from my own ideas and observations. Unfortunately, those of us who prefer to pursue our own approach are often labled as ‘not a team player’.”
Certainly young ljn would have had valuable contributions to make, but the self-professed introvert was, for some reason, not comfortable with the face-to-face, dialogue-oriented interaction her teacher prescribed. This commenter’s chosen career in science makes me think he or she might be an S (sensing) type of problem solver: fact-oriented, considerate of the components that have produced the situation, interested in researching the cause-and-effect aspect.
ljn might also be an F (feeling) type: attuned to the feelings of his or her peers, which might have caused internal conflict at a young age when he or she might have felt different from the other members of the group because of his or her unique vantage point. Sensitive to all of this, and more comfortable processing information in his or her own mind rather than out loud, it is understandable that this person did not like the structure of group work in school.
But does ljn‘s experience mean, as author Cain’s article suggests, that collaboration will turn us into a mediocre society?
In a word: no. I have seen collaboration in action in an all-boys private school in the Northeast, where 5th graders build presentations on shared Google docs about topics such as ancient Egypt. They are abuzz with excitement, sprawled out in the hall, editing the presentation, adding cool pictures and details while their teacher Tweets homework assignments with interesting bonus facts and images of Egyptian relics, fact-of-the-day style.
Some of the boys take responsibility for editing the text of the presentation, some are better at formatting the slides, some are writing Google queries with great imagination, which bring results that send the boys into fits of giggles, awed silence, and even quiet contemplation as they ramble around the internet in search of appropriate details.
They feel like they’re playing, but they are producing impressive results. When less-than-impressive, the teacher critiques the work according to a well-defined rubric and shows them exactly how to improve.
They all know how to do each step, sometimes they work together, sometimes alone… and yet still together, as they each have access to the most immediate version of the project through their assigned laptop.
Are they dumbing each other down? Hardly! They are in competition for the coolest fact, the best formatting, the least number of spelling errors on the text, the most interesting picture… Why? Because who doesn’t want to be the best at something? And if the ability to find your own niche and be the best in the way that makes the most sense to you is in your hands, you’re going to find it, even if you are 10 years old and working on a project for school, even if you don’t care about grades or school or Egypt, you’ll still want to know that you are the best at something.
Even better, you get to be competitive from the privacy of your own little hideaway under a table, down the hall, in the corner of the room, or wherever your best little working nook might be.
I wonder if ljn might have been happier with a collaborative project in a classroom like that ?
If all of this “type” classification intrigues you, visit the Myers Briggs website or pick up a copy of Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type, by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron. The career book takes each of the 16 different personality types and forecasts, based on decades of research, careers that are typically satisfying to particular types. According to this book, ljn would likely be an ISFP (Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving), who would enjoy — you guessed it — a career in science.
What are you? What am I? And why does all of this matter?
As we prepare our school to go boldly where many are tending to go… and discovering incredible opportunities and also pitfalls along the way… we must consider how we will instruct our various learners to help them to achieve 21st Century skills like the ability to collaborate.
In November, kinder21 presented the concept of “Solution Fluency” to our group and discussed a simple problem faced by a group of her Kindergartners. They were outside for recess playing basketball and the ball became wedged between the rim and the backboard.
The kids tried a bunch of unsuccessful solutions to get it down, which included (memorably) shouting at it, before someone finally tossed another ball at the stuck ball and hit it, which knocked it down.
kinder21 explained the “6 D’s” of Solution Fluency, and the process the kids had unwittingly gone through before finally hitting upon the one that worked.
It got me thinking: how do you get students — or anyone for that matter — to consider and follow those 6 steps every time they are faced with a problem? Do I do that? Could I hold myself to that standard? I visited the 21st Century Fluency Project’s site for a closer read of the D’s:
Define the problem, because you need to know exactly what you’re doing before you start doing anything.
Discover the history of the problem which provides context.
Dream Envision a future with the problem solved.
Design your solution in stages through gap analysis from Define to Dream.
Deliver the goods. Complete and publish your solution.
Debrief and foster ownership, by getting involved in the evaluation of the problem-solving process.
It seemed pretty reasonable, but somehow I couldn’t see myself printing the D’s out and hanging them on my classroom wall as a guide for my students to follow.
I thought about my own problem-solving process and compared it to the D’s, and realized I was more drawn to some of the stages than others. If I had to follow the 6 D’s sequentially… well… I just would not necessarily do so every time, and my solution might suffer for it.
But they seem so sensible, what was my problem with the D’s? I read the description again and saw this preamble:
“This is about whole-brain thinking – creativity and problem solving applied in real time.”
Eureka! The key word for me was “whole-brain” thinking. It reminded me of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test I took in college. My mom is pretty well-versed in this area and had some good resources, so I investigated further.
You can read up on Myers Briggs, or just check out the chart below and think: where do my thoughts tend to go when I am faced with a problem that needs solving?
Is there one (or more) which seem too cerebral, too ethereal, too impulsive, or perhaps too inefficient? You will most likely be drawn to two of the quadrants (one top, one bottom).
Which quadrants represent for you the most comfortable way to begin the process of problem solving?
|S: DEFINE THE PROBLEM
· Face all the facts
· See the situation as it is.
· Be realistic and avoid wishful thinking or feeling that may distort the picture
· What do we know for sure?
· Who is involved?
· What has gone before?
|N: CONSIDER ALL THE POSSIBILITIES
· List possible courses of action
· Put these into words and make conscious
· Develop a range of alternatives without analyzing or critiquing.
