A Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration

Sorting through the post-exam detritus strewn about my classroom, I encountered a curiousity: an exam study guide created by an enterprising freshman (download link). It was notable not just as a fine example of preparation, but also as a public work: it had been created by a student in a section that I didn’t teach and distributed to one of his friends in one that I did. Printed in color, with large attractive images, it seemed more like a published work than an amateur effort.

Zayd Rajab on Motivation and Collaboration

What possessed the student to go to such lengths? I sat down with the author, ASK freshman Zayd Rajab, to discuss motivation, collaboration, and achievement. Below are some excerpts:

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Yes, that is an 18-page exam study guide created on a student’s own initiative.

A big challenge for lots of 9th graders is being willing to put in the time and effort to prepare thoroughly for an exam. What motivated you to go to such lengths?

The way I study for exams is to make a study guide so I have everything in one place, so I can do it all at once rather than bringing all those messy notes. It’s neat and clean. What I did is use this application called iBooks Author, and it makes a really good template you can use.

How did you decide to share it with other people?

I made a good study guide – it wouldn’t be nice just to have it all to myself, so I sent it out.

Did you ever consider working with another person to make your guide?

No, because when I work with other people I get distracted, so I like working by myself.

Zayd demonstrated the initiative and compassion that we'd like to develop in all of our students.
Zayd demonstrated the initiative and compassion that we’d like to develop in all of our students.

How would you feel if a teacher put this on Moodle?It would be great – people could use it and it would help them a lot. If they can study better, they can get a better grade and that would make me happy.

What if a teacher assigned this as homework to do throughout the year?

If I’m going to do it as homework, I’d find it a bit of a pain, because when you do it as homework you’re being forced to do it. You won’t put 100% effort into it. But when you know there’s a reason (and you’re doing it on your own), you put 100% into it.

For the people you gave it to, did they ask for it? Did you think they hadn’t studied on their own, and were using it as a crutch or an excuse not to study?

A lot of people aren’t studying, and if they do they’re just looking at messy notes. I think it’s better if you do the study guide yourself. But if you do have my study guide, you’d have extra help, but you’d be more lazy.

Do you think this will inspire people to do their own next time, or will they be waiting for you to give them one?

They’ll be waiting for me to do it.

In a nutshell, Zayd showed a lot of self-motivation, but his interactions with his peers motivate him as well – not just from the recognition he receives, but from the satisfaction he gets from helping others. Teachers love having students like this – he exemplifies the “Learn for Life” and “Make a Difference” qualities that we value.

A (Grossly Stereotyped) Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration

Zayd’s last remark summarizes the problem I struggle with regarding collaboration. For background, modern educational thought holds that collaboration must be a pillar of education because a) it helps students develop interpersonal relationship skills, and b) it leads to “deeper scholarship,” for example by letting students compare multiple perspectives and tackle more complex problems (Davis).

At least three issues make me question how universally we should apply these assertions:

  1. Zayd’s observation that group work is a distraction
  2. My own observations that in a collaborative setting, oftentimes the strongest student functions as a “crutch” on which the others allow themselves to depend,  a supposition supported by Zayd’s comment that his study guides allow other students to avoid doing the work.
  3. The fact that for higher-level students, “Mixed ability cooperative learning plans should be used sparingly for gifted students” as research “indicates that—for gifted students—cooperative learning seems to produce fewer academic benefits than [similar ability] grouping plans” (as cited in Davis, Rimm, and Siegle 15).

Why make students work together if the strongest one is going to do all the work? In the same way that Republicans rail against handouts to the “needy,” teachers implementing collaborative teaching strategies need to rail against handouts to the academically or motivationally challenged. Don’t let the strong subsidize the weak, because such subsidies don’t inspire the weak to succeed – they enable them not to.

It’s an ageless teaching issue that hasn’t been addressed in all the reading and talk about collaboration that I saw through my experience in the COETAIL program and Gafesummit. James Kulik appears to have done extensive meta-review of the available research and concludes that similar-ability groups benefit the most advanced students while being no different in terms of achievement than mixed-ability grouping for low- and intermediate-level ones (Kulik).

I’m not advocating that we should abandon those lower- and intermediate-level students, nor do I mean to dismiss all mixed-ability groupings as a form of intellectual parasitism. Rather, teachers need to carefully think about how we allocate and ration our time, and more importantly, focus our attentions on how we design collaborative learning, not what technology we use to achieve it. The discussion about using Google Apps and all these other tools for collaboration must be inseparable from the conversation on appropriate instructional design and must be accompanied by practical examples of how to design groups and hold them accountable for their work – and it is the responsibility of tech integrators to make sure this is the case.

Works Cited

Davis, Gary A., Sylvia B. Rimm, and Del Siegle. Education of the Gifted and Talented. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011. Print.

Davis, Matthew. “How Collaborative Learning Leads to Student Success.” Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 June 2013.

Kulik, James A. “An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives—NRC/GT.” An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives—NRC/GT. Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013.


2 thoughts on “A Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration”

  1. My initial instinct is to disagree with you wholeheartedly and indignantly. Like many other teachers, I am immediately defensive of my lower-achieveing kids.
    But you make some good points. While I have certainly seen my lower-achieving students step up when the situation called for it, I have more often seen that gleeful smile spread across faces when they believe they’ve been paired up with a “smart kid” that will do all the work. A professor used to crassly call this “brain pimping.”
    However, I do disagree with the claim that the lower-achieving students are the only benefactors of this arrangement. If the higher-achieving students are indeed being taken advantage of, identifying this earlier and finding a solution is an important skill. Rehearsing a bad working relationship in a safe, supportive (and hopefully well-monitored) environment is part of our job. It may not be standards-based, but importantly none-the-less.
    In summation, great piece. It got me thinking at 6:30 AM, which is more than I can say for my coffee. Thanks for posting it!

    1. And I would be completely sympathetic to your initial instinct, though my post might belie this feeling. Education is a human endeavor and a human right. I’m just coming from a place where low achievement is indicative of low motivation (aka laziness) more than low ability. If I as a teacher am choosing to try to motivate my kids, I need them to meet me halfway. The Japanese have a saying – “yareba dekiru” – if you try, you can do it. As a teacher I’m going to try to motivate my students, but they’ve gotta make the choice to try.

      In any event, yes, I can see the relationship/management skills developing on the part of the higher-achieving students – that’s a valuable life skill, and one that I haven’t explicitly addressed in my classes. How have you handled it?

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