Response to NYTimes The Rise of the New Groupthink

January 15, 2012 — 6 Comments

I had read the The Rise of the New Groupthink by Susan Cain before its publication in “Week in Review” section of the Sunday NYTimes (1/15/12) because of a link sent to me by a fellow educator. After reading the article, I did several things

1. I made the article into a Reading for Information exercise for my 10th grade students who will read the article online (we have a school subscription) and respond to a series of multiple choice questions and three short answers (see bottom for PDF):

  • What evidence in the article demonstrates the author’s bias towards Groupthink?
  • Do you think the use of Groupthink will expand or contract in the future?
  • What has been your experience with Groupthink? Has this been a positive or negative experience?

2. I sent the link to my principal.

3. I wrote this blog.

In education today, collaboration is the buzz word of significance. Many lesson plans use the verb in generating objectives: “the students will collaborate to….” The recently adopted Language Arts Common Core Curriculum uses the verb in the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard #6 for Writing: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others. 

While collaboration is not a skill of intellectual behavior important in learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy which is the Rosetta Stone for curriculum planning, many websites suggest that learning is enhanced through collaborating.  Andrew Churches’s website Educational Origami notes that, “Collaboration is a 21st Century skill of increasing importance and one that is used throughout the learning process. In some taxonomic levels the collaboration verbs are included as an element of Bloom’s Digital taxonomy and in others its is just a mechanism which can be use to facilitate higher order thinking and learning.”  In big bold letters in the middle of the page is the statement: Collaboration is not a 21st Century Skill, it is a 21st Century Essential.

Susan Cain argues a different position. Her concern about Groupthink is explained in business models; her most important example is in the creation of Apple. She offers one paragraph dedicated to collaboration in education:

“Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”
Is it any wonder that one of the questions I posed for the Reading for Information prompt dealt with the author’s bias? I would hope that her experience in that 4th grade classroom is one of anomaly, and I wish that Cain had spent more time in many classrooms and in different schools to test her position. My experiences with collaboration in the classroom is not one of sameness, but one where student strengths and weaknesses are most evident.
Recently, I assigned a creative paper where 9th grade students collaborating in groups of threes needed to update the trials of Odysseus with a new character “Fresheus” (freshman+Odysseus) and the trials he encounters during a school day (Polyphemus =bully, etc).  Watching the students test ideas, find a way to communicate outside the classroom (Google docs was the vehicle of choice), and revising their work, I had a clear sense of who was the “leader” in each team, who was the “aider” in each team, and who was there for the ride. In grading this particular essay, I awarded the project a number of points out 40 according to a rubric (ex: 32/40). I then multiplied that number by three (32 X3=96) and told the team members they had the total points (ex: 96) to divide anyway they wanted between the three members of the team. Most teams divided the points evenly, but two teams recognized the “slacker” and split the points accordingly; the slackers received D grades according to their teammates.The advantage for me was obvious-I had only eight papers to grade instead of 24, which meant a faster response time to the students. In addition, the quality of the papers did affirm that collaboration on this particular assignment was a successful strategy, but not all assignments are appropriate for collaboration.
I also know how painful it is for some of the shy, or marginalized members of the class to work with others. I have seen how a creative spirit or “out of the box” thinker is sometimes beaten down by more ordinary ideas offered by more average students. I work in a middle/high school and the social status of a student is baggage in collaboration…and I suspect social status might be baggage in business collaboration as well. However, educators know their students will be going out into the real world where Cain suggests Groupthink is dominating the corporate culture, where people are “corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers.” Educators must prepare students for this experience and challenge them to have their voices be heard in all forums-business, education, religion, politics, etc.
Cain’s clearest example of  successful collaboration is with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. She writes, “Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.” She notes that, “Mr. Wozniak wants to give his invention away free, but Mr. Jobs persuades him to co-found Apple Computer.”  Collaboration, for Cain, cannot generate an idea. There still needs to be that one creative spark to set other minds going…and that happens everyday in the classroom if the teacher knows how to pose the question and organize the response. The challenge for educators is to allow students the opportunity to work individually and collaboratively.
Interestingly enough, there is a commercial for Apple that I use in a (short) media study unit in order to show how celebrity endorsements impact consumers.  The text states:
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. – Apple Inc.
The people featured in the commercial were (in order): Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Branson,John Lennon (with Yoko Ono), Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson (with Kermit the Frog), Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso.
I believe that Groupthink would not have adversely impacted any of these individuals; they each confronted the naysayers of their time and proved those who doubted their genius wrong. So, Cain need not worry that Groupthink will stifle the artist because history has proved that the artist prevails-although sadly, sometimes this is post-humous. Cain’s short interaction with collaboration in a classroom referenced in one short paragraph in her article hopefully does not speak for all education. Today’s educator is charged with the responsibility  to develop each individual student’s skills to confront and navigate through the problems of the real world. Perhaps the best way to negate the adverse -or Orwellian-impact of Groupthink is to prepare students to effectively use collaboration as a tool in accomplishing a goal. Fortunately,  this generation utilizes the methods of collaboration as they already communicate on multiple platforms, some that were not available even two years ago.
Cain should also be aware that students, like artists, who know the rules do not necessarily adhere to them. Robert Frost stated, “To me freedom means riding easy in the harness”;  so might our next generation who with a growing familiarity with the rules of collaboration will move beyond the limitations -or the harness-that cause Cain concern. Regardless, there will be a new Steve Wozniak. She will labor independently until she meets a collaborator who will aide in her changing the world. She will have been a student. Educators, look for her!

6 responses to Response to NYTimes The Rise of the New Groupthink


    “Is it any wonder that one of the questions I posed for the Reading for Information prompt dealt with the author’s bias?”

    I think you’re the one with the bias, actually.


      Of course I am biased! I am giving my opinion which, quite frankly, should not be a surprise since this blog is titled “Response to NYTimes The Rise of the New Groupthink”. As for the RFI question? That is a standard question asked on the Connecticut state test for grade 10.


    What you seem to overlook (and what Ms. Cain gets) is how painful this working environment is to the truly creative person. I have patents to my name and in the engineering or hi-tech world, this lunacy is the norm.

    However, I can see your point. Most of your students will not be one of these ‘creative geniuses’ so they’d better learn how to work together.

    You state that ‘groupthink’ would not adversely affect any of the persons in the Apple ad. Just think of the energy these people had to expend to overcome ‘groupthink’. Steve Jobs was tossed out of his own company. Einstein was considered retarded. Dr. King was killed.

    I know in my own career, ‘groupthink’, teambuilding and other such ideas just make me withdraw more. How many more patents could I have had by now? All teambuilding seems to do is allow those without any creative spark to believe that they are creative too. Just ask the managers that have inserted their names on my patents.


      Thank you for your response. I can only speak to education where I can only hope to prepare students for what happens in the real world (from the tone of your response, perhaps inoculation is more in order?) My purpose for the Apple ad was to show that the truly creative person is never “group-think” oriented…these people are compelled to innovate/create-regardless of support; groupthink is not part of their process, and for some their tragedy. For the record, there have been a few creative students that I have had in my career who will inspire others; my hope is that in the process of educating them, I do not crush that spark. Such is the tightrope in education that Cain appeared to have missed in her article. I certainly appreciate you taking the time to comment.

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