Countering Groupthink with Solitude

I have been reading again Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. It is a tremendous book bringing to light the often unexamined role of the 50% that fall within the introvert side of the population. Many salient points are raised for me.

In many ways schools are designed for the extrovert. Being able to function in a collaborative group is a highly sought objective. A popular seating arrangement is learning groups of four. Posters on the wall promote group skills. Projects begin with group brainstorming. Participation points are given for talking in class and small groups. Cooperative groups debrief discussing how well all members shared. Outgoing, gregarious students gain easier access to teacher favor.

I grew up with a strong dislike for the conformities of school. I suspect a significant part of that may have been due to not fitting the ideal extroverted model of student. I think part of why I ended up an elementary classroom teacher was a deep-seated psychological desire to revisit my elementary years and seek a more satisfactory resolution. I have always found a keen desire to seek out my quiet students and find means to connect with them. It is of great importance to me to help them find comfort in participating in class in a way that works for them.

In my preservice teacher methods class, I ask for and expect my students to actively participate. We talk about what participation might look like. It might be active engagement in a whole class dialog. It might be contributions to small group conversations. It might be sharing and supporting one another outside of class. It might be a commitment to the assigned reading and papers. It is not up to me to pass judgment on their level of participation. It is sufficient for me to look to the work they produce. If they are active participants, they are able to successfully complete this work.

In Cain’s book, she speaks to the popularity of groupthink – that is the thought that when you put people together in groups, their work improves. An effective counter is suggested by research that points to when people are allowed to find places of solitude, work and ideation improves. Businesses have shifted to open-plan spaces for their offices with the thought this would promote collaboration and improve performance. Multiple studies have shown the opposite. Allocating spaces where people might find themselves removed from the interference of others around them improves performance.

Cain tells the story of the ubiquitous strategy of brainstorming and cites research that points to flaws in the prominence of this strategy.

 After all these years of evidence that conventional brainstorming groups don’t work, they remain popular as ever. Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity – group brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit. (89)

Perhaps we need to rethink how we structure our schools. Differentiation is a hot topic. Perhaps we also need to differentiate for those 50% of the students in our classrooms that do their most creative, most productive work, removed from the distractions and pressures of group. I would have benefited from this kind of classroom. I continue to find myself patiently waiting in groups attempting to conduct work until we disband and I can find private space to get to work.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers.


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Andestuga: What’s in a name?

AndestugaI spent the better part of a summer and fall working on the design and construction of our teardrop camper trailer. It effectively captures the vision and dreams that fueled my drive to create. In many ways it is a thing of beauty – a work of art – mixing the need to maximize efficiency in every cubic inch of its precious real estate with the desire for clean lines and poetic beauty. The number of people curious enough to stop and chat as I went about my work struck me. On Halloween evening, two dads showed up at the door stating the kids were coming – they hurried ahead to give them time to take a peak at the teardrop. These kind of interactions were repeated throughout the construction.

Creating was also flush with mistakes, struggles, and do-overs. I debated tracking my time, but how would I account for the hours spent simply staring and pondering how to solve a mechanical or aesthetic problem? I battled the ballooning budget overrun of time and money. My sabbatical plans of traveling the state parks throughout the fall season came to a quick close with the onslaught of a winter storm. My travel was reduced to a place to stay during EAGALA training and an overnight with my wife in the back yard.

In light of all that, our teardrop deserves a name. A name personalizes an object, allowing it to transcend the collection of metal, wood, and hardware it is made of. A name builds connection, gains familiarity, and develops a personality. A name marks a uniqueness that, without, allows a slide into a generic abyss.

I sought something unique, yet something that carried meaning for both my wife and me. Pursuit of a name took us back to our ancestral Scandinavian roots. With the help of Google Translate, we searched names for shelter, cabin, cottage, trailer, mobile, etc. We wondered of merging with our own name. In the end we settled on Andestuga. Roughly translated, Andestuga means a cottage to feed the spirit. That works. Our teardrop becomes our home while we are on the road, a home with the quaint feel of cottage. The quiet connection to the natural world of the campgrounds serves to provide us space to breathe, to relax, to nurture our spirit. It is a fitting name – one that proudly marks our teardrop trailer. Andestuga.


