You hear about it everywhere today. It’s in all the latest talk around offices, job interviews, and articles about keys to success in today’s world: collaboration is very much de rigueur.
And that’s a good thing. Yet, like most things, there’s a context in which is is good/valuable, as opposed to just being good/valuable by itself. This idea was taken up recently by Susan Cain in the N.Y. Times. She wrote about “The New Groupthink”, urging us to consider the important difference between coming together to share ideas and learn from one another versus engaging only in a group setting.
Collaboration, to be effective, should mean “individuals who engage in creative/productive thought on their own, generating ideas, then engage with others who have taken up similar or related questions in order to make connections and spurn one-another on”. It should not mean “a group of people sitting around a table trying to ‘think collectively’ one the spot”.
The research supports this (see the NY Times article).
Schools talk a lot about collaboration, both as a mechanism for learning and as a tool that should be acquired in order to function well in today’s workplace.
As we transform education, let’s be sure to promote the appropriate understanding of collaboration.
Why is the distinction important? It has everything to do with how the human brain functions and with intrinsic motivation.
The process of creativity involves careful thought, which cannot be undertaken in a room of people talking and sending ideas flying around. It requires that you be able to have a thought, turn it around in your mind, consider implications, integrate it with other things you know, and so on. This process is an internal one requiring calm, time and concentration. A room of people bantering ideas about is not this.
Extreme forms of “forced collaboration” look like the example Cain describes: a fourth grade classroom where the only questions that can be asked in a group session are ones that everybody has- you can’t ask your own question in the group if only you are curious about it. If this is what collaboration in schools turned out to be we’d be preparing children for a dictatorship, not a constructive democracy.