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Collaboration: The New Groupthink?

On Sunday I stumbled upon an article in the opinion pages of the NYT titled The Rise of the New Groupthink.  I had been working on a blog post about Solution Fluency which went into an exploration of different personalities as they operate in problem-solving situations.  I had concluded that if people can recognize and put to use the best strength for the given situation, a group may produce a better result than an individual, toiling alone, might do.

Not so according to the article… or would author Susan Cain actually agree with the Myers Briggs concept that people operating out of different values and preferences might produce a good result when working together, if those differences are understood and are operating at their best?  Certainly a group of people operating at their worst will produce a negative result in any situation.

Susan Cain argues that introverts like Steve Wozniak need to work independently, and if Woz were forced to collaborate in constant brainstorming groups, he would never have had the opportunity to make the magic of the personal computer happen.  She does grant that without the “supernatural magnetism” of Steve Jobs, he might have given his invention away for free, or that he might never have gotten started on the project if not for a bunch of like-minded buddies getting together and outlining the parameters.

Though Cain, author of the forthcoming book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” seems to be speaking out against collaboration, she is operating out of a limited idea as to what collaboration is or can be.  She cites the example of a 4th grade classroom she visited in New York City where: “students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”

What?  Either this example was taken out of context, or the teacher she observed could probably use a bit more guidance on different learning styles.  This technique might force the extroverts to think and consult their peers before they ask a question their group-mates can answer, but at its worst it would certainly produce what commenter ljn of New Jersey described on Jan. 15th at 12:49pm:

 “…I was recalling that in elementary school in the 1970s, my teacher would ask who wanted to work in groups and who wanted to work by themselves. Usually I was the lone hand raised that preferred to work “solo”. But since most kids wanted to work in groups, that is what we did; often with mediocre results. Decades later, I know that my best work as a scientist has arisen from my own ideas and observations. Unfortunately, those of us who prefer to pursue our own approach are often labled as ‘not a team player’.” 

Certainly young ljn would have had valuable contributions to make, but the self-professed introvert was, for some reason, not comfortable with the face-to-face, dialogue-oriented interaction her teacher prescribed.  This commenter’s chosen career in science makes me think he or she might be an S (sensing) type of problem solver: fact-oriented, considerate of the components that have produced the situation, interested in researching the cause-and-effect aspect.

ljn might also be an F (feeling) type: attuned to the feelings of his or her peers, which might have caused internal conflict at a young age when he or she might have felt different from the other members of the group because of his or her unique vantage point.  Sensitive to all of this, and more comfortable processing information in his or her own mind rather than out loud, it is understandable that this person did not like the structure of group work in school.

But does ljn‘s experience mean, as author Cain’s article suggests, that collaboration will turn us into a mediocre society?

In a word: no.  I have seen collaboration in action in an all-boys private school in the Northeast, where 5th graders build presentations on shared Google docs about topics such as ancient Egypt.  They are abuzz with excitement, sprawled out in the hall, editing the presentation, adding cool pictures and details while their teacher Tweets homework assignments with interesting bonus facts and images of Egyptian relics, fact-of-the-day style.

Some of the boys take responsibility for editing the text of the presentation, some are better at formatting the slides, some are writing Google queries with great imagination, which bring results that send the boys into fits of giggles, awed silence, and even quiet contemplation as they ramble around the internet in search of appropriate details.

They feel like they’re playing, but they are producing impressive results.  When less-than-impressive, the teacher critiques the work according to a well-defined rubric and shows them exactly how to improve.

They all know how to do each step, sometimes they work together, sometimes alone… and yet still together, as they each have access to the most immediate version of the project through their assigned laptop.

Are they dumbing each other down?  Hardly!  They are in competition for the coolest fact, the best formatting, the least number of spelling errors on the text, the most interesting picture…  Why?  Because who doesn’t want to be the best at something?  And if the ability to find your own niche and be the best in the way that makes the most sense to you is in your hands, you’re going to find it, even if you are 10 years old and working on a project for school, even if you don’t care about grades or school or Egypt, you’ll still want to know that you are the best at something.

Even better, you get to be competitive from the privacy of your own little hideaway under a table, down the hall, in the corner of the room, or wherever your best little working nook might be.

I wonder if ljn might have been happier with a collaborative project in a classroom like that ?

If all of this “type” classification intrigues you, visit the Myers Briggs website or pick up a copy of Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type, by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron.  The career book takes each of the 16 different personality types and forecasts, based on decades of research, careers that are typically satisfying to particular types.  According to this book,  ljn would likely be an ISFP (Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving), who would enjoy — you guessed it — a career in science.

What are you?  What am I?  And why does all of this matter?

As we prepare our school to go boldly where many are tending to go… and discovering incredible opportunities and also pitfalls along the way… we must consider how we will instruct our various learners to help them to achieve 21st Century skills like the ability to collaborate.

Tieger, Paul D., and Barron, Barbara.  Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2007.