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Acting for the Common Good

photo (43) The tranquility of a quiet, sunny afternoon by the lake is quickly shattered by the loud whine of a jet ski racing across the lake. Similarly, the tranquil rustle of dry leaves stirred by the autumn wind is lost in the background of leaf blowers making feeble attempts to take the work out of the annual round up of piles of fallen leaves. Out on my morning walk, I watched a leaf blower sending his front yard’s fallen leaves out into the street. Just last week, the city had made their pass to clean the streets of leaves in preparation for the snow that was sure to come.

How is it that we can so wantonly advantage ourselves of public resources without thought of our impact on others? Passing our workload off to someone else’s responsibility is not a way to tackle our mounting global issues. We need to make those extra efforts to monitor our actions for the common good.

I often referred to Garret Hardin’s 1968 seminal essay “Tragedy of the Commons” when I taught environmental education in my work with the School Nature Area Project at St. Olaf College.  Hardin presents an argument stating that humans motivated only by their own self-interests will eventually deplete the resources of the community. We looked to the example played out in 1600 Boston. The Boston Common was set aside for all residents to collectively use for the grazing of their livestock. To gain the greatest advantage of this resource, each family sought to allow their cows to eat as much free grass as they possibly could. It wasn’t long before the land was overgrazed and no grass was left for anyone. One doesn’t need to look hard to see this play out in many similar situations. Blowing leaves out to the public street is one small example. To affect change we need to look to Hardins’ message and make a shift in our value systems and always act in the best interest of the common good.

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Know Yourself

A question I often ask of new teachers is “Do you know yourself?” This is commonly met with a quizzical and puzzled look. Yet knowing who we are, how we think, what we believe, how we respond, and how we present is fundamental to being an effective teacher.

I just returned from Level Two EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) training. Within the EAGALA model, horses serve as active members of the therapeutic/instructional team. The actions of the horses in response to what we bring into the arena speak volumes of what is going on with their human partners. In the last several thousand years, horses have evolved as prey animals with a keen ability to ‘read’ the emotion, energy, and intent of other animals around them.

A significant portion of Level Two training revolves around the importance of awareness of the “stuff” we bring as facilitators into the arena. An EAGALA therapy or learning session is meant to be about the client/participants’ experience allowing them to draw meaning for themselves. Without awareness of our own stuff, we stand to unconsciously influence their experience. It is our role to provide an environment that is clean of our stuff – eliminating the disrupting influence of our stuff on our participants’ ability to make meaning from their experience. We need to be aware of and understand the verbal and non-verbal, conscious and unconscious, messages we project. Once aware, we can seek to set our stuff aside and allow the focus to remain on our clients and students – the place where it is meant to be.

The same is true in the classroom. Our job is to provide a rich learning environment for our students to learn. Our goal is to build our students’ intrinsic motivation with a strong internal locus of control. We want them to own the learning. Deep learning is not about pleasing or placating anyone but their own desire to learn. The classroom should not be focused on the teacher. It should resolutely focus on student learning. We facilitate that process and step back. The adage stating teachers should be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage” holds so true.

This takes work. We bring ourselves into relationship with our students. We share with them who we are. Yet as professionals charged with shepherding the learning process of our students, we need to be vigilant about allowing the stuff we may be working on as people to remain harnessed while in the classroom.

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“Sincerity” From the Connect Art Collection, 2014 Artprize

“Sincerity” From the Connect Art Collection, 2014 Artprize.

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The Origin of Ideas

Where is the origin of ideas? How are they formed? I brought an Inventors’ Congress to Hinckley Elementary when I taught there many years ago. I had an inventor come to meet with the fifth grade. One of the comments he made has stuck with me. He said there are very few, genuinely, new ideas conceived of at any given time. As we think of something that strikes us as novel, it is likely being thought of elsewhere at that exact moment -somewhere among the earth’s population. What makes a difference in idea formation is the ability to take those ideas and bring them into something substantive – to give them birth.

