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Go, Team

Why student teamwork is important, and how teachers can build a game plan

December 7, 2015
illustration of three students sitting at a table, trying to work as a team

We’re in the midst of a group research project on the great labor strikes of the early 1900s, and at least three of my students have called me over in the last 15 minutes with complaints. “She isn’t doing her share of the work.” “He isn’t letting me make any decisions.” “I’m done with my slides, why should I help the others finish theirs?!” “Next time, you can’t make me work with them.”

I’ve quickly realized that my students don’t have the tools to be successful team players.

Collaboration is becoming my mantra. First, I wrote about the need for robust collaboration between teachers. Then it was the need for partnerships with parents. Now, it’s teamwork between students.

From consulting to construction work, most professions require collaboration. Research — like this recent working paper by Harvard Graduate School of Education economist David Deming — shows a clear connection between earnings over time and social skills, including how well you can work on a team. In the education sector, we’ve identified teamwork as one of the essential 21st century skills for college and career success.

And yet, I’ve found few resources to help me teach my students how to master the techniques of effective collaboration. How do I empower students to collaborate and learn from one another? How do I teach tools for tackling disagreements, or sharing work equally? How can I get them to be their own mediators?

And if they don’t learn it now, what will they do when they join teams at their first job?

Thinking back on my own education, I cannot recount a single time — from elementary school through college — where I was explicitly taught how to work successfully on a team. In college, it seemed that only the engineers (and some science majors) worked in groups. As humanities and social science majors, we were often discouraged from collaborating; our ideas should be ours and ours alone. We mastered the art of in-depth research, composed comprehensive literature reviews, and detailed anthropological narratives, but at no point were we asked to hone our skills in teamwork.

I never noticed this absence until last year, as a master’s student at the Harvard Ed School. In many of my classes, we participated in group work: research projects, statistical analyses, country reports. But in one class on leadership, early in the fall, the teacher had us explicitly discuss how we would work successfully in our teams — who would take which tasks, how we would address disagreements, and what our groups’ strengths and weaknesses were. We divided up work, and we created contracts to hold ourselves accountable.

In my own classroom, I’m coming to realize I have no clear game plan when I ask my students to work in groups.

Where can we look for ideas to help us intentionally teach teamwork?

One idea might be to head to the soccer fields and school basketball courts. In most schools, sports is one of the only settings in which we talk about what makes a strong team and an effective team player, and coaches might have strategies that could translate to the work teachers do in the classroom.

For more classical pedagogy, friends and colleagues have suggested Designing Group Work, a 20-year-old guide written by the late Stanford education and sociology professor Elizabeth Cohen, still referenced by many today.

There are also a number of schools and networks that are individually working on strategies that have the potential to be implemented more widely.

For example, Ron Berger, the chief academic officer for the Expeditionary Learning network of schools, has written extensively on one component of teamwork: peer critique. In his writing, talks, and classroom visits, Berger has created a model for how to teach kids to become effective peer editors, using the mantra “be kind, be specific, and be helpful.”

In the High Tech High network of California STEM-based charter schools, teamwork is considered an integral component of a student’s education. Last year, Julia Jacobson, a fourth-grade teacher in the network (and a fellow HGSE alum), studied student teams and wrote a paper on methods of improving group work. This year she has been building a library of online video resources, featuring students’ own voices describing strategies to improve group work.

We need more of these types of resources. If we are serious about preparing our students for the 21st century and for the kinds of jobs that will require them to problem solve, think creatively, and work collaboratively, we need to help them master those same skills in the classroom. And to do that, we as teachers need a more coherent game plan.

About the Author

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Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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