It Takes All Kinds: Collaboration

This is the second in a four part series. Part one is here.


This idea has been rummaging around is based on the ideas Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  There are many aspects of this book worth discussing but the one that I think is most interesting for our classrooms is the way we deal with and think about this idea of collaboration. It’s a buzz word that is included in every new document that includes the “21st Century Learning” jargon and you won’t hear many educational talks today that don’t include the word. I believe that it’s the internet and the affordance of technology that makes us want to apply these principles to our classroom. The problem is, collaboration online is not the saem as collaboration in physical spaces. This is an issue.

We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office.

While Cain is writing about offices, the notion of collaboration in schools often means kids working tables instead of desks. I have to admit, I used to be bias against teachers who have their desks in rows, thinking they weren’t very progressive or student centered. That’s an arrogant and misguided judgment on my part. After reading and reflecting on the book and with others, I don’t think one is better than the other. Certainly the dominate set up favored a teacher directed, controlled classroom and any attempts to break from that are likely for the best but like any pendulum be careful it doesn’t swing too far in the other direction. I’ve also heard teachers defend their noisy classrooms and I agree, at times noise and collaboration are good things. But all the time, or even most of the time? I don’t know if that’s what a classroom should look like. We need multiple ways for students to learn and interact. As a teacher who largely teachers online, I’ve often asked what’s the value of face to face? I assumed the answer had something to do with students working together. Again, that’s a good thing to emphasize do but I need to change the way I present that message. We all need privacy and quiet, some more than others. But we’ve been told for a while now how important group and cooperative learning is:

 When it comes to project work, l’m a proponent of my students taking a larger role in deciding whether working with a partner to create, produce, and/or present is really in the interests of everyone’s progress and learning. Some cite the infamous ‘real world’, in which we are supposedly inundated with demands to work with random people (in many cases, ones we can’t stand), as the pedagogical impetus behind group assignments, but that reasoning just feels lukewarm to me. It’s a strangely defeatist vista which I don’t see reflective of reality, and essentially lays our own adult baggage onto kids. Just who are these masses of people creating great works with people they have little to no working chemistry with? And what kind of bias are we promoting for our extroverted learners over our introverted ones in this equation? Royan Lee

Royan and others have been reading the book and it’s interesting how we’re beginning to see some new understandings and agreeing that quiet is a good thing. (Any teacher who has ever taught primary students doesn’t have to be convinced) It’s interesting how many teachers are actually introverts and are acknowledging the struggles they have in making kids do things they know themselves are uncomfortable.

The reason many love the idea of online collaboration and socialization is because it enables them to control their environment and interactions more than in face to face situations. This has been a boon for introverts who are finally feeling like they have a voice. Simply trying to replicate this in our classrooms is a mistake. While the natural response would be to say this is about balance, I’m not sure it is. This is about strengths and weaknesses. We shouldn’t attempt to balance this we should be exploiting them. That is play to people’s strengths. That’s not to suggest we don’t work on our weaknessness but not being an introvert is not a weakness, it’s a temperament that doesn’t need to be fixed. Note: Shyness and introversion are not necessarily synonymous. The truth is working alone is essential for so many things. Steve Wozniak, In Quiet says:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

I still believe strongly in the notion of social learning. It’s the cornerstone of my own teaching and remains essential for schools to embrace. The “mind your own business” learning environments need to end. But the solution to this is not to force people to work side by side or continue to see group work as the primary mode of social learning. The solution is to find ways they can share and connect and that may look very different that you’re currently providing or have considered. Even Wozniak admits that coming together occasionally and collaborating with Steve Jobs was a critical part but the core of his work, the part he felt most comfortable, most in his element was when he was alone. Ultimately this is about autonomy. This is why so many of us have drank the koolaid: technology provides a way for more people to share more and do more than ever before.

This is a idea I’m still exploring as are many, and this space, for one, is where collaboration works well for me if you’re so inclined, play along. I’m curious, as you think about the word collaboration, what does it look like for you? What spaces and ways put you in your element?