Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
November 18, 2002 Posting #441 COPING WITH HITCHHIKERS AND COUCH POTATOES ON TEAMS, generated some interesting responses. Below is one such response, from Sean D. Hurley, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Rochester. It is followed by a rebuttal by the posting author, Barbara Oakley, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Oakland University, Rochester MI, Both articles are reprinted with permission of the authors.
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FURTHER COMMENTS ON COPING WITH HITCHHIKERS AND COUCH POTATOES ON TEAMS,
November 18, 2002
A nicely written article which points out both why students generally dislike "team learning" (at least the brightest ones tend to) and why team learning, at least as it is commonly implemented, is a fundamentally flawed idea.
Team learning is flawed because it foists on students all of the responsibility without any control. In a classroom environment, learning is ultimately a solitary activity, yet with a team paradigm individual assessment is made in aggregate -- thus those students who wish to be rewarded for the learning that they have accomplished invariably end up doing more than their fare share.
Yet the article suggests that it is up to the students to protect themselves from freeloaders, hitchhikers, and couch potatoes. However, while students may be responsible for the actions, or lack of action, of their comperes, they are almost never assigned the power, by the professor, to insure that their teammates contribute.
Ultimately, many professors defend the practice of "teams" by pointing to the "real world", ie the business world, where teams are routinely implemented. However, what many fail to appreciate is that teams in the business world often have a team leader who has the power to punish those who are not performing and reward those who do. I do not believe it is appropriate for students to have that type of power over each other -- often classrooms are competitive and students are often too aware that their grades can make the difference in where they might end up in professional school.
Thus, teams often work best, in a classroom setting, when students have clear zones of control. If Jack, Henry, and Mary are responsible for their own part of the final report, then it will be quite clear to the professor who is doing the work and who isn't and those students who work the hardest will be fairly rewarded.
To expound on a point: it is inappropriate to suggest that students should take responsibility for the conduct of their team-mates and assert control -- as the article suggests. When students are in a classroom they are equal, and thus as teammates see themselves as equals. If Jack and Henry aren't doing their fare share why is it up to Mary and [the reader of the article] to do something about it? They are supposed to be equals, and most students don't think it is their place to criticize their peers. If anything this is standard social behavior and I do not believe professors should expect anything different.
Of course, many people in life are assigned jobs with great responsibilities and little power. But in the "real world" they are paid for it. Whereas in college, it is students (and their parents) who are handing out the dole.
Best, as always, Sean
Sean D. Hurley,
PhD Research Assistant Professor Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy
University of Rochester Medical Center
RESPONSE BY BARBARA OAKLEY 01/13/03
I appreciate the opportunity Rick Reis has given me to respond to Sean Hurley's letter. And I thank Dr. Hurley himself for providing me with a range of issues that allow me to tell both why I wrote the Hitchhiker essay, and why I believe the ability to use the techniques described in the essay is so important.
But before I respond to Dr. Hurley's points, I'd like to establish my background and experience in working with teams, because it's relevant to the credibility of the conclusions I drew. I happened into a professorship much later than the usual academician, having spent over twenty years working at a variety of industry-related positions. My early years (after waitressing and working as a cleaning woman in high school) were spent in the U.S. Army, where I spent several years as enlisted before entering the officer ranks and subsequently attaining the rank of Regular Army Captain. From the perspective of observing how teams work, this was a fascinating time, because I learned many of the tricks that enlisted men and women used to fool the more gullible officers, of which the university system turned out many. Later, I worked as a radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica and also spent several seasons on Russian trawlers working for the Soviets with American fishermen. Ships and isolated Antarctic stations are wonderful 'controlled experiment' situations for anyone wishing to study the mechanics of how teams do and don't work optimally. In the business world, I spent a number of years working in research and development as an engineer in the optics industry, and in design/manufacturing in the automotive industry. In his letter, Dr. Hurley points out "Ultimately, many professors defend the practice of "teams" by pointing to the "real world", ie the business world, where teams are routinely implemented. However, what many fail to appreciate is that teams in the business world often have a team leader who has the power to punish those who are not performing and reward those who do." Unfortunately, the reality in the business world is that a team leader or supervisor is too busy with their own work to be concerned with petty interpersonal issues-even if those issues don't seem so petty to the person(s) concerned. If you have to go complain to the boss every time someone takes advantage of you in the workplace, you've got a problem. And, as the Hitchhiker paper suggests, it is easy to fool a gullible team leader into believing that a problematic team member is actually the one least at fault. Team leaders are generally far from omniscient father figures who come to the rescue when a problem arises-in fact, they are sometimes part of the problem. As explained in the full version of the Hitchhiker paper ("It Takes Two to Tango," Journal of Student Centered Learning, Volume 1, Issues 1, 2003, pg 19-28), I have found that students working in industry are often the most appreciative of the tools the Hitchhiker paper provides. It is in industry, after all, that the easy life of being able to switch classmates and professors at the end of the semester is not an option. Quoting again from Dr. Hurley "?while students may be responsible for the actions, or lack of action, of their comperes, they are almost never assigned the power, by the professor, to insure (sic) that their teammates contribute." I might append: ditto for workers out in industry. That's why it's important to learn to take active control of one's interactions with one's colleagues, whether in the academic or the professional world.
