Monday, August 10, 2015

Collaboration: the agony and the ecstasy

There are lots of trendy management theories out there (believe me -- I get sent a lot of review copies of the books!) But one that seems to get major attention, to the point of trickling down to schools as a “skill of the future,” is collaboration. (See this article for one example of skills master teachers are hoping to inculcate).

Yes, teams are great. People can often do more together than they can on their own, and working with other people can be quite pleasant as you get to know and support each other. I find the current urge to encourage “serendipity” by arranging tables so people bump into each other in particularly hip workplaces to be laughable, but it is true that random conversations can spark interesting ideas. Humans in the future will presumably work together (just as humans do now).

That said, the urge to increase collaboration in schools can, when it comes to gifted kids, often wind up teaching the exact opposite lesson: collaboration is terrible and a waste of time.

When workers are collaborating at, say, Google, or in the education department of a major university, you’re talking collaboration among a small set of similarly intelligent, highly motivated people. The average middle school class, however, is not nearly so organized. Many gifted students have had the experience of being put into a team for a project, and then doing the lion’s share of the work. In this experience, collaboration doesn’t produce something better than you’d do on your own. It slows you down and makes the work worse.

This is exacerbated by the problem that few teachers actually teach how to collaborate. Though humans have been hunting and gathering together for eons, it’s not a natural skill to know how to collaborate well. Specialization plays a big role in effective teams, with each person’s job being understood. Group members have to trust that each member is pulling his or her weight, and respects the outcome. Getting such “buy in” (oh, that word! I have been reading too many business books) is certainly possible in a classroom, but it’s going to be more readily in place when people have applied for their jobs and have an interest in advancing their careers. Few classroom projects involve establishing processes, and reviewing how each step has gone to iterate toward a better outcome. Often, it’s more “work on this problem set together,” with this somehow teaching the miracle of collaboration.

The best way to teach collaboration, so people can see its benefit, would be to do it within ability/readiness grouped classes. Then group projects selected by people who are interested in a specific topic could bring the passion and trust. When those are in place, then the steps of cohesive collaboration can be learned and taught. Without all that, though, the benefit is a lot less obvious.

What’s been your experience with group projects?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I agree with you. See my posts at

One excellent vehicle for teaching collaboration is theater classes. Collaboration works when the product can best be produced through co-operation rather than individual work, and theater exemplifies that. (School bands, orchestras, and choruses can often come close, but it is too easy for a large fraction of the students to be free-loaders.)

Molly said...

If you want students to learn to collaborate, then invest in your theater department. Student run productions (where students are responsible for the backstage aspects as well as the performance part) teach teamwork far better than any classroom exercise or any sports team. Every role in theater is critical - a missed sound cue is as important as a missed line. The theater production cannot rely on the talent of a star. No one sits on the bench in theater. The show can't be a success unless every job (onstage and off) is done on time and correctly. Deadlines matter in live theater. Small jobs matter in live theater. Even a "one-man show" relies on a small army of backstage crew to make it happen.

lgm said...

Select music ensembles counteract the impossibility of truly collaborating in the full inclusion classroom. Usually the selection criteria involves independent judging, so unlike the public school drama productions, the groups are not restricted to the politically favored.