On The Challenges of Groupwork

I doubt anyone is terribly interested in what goes on behind the scenes at my workplace. I share this abbreviated story in the hope that you’ll apply it to your own life. The basic question is this: how does a medium or large sized group of people—a school faculty, a church council, a local government, a non-profit organization, any work team really—reinvent their work?

My colleagues and I are redesigning our university’s undergraduate teacher education program again. Instead of annual incremental tweaks to individual courses, we wait until dissatisfaction builds to a breaking point. Then, instead of identifying and building upon existing strengths, we commit to a complete overhaul. We repeat the process every five to seven years.

The problem is whole scale curriculum redesign is very difficult to pull off. I’ve lived through multiple attempts at two institutions. This time, despite different people in leadership, we’re following a nearly identical path as all our previous efforts. In our last meeting I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

We never improve the process because no one makes the time to carefully consider alternatives. That’s the point of this exercise in self-efficacy.

The basic challenge is to improve the preparation of our teacher candidates by: 1) eliminating curricular redundancies; 2) filling in curricular gaps; 3) reversing “credit creep” by reducing the total number of semester hours needed to complete the program; and 4) updating the curriculum to address changes in K-12 education, changes like the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Things always start positively with creative and invigorating whole group discussion about “essential elements” or “themes” that everyone wants included in the new and improved program. Then we add in additional content determined by professional standards and (jargon alert) a new high stakes performance based student teacher assessment (otherwise known as a student teaching test). Next, advocates for specific curricular interests—technology integration, special education, reading instruction, etc.—remind everyone of just how important all of that content is. Then we try to pinpoint what will be taught when. That’s when enthusiasm wanes and things inevitably bog down.

We struggle at this work for many reasons. Two in particular. First, we’re much, much better at adding content than we are removing it. And second, it’s nearly impossible to do the careful type of deep thinking, tentative and creative sketching, and initial draft writing that program redesign requires in large group meetings.

We would make more progress in less time if we did three things:

• First, take whatever time is necessary to reach a consensus that it’s impossible to include everything our candidates might need to succeed in their first few years of teaching. Come up with a written statement to that effect and communicate it to the students at different points throughout the program. Our inability to embrace our limits is like a misaligned brake rubbing against a bicycle rim, no matter how hard we pedal, we tire before making ample forward progress.

• Second, delegate the drafting of a new program outline to one or a few people. This means trusting they have the students’ and all of the faculty’s best interests at heart. Ask that person or those people to talk with individual faculty members about what they like most about the existing program and what they’re most intent on changing. Count their curriculum redesign work both as service to the department and as scholarship of teaching.

• Third, use large group meetings primarily to receive suggestions on how to improve the most recent program outline draft, and in the end, to reach consensus on a final draft.