Collaboration: An Essential Skill for the 21st Century

by Nina Morel

A number of years ago, I met Kum Fong, a teacher who was visiting from Singapore to study and share her research on teacher collaboration.  At the time, I was working to develop collaborative professional learning practices in the school district where I worked, and I asked her to comment on her impressions of American teachers and collaborative practices.  Without hesitation, she answered: “Teachers are so lonely here.”

This comment resonated with me as I observed teachers’ relationships with their peers in school buildings. There were many schools with warm social relationships and faculties that loved and respected each other, but few that had true professional collaborative relationships around the work of the school. In our school district, we were investing time and resources to help teachers see the value of collaboration both to improve their own practice and to improve the collaboration skills of their students.

Over the next few months, Kum Fong and I had the opportunity to discuss via email her ideas and impressions, and we found that our concerns were much the same.  Back home in Singapore, Kum Fong’s teachers were not “so lonely” as in America—they collaborated daily during shared planning time to develop lessons and assessments together, team teach, and observe each others’ classes. But she and her colleagues were grappling with the need to help students develop collaboration skills in a diverse, achievement-oriented society. They were concerned that students were more interested in doing well on tests than in getting along with their peers.  

Singapore and the United States are not the only nations grappling with the need to develop collaboration skills in their teachers and students. Worldwide, educational systems are struggling with teaching their students communication and collaboration skills.  People have always worked together for common goals, but why have collaboration skills become so much more important today?

1. As our society has become more complex and global, more collaboration is needed in the workplace. A hundred years ago, a person might live his whole life collaborating with only a few hundred people that he knew and developed relationships with over a lifetime. Today, through technology, we come in contact with hundreds of people from around the globe every day.  Fifty years ago, most jobs required you to get along with your boss, a few coworkers, some clients or customers that you met personally, and maybe a vendor or two.  Because of the complexity of modern organizations today, customers, clients, vendors and suppliers may be scattered across the globe. Most jobs require individuals to work closely with dozens of teams that span geographic, cultural, linguistic, professional, and political boundaries and that each do specialized work that must coalesce through collaboration into a finished product or completed service.

2. Collaboration promotes deep learning that is needed to identify and solve complex problems. Learning has always been a collaborative effort between teachers and students based on a strong human relationship. From the moment parents model speech to their newborn, we connect our relationships with our learning. Working with others to share ideas, take a point of view, defend a position, give and accept feedback, achieve consensus, and apply knowledge to a common goal lead to intellectual growth. In an age when critical thinking, problem-solving, and innovation are so important, students must have the opportunity to develop these skills in challenging collaborative environments.

3. Collaboration is necessary for a functioning democracy.  The skills of civil collaboration-- advocating for a position, listening to others’ points of view, taking others’ perspectives, compromise, resilience, humility and forgiveness—are vital if we can expect democracy to thrive. Schools, where students may first encounter others whose perspective is widely different from their own, must provide a forum for these skills to be modeled and practiced. As our world becomes increasingly mobile and diverse, it is more important than ever for citizens to learn how to collaborate with others to impact policies.

4. Collaboration brings joy. Those “lonely” teachers Kum Fong mentioned are not the only ones who might feel isolated in a culture where the internet, mobile technology, and social media can take the place of daily face to face interactions. Teachers report greater job satisfaction when they have higher levels of collaboration and collegiality with their peers, and students who “feel they belong” are less likely to drop out of school. Working with others (whether online or face to face) can enhance creativity, improve reflection, increase respect for others, promote team celebration, and open our eyes to new talents and skills we did not know we possessed.

I have not had the chance to take up Kum Fong’s offer to visit her at the Ministry of Education in Singapore, but I believe that our brief friendship is an example of one of the greatest blessings of collaboration. When individuals can bring two very different perspectives to one common problem, the discussion becomes the relationship. These discussions are ones that teachers and students desperately need to apply their own ideas and perspectives to the challenges of our times.

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