Dr. Hurley states: "I do not believe it is appropriate for students to have that type of power over each other-often classrooms are competitive and students are often too aware that their grades can make the difference in where they might end up in professional school." The implication here is that the academic environment is more competitive and somehow more important than the environment out in the "real world." The reality is exactly the opposite. Speaking from experience, I can assure you that the corporate world, the entrepreneurial world, and even the military world is at least as competitive, and often far more so, than the typical academic environment. And ultimately, making the final cut to executive rank is far more important-and competitive-for a corporate worker than the triviality of whether he or she earned a 3.8 instead of a 3.2 grade in Calculus I. In his letter, Dr. Hurley asserts: "When students are in the classroom, they are equal, and thus as teammates see themselves as equals." I've had enough experience with humanity to know that everyone is not equal, inside or outside the classroom (outside of the legal realm, equality rarely exists). I have also seen precisely how such notions of equality can be used for manipulative purposes by individuals with malign intent, as described in the Hitchhiker essay. Dr. Hurley also states "In the classroom environment, learning is ultimately a solitary activity?." Not in my classroom, and not in any of the many classrooms that use cooperative learning techniques throughout the country. There are many different learning styles. (See Rich Felder and Barbara Soloman's excellent paper, "Learning Styles and Strategies," at http://www2.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/ILSdir/styles.htm) Those individuals who ultimately receive doctorates are often reflective learners who like to learn on a solitary basis, as opposed to active learners, who enjoy bouncing ideas off each other. As the old bromide goes-the A students end up becoming professors, while the B students end up working for the C students. There are many different pathways to learning-and to success.
About five years ago I heard a surprising comment during an interview with the president of an optics company. He revealed that he never liked to hire graduating engineering students to work on electronics design in his company-instead, he retrained physics graduates. His reason? Engineers at that time were used to learning, and working, as a solitary activity. They had too many difficulties adjusting their work habits upon leaving school to be able to function effectively in teams. The patterns set in the classroom followed the students out into the workplace.
In his letter, Dr. Hurley goes on to say: "[Students] are supposed to be equals, and most students don't think it is their place to criticize their peers." In reality, it is indeed uncomfortable for many students to be assertive enough to stop others from taking advantage of them. But that does not obviate the need for students to learn this important life skill. As the Hitchhiker essay suggests, without constructive criticism, hitchhikers and couch potatoes will never be able to learn that their actions are detrimental to others.
Dr. Hurley states that: "It is inappropriate to suggest that students should take responsibility for the conduct of their team-mates and assert control?. If Jack and Henry aren't doing their fare [sic] share, why is it up to Mary and [the reader of the article] to do something about it?" Of course it's up to Mary and the reader of the article to do something about it! Who else is going to? The professor? He or she wouldn't know there's a problem unless Mary and the reader brought it to the professor's attention, which already means that Mary and the reader are doing something about it. And as the article pointed out, when Mary, Henry, and the reader brought the problem to the professor's attention, it worsened the situation. This is a realistic scenario, and one I have seen time after time in my own team-related experiences. To expand on an important final point, if it is inappropriate to suggest that students take responsibility for the conduct of their team-mates, then in real-life human terms, that means their team-mates can do anything and get away with it. Setting an early pattern in university years of telling a student it is inappropriate to take responsibility for their colleagues' conduct means that later, out in industry, a former student would be more prone to turning a blind eye to unproductive and even unethical practices. After all, it would not be their responsibility. Is that really what we want?
Once again, I thank Rick Reis for allowing me the forum to respond to Dr. Hurley's letter. Although Dr. Hurley and I obviously have substantial disagreements in the area of teamwork, we are very much in agreement on the post-doctoral experience, about which he has written an excellent previous posting (#264: Making Chances in the Post-Doctoral Experience).