Monday, April 29, 2013

Groupthink: Are Teachers Guilty of It, Too?

I consider one of the most important parts of my job as a teacher to be opening my students' minds to receive and understand more of the knowledge, books, and issues that are out there, beyond the narrow confines of their lives.

There is a danger, of course, to being closed-minded or extremist or just going along with the crowd. 

And if we reflexively stick our fingers in our ears or cover our eyes with our hands when faced with an idea that we don't want to listen to or see, we will eventually and inevitably miss out on what might be the truth. We will also lose an opportunity to learn something new.

Sometimes, in group situations, we will "go along to get along" or just get a meeting over with, but in doing so, we run the risk of making bad group decisions.

As I've written in my memoir, we are meant to grow and change our minds. A truly smart person and an effective persuader can always acknowledge the points of "the other side," so it's important to know what that other side is.

We don't all want to think the same way, after all. I don't want my students to think the way I do, necessarily (despite what those who think differently than I do might assume).

Diversity of thought and experience and life is what keeps things interesting. A balance is what we need.

Teachers--most teachers--inherently know this. We cultivate open-mindedness in our students. We also utter admonitions against the dreaded "Groupthink."

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

Groupthink can happen with a religious group, or a political group, or any group comprised of people who consider themselves "likeminded," and peers.

This--groupthink--is how we get herd behavior, mob attacks, and victim blaming. Groupthink can encourage people to attack anyone they perceive as a threat to their well-established ideas and way of life, or it just makes people act on autopilot and do what others are doing, without really considering whether that's right or wrong, good or bad. 

Masks make people feel more powerful. This is a fact.

Groups provide a feeling of safety, and anonymity. We all know how people behave when they think their identities will not be revealed: we see this online all the time. From the Ku Klux Klan to askfm to groups on Facebook, people can act like savages when they are wearing a mask, using a gravatar, or simply have the support of their graduating class.

If you hide your identity online, you might find yourself acting like one of these savage jerks.

As a teacher, I am part of a much larger group that generally thinks the same way.

Very few people in this group, myself included, like the way that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have changed our schools. Many of us have complained that these "reforms" are destroying American public education.

For example, I am very against the rampant testing that our kids now face in schools. I am opposed to Common Core standards (the implementation, not the theory). I hate the way Pearson seems to dominate education and makes billions dictating new rules that threaten the jobs of teachers while hurting students and ruining the experience of school. I seize every opportunity to decry how the Koch Brothers (or their foundations) are trying to dismantle public education in order to keep the masses stupid (and voting for the Kochs' preferred political candidates).

Someone recently accused me of "groupthink" because--newsflash!--most teachers agree with all of the above. 

Is this because we've been conditioned to agree with it, or because we see the truth?

What will happens when a teacher goes against the grain and says, "No, all of these reforms are great. Common Core is fabulous" ?

Will other teachers attack that person? Maybe so.

Maybe we are hypocrites.

Or maybe, because I straddle a few different lines (teacher, parent, journalist), maybe I have a broader perspective. And of course, I think I am right. 

Is this the effect of groupthink again?

I raise this topic now because of a recent blogging teacher attack story. The attack has nothing to do with his blog (are you shocked?), but rather, it happened because this teacher dared to point out that Common Core tests in NY state are stupidly difficult for the young children he's teaching.

The tests aren't hard because he didn't teach them enough math; they are unrealistically (as in, just try to answer this math question if you're an adult) difficult. The Common Core tests, as designed, are just plain absurd.

Sure, this teacher, Mr. Ratto, is against Common Core (for the same reasons I am)--and maybe that's the problem. Maybe that opposition--which thousands of teachers share, I am sure, but many are too scared to admit, which is a fine example of herd behavior in itself--has turned him into a "blame the messenger" victim.

This is what went down. It's shocking. It's horrific. It reminds me, in some way, of what I went through. Still, Mr. Ratto works in public school, and even though his school district admin did the wrong thing (groupthink again? Or CYA/lawyerthink?) at the outset, he was cleared and vindicated. He did not lose his job.

Diane Ravitch chimed in (she is an educational powerhouse who is also fiercely opposed to Common Core, which the ultra-right-wing hopes will demonstrate that our children have been receiving pathetic public education, so--wait for it--we should dismantle all our schools and privatize!  Hey, maybe that's why the questions are so hard?).

Teachers everywhere voiced support for Mr. Ratto, who was ratted out (erroneously) by a Common Core designer or architect (or "teacher leader") for allegedly posting a math question on Twitter. 

Mr. Ratto could have lost his job. Despite the protections we think we have in life--such as the First Amendment right to free speech, which I've come to believe is not what we think it is--and despite the "due process" he as a teacher in public education was entitled to (I was not), the man went through hell. For nothing.

For daring to speak his mind.

I told my husband this story. He took it as "Well, that's why no one should ever say anything!"

Groupthink again? Herd behavior? I disagreed with him.

This is exactly why we have to dare to be different, and why we must dare to speak up. If no one ever says anything in protest, then we will all be like those sycophantic morons in "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Groupthink may be inevitable and understandable in terms of survivalism, but if we remain conscious of it, maybe it doesn't have to hurt other people.


  1. I agree that we are all guilty of groupthink, and I like your assessment of it as probably being a remnant of our instinct for survival. The danger of groupthink are well explained here.

  2. Sorry for slow reply; I get too busy lately to blog or respond to the blog as much as I'd like. Thanks for reading.