The Power of Pairing … in the Classroom

Every year, thousands of visitors come to Menlo Innovations to tour, visit, and learn about our Menlo Way of doing things. This has been true, even during the pandemic. Over 2,000 people from around the world have taken virtual tours of the virtual Menlo. In just the last twelve months, we have had virtual visitors from 62 countries and 40 states!

During these highly interactive visits, how and why we pair our team members (two people, working side by side, doing work that is typically done by sole contributors such as programming, designing, QA, writing) … is often the part of our culture that gets the most attention and the most questions.

Invariably, visitors begin to ask us if we’ve heard of other organizations pairing in any other context. Admittedly, Menlo has taken pairing to a level and a degree that we have never seen in other organizations. We do this because we found it to be such a powerful construct in building a great team and getting hard work done with very high quality. However, we are not the only team in the world that does work in pairs, and software is not the only industry where pairing can work effectively. Airline pilots, firefighters, surgeons, and many others work in pairs. In my favorite sport, golf, golfer and caddy make a powerful pairing combination.

“We wanted to build the learning organization that MIT’s Dr. Peter Senge described…”

I have noted over the years that many of our tour visitors are educators coming from all over to see the Menlo Way at work and looking for ways to improve their teaching methods. Some have told me, after their visit, to please tell the world that “THIS (Menlo) is what school should look like.” I take deep satisfaction in those comments as we wanted to build the learning organization that MIT’s Dr. Peter Senge described in his famous book The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. There is no doubt in my mind that we have accomplished that.

So what about pair teaching? Could that work in schools? Could teachers be more effective? Would students learn more and be more excited about being the classroom?

Our very own Ann Arbor Public Schools is running such an experiment. You can see it in the video below. Listen to the comments from both the teachers and the students. You will hear many of the same virtues we talk about in pairing, for example:

  • How each teacher has strengths and weaknesses and how pairing can produce stronger results because of those differences.
  • How the students enjoy the classroom experience more
  • How attention can be given to certain problems in a very different way
  • How laughter and camaraderie enhance the environment for learning

It also isn’t lost on me that the dog plays an important role.

“Pairing is the most powerful organizational construct I have ever discovered in my work life.”

It has worked for us for 20 years. It might work for you too. I encourage you to try it and Run the Experiment. It doesn’t have to be everyone, all day, every day like we do it. Try your own version and see what happens. We’d love to hear about your experiences!

Menlo Innovations
Richard Sheridan is co-founder and Chief Storytelling Officer of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a fan of the CAPS model, having spoken at a past CAPS Summer Huddle and toured CAPS programs. More information on Richard can be found here.