Fixing Remote Work: The Fondue Story and Pair Tasking
I have been a remote worker for almost a decade. I like the flexibility and I hate commuting. But there’s always been this nagging feeling that there is something missing from remote work. And it took a pot of fondue for me to figure out what it was.
The Story of the Fondue Pot
A few weeks ago one of the programmers that worked for me at Coursetune came to visit on a snowboarding trip and he brought us some fondue from Switzerland. So one night we had a little fondue party and we used a double boiler to make the fondue (not the ideal method, I get that). After our very yummy fondue we had a very messy pot.
I was scrubbing out the pot in the sink when Maksim, who was helping to clear the table, looked over at what I was doing and asked “Why do you not just put the pan in the dishwasher?”
“There’s no way the dishwasher will get this cheese off unless I scrub it first.” I replied confidently.
“But you can just use the high temperature setting.” he said. ” I wash all my dishes on the high temperature setting and it takes off everything.” Maksim is an expert on bachelor living.
Which is when I paused and my world shifted a bit.
You see, most of my life I’ve had a kind of semi-working dishwasher with basically two settings, on or off. But for the last 4 years I have had a brand new dishwasher, and honestly I’ve never tried any setting on it other than Normal Wash. Why haven’t I ever tried any other setting? Because I’m used to doing dishes the way I’ve done dishes for 40 years.
Sure enough, my dishwasher does have a high temperature setting. And when I washed the pot using the high temperature setting on the dishwasher, it was completely spotless after the cycle.
Why had I not ever tried any of the other settings? Because I knew how to do dishes and the method I had did work. It just required a little bit more elbow grease.
But this, I think, is the problem with remote work and to some extent also the problem with online teaching. We never get the chance to accidentally watch how somebody else would do something. We miss out on the opportunities to see a little trick for using a software program, or a more efficient method of getting a task done.
Now I do think that there is a workaround to ensure that this happenstance learning still occurs, but it requires us to think intentionally about how to do it.
Programmers have used a technique called pair programming since the 1990s. In pair programming, two programmers work at a single computer. The “driver” writes the code, while the “navigator” reviews each line of code and gives input and suggestions. In this way both programmers have the opportunity to learn something from each others’ approach.
We need to replicate this practice in remote working, maybe call it something like “Pair Tasking.” Because while Maksim and I did not set out to do pair tasking, but that is in fact what happened. I was the driver and he was the navigator on dish duty. Maksim observed my practice of doing the dishes and made a suggestion that did, in fact, streamline how I now do the work. I don’t always use the high temperature setting, but anytime that I have a large dinner party or some really messy dishes, I totally skip any pre-washing and use the advanced features of my dishwasher.
As we not only navigate the remote working environment, but also the new reality of using artificial intelligence to help with tasks, I believe that this practice of Pair Tasking becomes even more important.
How will less experienced workers gain the expertise of their more experienced colleagues if entry-level jobs disappear and experienced colleagues are all using AI assistance backed with years of practical experience? How will workers who are less comfortable using technology learn the tips and tricks of prompting an AI assistant with nobody to watch?
I think we have to build Pair Tasking in as a regular practice in the workforce. But more importantly, we all have to be open-minded enough to willingly be either the driver or the navigator in Pair Tasking. We have to pay attention to each other’s actions, and learn from each other.
Because our patterns of behavior are so strong that even when confronted daily with other options that are right in front of us, we ignore them.
Pair Tasking in Education
Even after these realizations, it took me more than a week to realize that this “Pair Tasking” is a technique I have used in classes for decades. Many years ago, when I was a professor at Muskegon Community College, I began pairing students at the whiteboards to do math problems. I wrote about this (Back To The Board, NISOD, September 2006) , I designed classrooms to incorporate this active learning “Paired Boardwork” technique, and I trained many other STEM teachers and professors to do the same thing.
Pair Tasking was actually a technique I learned, quite by accident, in graduate school at the University of Wyoming. Every one of our graduate offices had an old chalkboard in it (probably salvaged from classrooms that got nifty new whiteboards). My fellow math grad students and I spent many an evening working problems at the board while other students watched and commented.
As we try to shift our assessments and learning assignments to navigate the new world of AI-assisted learning, we could begin relying on pair tasking as a tried-and-true method to help students talk about concepts and learn from each other.
Even in an online class, two students could be paired to hold a recorded zoom session where they each observe each other carrying out some procedure or solving some kind of problem. A grade could be assigned for both students independently reflecting on what they learned during the live session.