Cultivating Collaboration

Regular readers of the 8 Blog know that I talk about collaboration a lot.  Over the last few years, I’ve written about wikis, Google Docs, Crocodocs, and Stixy (and many other applications) and discussed how different tools can be used to foster collaboration in classroom environments.  But why is collaboration so important?  In their book on 21st Century Skills, Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel identify collaboration as a critical skill for individuals to “survive and thrive in a complex and connected world.”  In a recent New York Times article, Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president, writes that collaboration is the “inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion.”   The world is becoming a more open place, Summers writes, and businesses are placing a greater value on the ability to work together.

With the world becoming increasingly connected and people working and learning from a distance, collaboration needs to be a curricular focus in our courses and cultivated in our classrooms, schools and institutions. We just can’t expect students to know how to collaborate.  It’s a skill that needs to be developed.  But cultivating collaboration isn’t easy, especially in educational settings.  Like so many concepts, collaboration skills are best learned socially.  Students learn to collaborate by directly communicating and working with their classmates, either physically, face-to-face or virtually through technology.  We as educators must support their collaboration and help them learn from their collaborative experiences.  But is this happening in our schools?  Summers doesn’t seem to think so.  Examining the current state of America’s institutions of learning, Summers writes, “the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system… For most people, school is the last time (students) will be evaluated on individual effort.”

But cultivating collaboration isn’t just a curricular challenge. We as educators must be models of collaboration ourselves.  We can’t just talk the talk.  We must walk the walk.  We must break free of our respective silos and learn to collaborate with one another.  In his book called Collaboration, Morten Hansen identified four barriers to collaboration that institutions may face.  These barrier include:

  • The not invented-here barrier:  people are unwilling to reach out to others and reject the ideas from the outisde
  • The hoarding barrier:  people are unwilling to provide help or keep information close at hand because they are competing with one another
  • The search barrier:  people are not able to find what they are looking for because information is spread across the institution
  • The transfer barrier:  people are not able to work with people, especially ones they don’t know well.

I’m sure Hansen’s barriers will resonate with many readers but they can be overcome.  And they need to be overcome.  Not only to be better educational models for our students, but also so we can be more productive, more creative and more innovative.  Collaboration is more than a bridge between two ideas.  It is the catalyst that spawns a multitude of new ideas.  And that needs to be valued, cultivated and celebrated.

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