People have come up the driveway to ask if I am following a plan for the teardrop trailer under construction. The short answer is “no”. The longer answer is that I have perused hundreds of pictures of teardrops, and read countless stories of teardrop construction. That followed with my own drawings along with an ample dose of erasing and revisions. For me, the most important decisions about design are always followed by consultation with my chief collaborator. Very few creative acts have gone forward without calling my wife out to lend an eye. Together we look, tweak, and redesign until we collaboratively come up with a more refined idea than I began with.

I remember so well our initial foray into house construction on our hobby farm west of Hinckley. While I held the gambrel rafters up, Darla went out into the pasture to give a look at the lines. Through hand signals, we shifted the roof until we came up with the pleasing lines it would become.

The essence of a teardrop begins with its profile. I had pictures I drew that provided general ideas, but it wasn’t until I was able to lay the 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood on its side and begin drawing the curves that would provide its shape that it became a workable plan. My chief collaborator came out – I drew a draft – we took turns holding and looking – I’d tweak a radial length of one of the curves – until we came up with design I could put the saw blade to.

Our best work comes about through collaborative interactions. This is true in teardrop construction, constructivist learning environments in our classrooms, and the richness of a successful marriage and family. I am deeply thankful for the lifelong partner I have been blessed with.

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The Power of Persistence

Over time, a slow, steady, dripping of water has the power to erode the resistant power of rock formations. I am reminded often of these metaphors from nature. On the surface building a teardrop camping trailer from scratch seems a daunting task – and indeed it is. Taken as a whole it is overwhelming. On those days I can commit time to building, I begin with a coffee cup in hand, do a visual assessment of where I am, and ponder my next best step. There is an abundance of work to be done on so many varied facets – all needing to be addressed before it hits the road.  Where do I go next? In the end, I decide it doesn’t matter as much just what to address, as it does to address something. Drop by drop, the myriad small things are marked done, leading to completion of major components of the trailer (chassis, raising of the walls, enclosing the roof, stretching wires throughout, panelling the interior, construction of cabinets, galley, skinning the roof, adding fenders, and tires) and eventually, completion of the whole. Guided by a vision of a completed project – patiently taking one step at a time – I will, one day, be able to hit the road.

This approach has worked well for me in the past. Over the course of this last summer I have lost 11 pounds. Day to day, my weight loss goal seemed far off, but with steady attention over time, stepping on the scale has rewarded with clear, documented progress. I completed my dissertation this way. As a whole, it is enough to make one weep, but sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter, I finished. I once bought a 40′ x 60′ pole barn at an auction. Nail by nail, pole by pole, I disassembled it, loaded it on a trailer and carted it 18 miles home – only to reverse the process and put it back up. Next summer, I will add a bedroom and bathroom addition on to our house. I will hire the basement dug, slab poured, and cement blocks in place. From there, I will once again apply the metaphor of the power of the steady dripping of water, and build the addition – stud by stud, shingle by shingle, patiently waiting until we are able to move in.

Patience and persistence have great power. Over time, through application of a slow, steady attention to task we can realize our goals. Drawing on the wisdom of these metaphors of the natural world we can slowly, but steadily accomplish great things.

“Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”

Napoleon Hill

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To simply breathe…

What does it mean to breathe? I am often asked of my plans are for my sabbatical. My first answer is usually that I need to take the time to breathe. While I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it is, in fact, a significant goal. We have just passed through federal and state accreditation reports and visits. Along with teaching and my Associate Department Chair role, my work load has appeared overflowing.  I have not felt the time to breathe. And so, along with my official call to launch my scholarly life, I have been working at taking the time to breathe.

Turns out, I am not very good at it.  With the day ahead of me wide open to my own scheduling, I feel the same habitual tightening of tension within. Too much to do in too little a time. Too much? I have to walk up to the coffee shop to spend 60 minutes writing. Then I walk home. I get my 10,000 steps in daily. The work on my teardrop trailer is going well. So I spend some time at that. I work on my reading list. I try to get after some of house cleaning – with only limited success – not enough time (sigh). How can I fail at practicing relaxation?

