Itâ€™s hard to teach what you were never taught, and if you have gone through the Indian school system, chances are that you have had little experience with teamwork and collaborative problem-solving, unless, of course, you have been exposed to this later in life. I bring up this issue of collaboration because, during my stay in Rajkot, Mohit and I designed and facilitated several workshops with parents, educators and professionals. Many of our activities required participants to collaborate with each other in small groups and I was surprised to learn how little familiarity â€“ and, as a result, how few strategies â€“ our adult participants had with group work of this kind.
The blank stares and uneasy silence made me feel as if we had just asked a group of race car drivers to complete the Tour de France with some of them never even having seen a bicycle.
In fact, the analogy of the race car drivers and the cyclists is a faulty one in the sense that both the drivers and the cyclists perform their work in teams. Yes, a single person might ultimately be standing on the podium and be announced as winner, but the process is a collaborative one involving a team of people working to advance a joint mission. In fact, teamwork and collaborative problem-solving seem to be unavoidable features of the 21st century workplace, but that doesnâ€™t mean that all teams and team members are created equal! A study from MIT on the characteristics of successful teams (link:Â Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others) found that the smartest teams were not the ones whose team members had the highest combined IQ. Instead, the most effective teams were the ones whose members â€œcontributed more equally to the teamâ€™s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the groupâ€ and whose members scored higher on a test measuring their ability to read â€œcomplex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.â€ The answer to the question: â€œis your child a team player?â€ is thus dependent on his or her ability to engage in balanced group interactions â€“ both listening and offering input â€“ and on his or her degree of empathy.
Back to our summer workshops. Letâ€™s take a look at what happened when people with little experience with collaborative problem-solving were asked to do just that: Faced with the unfamiliar challenge, groups of faculty, parents and professionals proceeded to respond in various ways: many teams were initially very quiet, seemingly unsure how to approach a task that demanded collective idea generation and decision-making; others immediately gravitated towards an in-group leader figure in a likely attempt to make the situation more familiar and comfortable; and still others set out to initially solve the task individually, thus postponing having to deal with the unknowns of collaboration for as long as possible. Providing and receiving feedback between groups presented another giant leap into unknown territory, and often these feedback conversations would be heavily skewed towards thinking about how an idea might NOT work, rather than exploring the potential of a new idea through collaborative, supportive inquiry. Of course there were also a minority of groups whose members were perhaps more familiar with team work and who managed to create a healthier group dynamic where everyoneâ€™s voice and ideas were heard and decisions informed by discussion and consensus. The real question is: how do we make such teamwork the norm, not the exception?
In Denmark, where I am from, education is more participatory and more collaborative than the traditional model in many Indian schools. By engaging in regular collaborative activities, students learn how to navigate group work, how to share perspectives and ideas and how to provide constructive feedback. Iâ€™m not saying we have it right in Denmark â€“ in fact, I feel we have a long long way to go when it comes to education â€“ but I want to point out that it is possible to effectively practice collaboration in schools.
Collaboration is a key focus area in the Northstar Approach
At The Northstar School we strive to create a culture of collaboration between all members of the learning community. For example, because we understand that it is hard to teach something you have not yourself mastered, we train all our teachers to collaborate with each other when designing and delivering student learning experiences. This is because we believe that life is interdisciplinary â€“ so school should be too!Â â€“ but it also provides students with a model of what effective collaboration can look like.
We believe that life is interdisciplinary - so school should be too!
Our focus on experiential learning has students engaged in tackling real world curiosities, often working in project teams that demand collaborative decision-making and action. We encourage students to welcome differences of opinion as opportunities for personal reflection and growth â€“ and to collectively negotiate meaning in conversation with others to reach deeper understanding. Such learning experiences allow students to practice and strengthen their communication skills and level of empathy to help them master the social art of collaboration and emerge as team players.
- METTE KIM BOHNSTEDT