When I am asked “What is the most important skill for students to learn these days” I always answer “The ability to effectively collaborate.” This answer often surprises people; as an ed tech director, they assume I am going to talk about programming
or STEM-centric topics. However, if my students leave my classroom having learned one thing, I want them to come away knowing how to collaborate effectively with others.
When we talk about schools preparing children for college and career, we often think about course content, when in reality we should think about what we want them to be able to do. Think about what you do in your job and career. Is it done in isolation? Your greatest achievements, were they obtained solo? For most of us, the answer is no! We often work in teams, sometimes with people in our office as peers, superiors, and/or subordinates; we may also collaborate with people outside of workplace. However, we almost never work in isolation. Therefore, the most essential “soft” skill for success is the ability to play well with others.
However, engaging in “group work” is often loathed by students and teachers. Why? Because someone often feels saddled with the bulk of the work, students may not get along with their team-mates, it can be a challenge to navigate calendars or delegate tasks, as well as numerous other hurdles. All of these are true, even when group work is done “right.” However, these challenges are exactly why students should be tackling group assignments and projects; they need to learn how to navigate these problems in order to effectively tackle them in life. For example, have you had to have a challenging conversation with a colleague? How did you deal with someone on your team who couldn’t meet deadlines? What do you do to find time for working effectively both as a team and on your own? Like any other skill (playing the piano, running the mile, or learning a new language), learning how to engage in collaborative work takes practice and experience. By exposing children to engage in these dynamics throughout their academic careers, we prepare students to tackle them as they progress in their academic studies and their careers. So embrace “group work” and all of its messiness!