A pastor of ours shared a story of a hard-driven American businessman on an African safari. He hired a group of local villagers to carry his load. They were sturdy and strong. The businessman was pleased with the phenomenal time they were making. He realized if they were able to keep this pace up, he could finish early enabling him to close a lucrative business deal that would assure him of impressive profits. He drove everyone harder. One morning he woke to the quiet that comes with a camp at rest. His sturdy workers were all quietly sitting in a circle. No matter what he did to cajole them, they continued to sit.

He implored the leader of the group. “I can’t get these men going. They have been such hard workers and now all they do is sit! What is going on?”

The leader replied in a matter-of-fact way as if stating the obvious, “We have been going so fast and so hard, our souls have been left behind. We must sit and wait for our souls to catch up.”

I don’t mean to suggest I have been – or am able to – perform the kind of labor the men in this story did, but it speaks to me. I think we can too easily get caught up in the busyness of our days, we forget to take the time to rest, to simply breathe, and let our souls stay caught up with us. I’m working on it.

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Resources of the City

I am not a stranger to big box marketing making frequent and regular trips to Menards. But I’m thrilled to have access to the rich variety of unique resources within my twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Yesterday, I picked up 5′ x 5′ sheets of 1/8″ Baltic birch at Youngblood Lumber Company in NE Minneapolis. Youngblood has been in business for over 100 years and is the only place in town I could find the 1/8″ plywood I need to line the curves of my teardrop trailer. Today I go to Siwek Lumber – also in NE Mpls – to buy the clear, knot free cedar for the exterior walls of the teardrop. Siwek has been in business since the early 1930s. I think exploration of some of the deep dark corners of the myriad collection of lumber piles may  hold some lumber of that vintage. In a few weeks I return to Discount Steel – once again in NE Mpls – to pick up the 5′ x 10′ aluminum sheets I need for the skin of the trailer. A relative newcomer to the community (1992), Discount Steel also provided the steel and fabrication for my chassis. In between, I make quick runs to my neighborhood Ace Hardware for a bag of popcorn and hardware to fill the gaps.

Each of these places is an adventure – providing unique and rich contributions to the development of my teardrop trailer. I am thrilled to live in the city and to have access to these wonderful businesses carrying goods well outside the purview of the big boxes.


Side note (but related) – tonight I catch the Green Line to Target Field for a Twins Game. And, last week, we were able to walk to the Minnesota State Fair. I love our neighborhood and so thankful for our lives in the city.


Another side note – (also related) – catch the details of my teardrop construction on the Teardrop page of “The Purple Crayon”

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The School Bus Drove by Without Me…

The school bus drove by this morning picking up neighborhood school children eager for the start of a brand new year. I watched it go by – and went back into the house. For 35 years, my inner calendar kicked into gear on the arrival of this powerful day – the beginning of another school year. Today is different. The school year has begun without me. My inner calendar ready to rev up, but nowhere to go. Retired? Not yet. Today, I enter into a fall semester sabbatical leave. A time away. A time to devote my energies toward the life of a scholar. I have work cut out for me, but its by my arrangement. I have articles to read and papers to write – but it is on my calendar. My first task perhaps the most important. My first task is to stop, to relax, breathe deeply of the crisp morning air, and plan out my day.

A mini-sabbatical comes three years into a tenure track position. The goal of a mini-sabbatical is to help launch the scholarly life of a developing professor. I am released from teaching – but retain my committee work. Not completely off, but substantially off.

So on to my scholarly life. I have several papers I’d like to write (and ideally see published) including…

• The impact of a science notebook in a preservice elementary science methods course.
• Exploring the art of teaching through an equine assisted model.
• Speaking cleanly in the classroom – the role of language to support a student centered learning environment
• The impact of early education experiences on choice of teaching profession.

Tomorrow morning after breakfast, I will throw my computer into my backpack and head up to the local coffee shop, sip some java and begin my foray into a scholarly life. I’m looking forward to the adventure. 

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