As educators, we often talk about the importance of intentionally developing our students to be independent learners and independent thinkers. Even with the youngest preschool children, we focus daily on working to help them grow their abilities to be independent. But, is this focus on independence in direct opposition with one of the most important 21st-century skills – collaboration?
Can you be independent and collaborate at the same time?
Why is collaboration important?
The Information Age has changed the focus of education. No longer do we need to graduate children who have memorized all the important facts. Now we need to graduate children who know how to apply all the important facts to current issues so they can problem solve solutions.
Our ability to collaborate has also changed with technology now allowing us to communicate around the globe. If we agree with Stefanos Zenios, of Stanford Business School, when he says, “The moment of inspiration is a process, which relies on the hard work of multiple people,” then we do need to teach our students how to collaborate with a variety of different people in different ways and in different places.
Collaboration can lead to creativity and problem solving, as well as deeper understanding of a topic or problem. We know that employers are looking for people who are skilled at working on teams. So, how do we ensure that our children gain this skill while at the same time build their independence?
Practice is necessary, but there also needs to be guidance. All too often for children who are not skilled in collaboration, communication can break down and group work can become a group of people working together independently, where one or two members often do more work than the others.
Collaboration can be broken down into the components of communication, conflict resolution and task management. This is very different from looking at a required task and then divvying up into separate pieces to be completed by individuals, who are then brought together at the end. This approach misses the communication piece and reduces the depth of learning, as well as the opportunity for creativity that can occur from truly working together.
Can you be an independent learner and a strong collaborator? Absolutely. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the skills required to learn independently can be applied to group work. The critical piece is the ability to discuss and be able to disagree in a way that is acceptable and does not break down communication. Learning to collaborate means developing strong social skills, how to have trust in others, and improving listening skills. These are all also important toward building effective leadership skills.
As we require more collaboration from our students earlier in their school careers, they will develop the necessary skills to be both independent and collaborative. In turn, they will possess the confidence so that when they reach college – and their career – they will truly be able to work as a member of a team to solve our world’s significant problems.