At Berkeley High School recently, 32 students were suspended for breaking into the school’s digital attendance system and changing records for absences and tardiness. The irregularities, which started in October 2011, were only discovered in December, when the new dean of attendance intensified his efforts on improving attendance by focusing on these records. Since attendance contributes to the grades of students, as well as to whether or not a student graduates from Berkeley High, the motivation for changing a spotty attendance record might seem obvious.
What is not evident however, are the reasons behind why these students were regularly missing school. For example, we know that students say that they drop out of high school or skip class frequently because they are bored. Either the course material is not challenging enough or engaging, or the pace of learning is too slow, or perhaps even too fast. As a researcher, I want more data. I want to know whether these Berkeley High School “cheaters” were in AP classes or students who were struggling academically. I’m wondering if there were particular classes being skipped, a certain time of the day? And were there any correlations with age, parental income level, or other demographics?
While I certainly do not condone cheating or breaking the law, I think that answers to these questions might help teachers and administrators focus on solutions rather than only penalties. Are courses being redesigned using e-learning tools and outside mentors to make them more challenging and engaging? If first-period classes were more consistently skipped, could students be allowed to take an extra afternoon class instead? If there is a problem with getting transportation to the school, could ride sharing be encouraged? And perhaps given the lack of funding for school counselors these days, could high school seniors be trained to mentor their younger classmates, who often feel lost in a school with more than 3,000 students?
Without going into why it took the school officials almost three months to discover the falsified records, one wonders about the level of computer skills required by the student hackers. Was it a simple case of guessing a password or two, as one newspaper report suggested? Or did it require the technology savvy to actually hack into a system? Or was it simply that the passwords were written down in some administrator’s paper file, which was left unattended while a student was able to access it?
If a higher level of technical skill was involved in finding the right password, these kids might be good with computers. And considering they charged their classmates a nominal fee and got over 50 of them to pay, certainly there are entrepreneurial skills to be tapped and put to a better use than cheating. Perhaps a course in computer science could be required as part of the penalty for breaking and entering. Not only would these students be given a chance to redeem themselves by creating better security programs for the very system they broke into, they would also be given the opportunity to become high achievers in a field that interests them.
I think it is important to remember that these students were not falsifying actual test answers, as many of the more noteworthy cases we have seen as of late. And by more thoroughly understanding why the students did what they did, perhaps this can be used as a learning opportunity to understand the ways in which this was, to put it in biological terms, an evolutionary response to a challenging or unnatural external constraint. With this framing, perhaps “cheaters” can be converted into achievers and also improve the educational environment for everyone.
To batter brainstorming as Pollyannaish and an ineffective way to solve problems– which is the argument author Jonah Lehrer makes in his recent New Yorker article “Groupthink,” is like saying that mixing together all the ingredients for a cake without ever baking it in the oven won’t result in an edible dessert. It takes more than mere brainstorming to come up with an innovative idea, but collaborative idea generation is an effective first step to baking a solution. This is not to say the age of the solo creator is over but that the era of the collective brain has begun.
Brainstorming allows people to contribute ideas outside of the box as well as outside of an individual’s limited knowledge and experience. When all ideas – even the most trivial and unimaginable – are encouraged within a group, successful products, services, or even movements can result.
To wit, the design firm IDEO used brainstorming as a first step that led to the creation of the Swiffer, the most popular iteration of the mop since the floor was invented. On the Internet, crowdsourcing, a digital form of massive brainstorming, has led to the creation of Wikipedia, Yelp, and Trip Advisor. And at ISKME, we use brainstorming liberally to build entirely new structures for the open exchange of data and information to teachers and learners throughout the world.
Brainstorming not only leads to solution-finding, the process itself can be used to build trust, the ability to compromise, and the kind of teamwork that helps with the next step: building and testing prototypes. There is a huge difference between saying, “You can’t critique,” versus saying, “Suspend judgment while we solve for x.” Because this is when the cake goes into the oven and also when brainstorming goes into high gear. And if groups are open to all ideas, one thought can trigger another in unexpected and productive ways.
We found that when creating new approaches to learning, for example, we need to synthesize ideas from groups by allowing open discussions and challenges, then testing potential solutions to see which ones to discard and what to keep. Even when certain views are clearly off mark, being exposed to them can actually expand the creative potential of the group.
At our annual convening of education’s innovators, we immerse participants in the collaboration and design of K-20 education tools and programs. At this event, teachers, students, administrators, policymakers, and edupreneurs work together to create solutions to an education challenge, such as achieving universal literacy and math competency. There, teams come up with unique prototypes after spending three days brainstorming and designing. In 2011, three were selected to spend the next year incubating them, and I’ll write about these later. In the process, though, all the teams benefited from their multidisciplinary makeup as well as a facilitator trained in brainstorming and design-thinking techniques.
Perhaps writers, like Lehrer, “brainstormers who are working quietly alone,” are inclined to believe that creativity can best be achieved by the individual rather than by the group that brainstorms. This might hold true for writing fiction or essays, but the 21st century will likely be known for its collaborative efforts to solve complex problems.
I say, suspend judgement, you can’t be wrong, brainstorm away! The world is likely to be a better place because of it.