In previous articles, I have been tracing the skills required for success in the 21st century and what schools and parents can do to nurture and develop these skills. This week, I will examine the role of collaboration.
Back in the day, (my day at least!) students sat in rows, with a desk each and were expected to stare at the teacher, listen intently and regurgitate the information imparted by the teacher. Now there is more of an emphasis on working collaboratively. Why has this change taken place? As with many of these changes, there is no one answer. Firstly, educational research from the 20th century onwards with the likes of Bruner, Vygotsky and Piaget showed that optimal learning is a social undertaking. We learn from and with each other. Learning does not take place in isolation, though many schools and systems assumed that it did. More recently, with the advent of MRI scans, we can actually see the brain and how it lights up when it is in a social setting with other people and how learning takes place.
Secondly, it became clear that in the world of work, no one is asked to sit in a room for 3 hours, watched by someone in silence as they try and solve a problem, with the restrictions of not being able to talk to anyone else or use the internet, it just isn’t how the world works. As Sir Ken Robinson humorously put it, ‘In the work world, collaboration and teamwork are essential to success; in school, it’s called cheating.’
Thirdly, almost any great achievement or breakthrough is achieved by teams of people. One only has to look at the discovery and development of penicillin, the first successful heart transplant, the development of the internet, all achieved by teams. Great sporting achievements, like Manchester United winning the treble in 1999, were the results of close-knit collaboration. Even in an individual sport like tennis, Roger Federer has a committed team to support him.
The latest trends in social anthropology are moving away from the old paradigm that humans flourished because of competition and ‘survival of the fittest.’ It is now being argued that humans became the dominant species because of our amazing propensity to work together, to collaborate.
So what can be done to build upon this? Simply putting students around a table and asking them to work together does not teach them collaboration skills. It is important to structure the tasks well. For example, students need to learn specific strategies like listening to others, establishing goals, assigning roles and compromising. It doesn’t always work and this is a very good thing too. Students may encounter problems such as personality clashes, difficulty in finding times and places to meet and ensuring all group members pull their weight. However, inequality, interpersonal conflicts, and bureaucratic hurdles are the stuff of life. Without these experiences, students will be ill-equipped to handle these challenges when they confront them in university and the workplace.