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Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 10/ 4/2010

Willingham: How to teach collaboration

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
A small scientific step was just made that could help the 21st century skills movement be a bit more grounded.

I have criticized the movement in the past for, among other things, advocating the emphasis of certain skills without any clear plan for how those skills ought to be taught.

For example, “collaboration” and “working effectively in groups”
are often deemed 21st century skills. Advocates point out that more and more projects in the workplace are team efforts, and businesses need individuals who know how to work well with others.

But you can’t expect people to learn how to work in groups simply by putting them in groups. Plenty of people who have engaged in group work for decades still don’t know how to work well in groups. Despite all of this experience, we find bullies, shirkers, drama queens (or kings), and so on.

Learning requires feedback. These ineffective group members do get feedback on their poor skills--the group doesn’t function well--but apparently that is insufficient.

If we expect students to learn how to become better at working in groups, it’s not enough simply to assign group work. We must teach them how to be better group members.

But do we really know what makes for a good group member?

Researchers just made a significant step forward in characterizing what good group members do.

The researchers randomly assigned people to teams of two to five members, and then asked the teams to solve a broad variety of problems.

Team members wore badges that allowed the recording of conversations while the group worked, for later analysis.

There were two important findings. First, the data showed that the idea of a group “collective intelligence” makes sense. Just as there is a general intelligence or “g factor” in individuals that predicts the likelihood the individual will solve a problem, there is a collective intelligence or “c factor” that predicts group task solution across a broad variety of tasks.

Second, you might expect that the “c factor” would simply be a function of the average intelligence of group members. It wasn’t. The intelligence of individuals mattered, but more important was the social intelligence of group members.

Social intelligence was measured by a relatively simple task
in which one must judge what another person is feeling from a photograph of the eyes only.

In addition to social sensitivity , the other factor that contributed to the c factor was equality in conversational turn-taking. When everyone shared the stage, group intelligence was higher.

It was also higher when there were more women in the group, but this effect seemed to be due to the fact that women had higher social sensitivity, on average, than men.

Several factors you might have predicted to be important were not. For example, group members’ ratings of how cohesive their group was, or how motivated they were, or how satisfied they were with their group—none of these mattered.

This study might be viewed as the first step. The next steps will be greater specification of effective group membership, and then methods to teach good group membership.

Twenty-first century skill advocates, take note.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 4, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Curriculum, High School, Higher Education, Intelligence, Research  | Tags:  21st century skills, collaboration, dan willingham, daniel willingham, how to teach collaboration, teaching 21st century skills, willingham, working in groups  
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Hi, Dan. Is having a plan for solving the problem (or addressing a need) a prerequisite for recognizing the problem or need? Because it seems to me that we recognize a number of problems and needs (e.g., climate change, worldwide poverty) without yet having the plans to successfully address them. Not having the solution doesn't obviate the need, does it?

The badge analysis technique is cool. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by: scottmcleod | October 4, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Scott--the lack of a solution doesn't obviate the need, but *recognizing* that you lack a solution helps you plan more effectively.

What concerns me is that I too often hear people and organizations argue "today's workforce requires collaboration. Therefore kids ought to collaborate." That's not going to be enough. You have to teach collaboration.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | October 4, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

This is such a great topic; while we are waiting for in-depth research reports and data on cooperative skills methadologies,there are some wonderful, 'old-fashioned' activities that teachers and parents can use to facilitate group learning.

For the following, the primary requirement for the adult(s) in charge is sensitivity to the feelings of the participants.

For young children, playing dress-up, acting out stories and using puppets provide springboards for discussion of emotions, interactions between characters, use of the imagination, etc. Instead of just being passive observers of television or movies, children can get into the roles of imaginative play.

For older children and adolescents, short skits, improvisation, acting out historical events (a la re-enactments), the tried-and-true charades, pictionary, and journalism interviewing/review techniques all offer opportunities to practice meaningful conversation in structured situations that encourage group interactions.

Contemporary follow-up for the above would be video-taping & reviewing sessions, but it's important that the facilitating be carried out by experienced teachers, directors, and/or counselors, that have an understanding of group psychology.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 4, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of 21st century skills strikes me as a bit inane. Human beings have always needed these skills. But my question for Dr Willingham is to what extent extra curricular activities, such as school newspaper, yearbook, athletics, and all the others, are effective in teaching young people to work effectively in groups? Years ago I read that research showed that extra curricular activities were a better predictor of later success than academics.

Posted by: amar0514412000 | October 4, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The teaching of proper manners is of utmost importance.

Another concern is that if group work is overly used, negative behaviors are not only developed but perpetuated and kids having limited wisdom to deal effectively in certain situations will become negatively conditioned to behave in a manner that is less desirable.

Dorland's Medical Dictionary:

herd instinct: the instinct or urge to be one of a group and to conform to its standards of conduct and opinion.

The herd instinct, having varying group dynamics, could either spur or hinder creativity and productivity. Furthermore, teachers must monitor the checks and balances withing the group, mostly for the younger kids. I am inclined to believe that many of our greatest scientific discoveries would not have been if the ideas of which were first "run by the group." Even so, resistance happens (Tesla, Lister, Barry Marshall, etc.).

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 4, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Interesting post. In my view, one of the main things to keep in mind about group work is that its proponents have over-promised about it. It's not uncommon to hear the phrase, "kids learn more from each other than from the teacher." Well, no. They pretty much don't learn content from each other. They MAY, if the exercise is well-structured, learn something about how to use the content from each other.

Posted by: jane100000 | October 5, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

"Social intelligence was measured by a relatively simple task
in which one must judge what another person is feeling from a photograph of the eyes only."

And if we could teach this kind of social intelligence, we'd have a cure for autism.

Until we do, what do we do with mainstreamed autistic children in classrooms that insist on students working in groups?

Posted by: KatharineBeals | October 6, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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