· Don’t reject anything yet, keep brainstorming.
· What solutions “leap out”
|T: WEIGH THE CONSEQUENCES of each course of action
· What steps do you take to get there?
· What will happen if you do?
· List steps for each course of action
· Make an impersonal analysis of cause/effect
· Make a tentative judgment about what will give the best result
|F: WEIGH ALTERNATIVES in terms of feeling.
· How deeply do you care about the things that will be gained or lost.
· How will this effect others?
· Impact on people
· Impact on values and sensibilities?
· Acknowledge subjective elements
Source: Myers, Isabel B., McCaulley, Mary H., Quenk, Naomi L., Hammer, Allen L. MBTI Manual: A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, Consulting Psychologists Press, 3rd Edition, 1998.
Personally, I tend to operate out of the right-hand side of the box, so if I am approaching a problem I am thinking about the feelings of those involved, what obvious possibilities are “leaping out”, and I will begin to generate a list of ideas by brainstorming.
Someone who operates out of either of the quadrants on the left might not understand why I might approach it that way, and might see it as inefficient, but for me considering the effect on others and the having opportunity to creatively discover a solution appeals to my values and preferences.
I never would have considered a career in finance because of the type of thinking required. It’s not my strength! However, put me in a classroom with a group of learners who have a variety of strengths, needs and aspirations and ask me to give them skills in, and an appreciation for, world languages and culture and you’ve got the right girl.
We all have our own sets of values and preferences that might lead us down one path or another when faced with a complex problem to solve, and each type of person can make helpful contributions to the problem-solving process.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills designates Problem Solving as one of 6 essential, and currently not assessed, skills for students to learn, and describes it thus:
“…Solving complex, multidisciplinary, open-ended problems that all workers, in every kind of workplace, encounter routinely.The challenges workers face don’t come in a multiple-choice format and typically don’t have a single right answer. Nor can they be neatly categorized as “math problems,” for example, or passed off to someone at a higher pay grade.
Businesses expect employees at all levels to identify problems, think through solutions and alternatives, and explore new options if their approaches don’t pan out. Often, this work involves groups of people with different knowledge and skills who, collectively, add value to their organizations.”
If we imagine the Kindergartners with the stuck ball as representing a group of four distinct problem-solving “types” — S (sensing), N (intuition), T (thinking), and F (feeling) — working together to solve the problem, the conversation might have looked something like this:
Finn (F): Oh no! Johnny’s crying!
Samantha (S) : His ball is stuck!
Finn: We need to get it down!
Nick (N): Maybe we could parachute off the top of the school and kick it out as we fly by the net?
Tricia (T): No, that won’t work. We don’t have parachutes and we might get in trouble.
Finn: Johnny will be so upset if we can’t get it down, he got that ball for his birthday!
Samantha: Let’s see, what can we do?
Nick: How about we yell at it REALLY loud? Maybe we’ll scare it down!
Tricia: That didn’t work. Any more big ideas?
Finn: That was kind of mean Tricia. Maybe we should get the teacher?
Samantha: Tricia, don’t criticize. Finn, go get the teacher.
Tricia: Sorry Nick. Maybe you could think of something that knocks the ball down without using things we don’t have, and without imagining that the ball has feelings.
Nick: Maybe a bird could hit it… I’ve got it! Maybe we could hit it with something?
Tricia: That’s more like it, but how could we hit it if we’re down here and it’s up there?
Samantha: (picks up a ball)
Nick: How about another ball? We could throw it!
Tricia: That’s quite logical actually, I think it could work!
Samantha: (aims ball at stuck ball)
Nick: Maybe if you stand with your back to it and throw it over your head…
Tricia: A simple, forward-facing shot will work, let’s just get it down.
Finn: Yay! It worked! You did it!
Samantha: I’m going to go bring it to Johnny.
Nick: That was cool! I really think we should try parachuting off the roof though…
Tricia: Great shot, Samantha.
Finn: GREAT shot Samantha! Johnny will be so happy!
In the conversation above, any of the kids might DEFINE the problem (the ball is stuck), though defining a problem is usually the realm of the fact-oriented S.
Certainly the feeling-oriented F would recognize the importance of solving the problem, and would generate the sense of urgency that would press the S into problem-solving action, rather than simply abandoning the ball and finding a new one to play with.
The fact-oriented S would give context to the problem (DISCOVER) that would help the others to break the problem down into manageable parts.
The N would begin generating possibilities (DREAM and DESIGN), some of them improbable, and the T would analyze and critique, thereby influencing the DESIGN.
The S would put the design to use (DELIVER), the T would analyze the results (DEBRIEF), and the F would celebrate the results (DEBRIEF).
What I am getting at is that we all do have the capacity to do all 6 of the D’s, and students would certainly benefit from some outright training in problem solving, but they will choose to use the D’s that make sense to them. “Dreaming” of a solution might sound hokey to some, while “Design a solution through gap-stage analysis” might sound overwhelming to others.
For me, Solution Fluency is about knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and recognizing the strengths in your teammates that fill in where yours leave off. For simple problems it is important to be able to work independently, but for the complex it is equally important to be able to work together.
Myers, Isabel B., McCaulley, Mary H., Quenk, Naomi L., Hammer, Allen L. MBTI Manual: A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, Consulting Psychologists Press, 3rd Edition, 1998.