Wednesday, January 19, 2011

David Brooks, Amy Chua, and Teamwork

David Brooks thinks that the sort of skills Amy Chua drilled into her children are not the ones that matter most or the hardest ones to learn:

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals. . . .

And it is certainly true both that most grown-ups work in groups, and that the really successful people in our society are not the best students but the ones most adept at manipulating other people. (Like all the dyslexic entrepreneurs Malcolm Gladwell wrote about, who got through school by talking other people into doing their work.)

Since nobody can really do archaeology by himself, all my work is teamwork. And sometimes I engage in the sort of thing Brooks has in mind, sitting around a table and talking about solutions to problems. Much more often, though, teamwork in archaeology means each person is given a task to do that contributes to the whole: one person oversees the excavation, another analyzes the bones, one is assigned to compile a history of the property, and so on. My idea of teamwork was best put by a member of the Cleveland Quartet I heard interviewed on NPR; people, he said, are always asking him about the remarkable chemistry they have playing together, and he said, well, the most important thing is that all of us have learned our own parts really well before we sit down together for our first practice.

Obviously, interpersonal skills are vital to almost everything people do. If you can't form good relationships with other people you doomed either to unhappiness or to monkish solitude. If you can't motivate other people you cannot lead any enterprise.

But doing your own job still matters a lot. So I get queasy whenever I hear talk about teaching students how to function in groups by making all assignments group assignments, or giving group tests. In my experience a few people do all the work and the others ride their coattails. Perhaps this is an important lesson in itself, but I doubt the mission of the university is to teach slackers how to stay employed by being a smiling member of the team. We need to teach students how to do their own jobs.

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