Periodic Daydreaming

The Occasional Thoughtful Ramblings of a Creative and Caffeinated Science Teacher

Collaboration Is Not Always Key (Periodic Daydream #8)

Collaboration is not always key.
iPhones are a beautiful distraction.


These are two ideas I have thought about a lot this week as the school year winds down and everyone is a bit stir crazy.

Education and business often place collaboration center stage.  A job description never describes the ideal candidate as someone who must work in solitude to make progress. In fact, designers are creating spaces for work and school that encourage and facilitate collaboration.

However, if you are constantly collaborating, what impact does this have on learning or progress at your job?

I began thinking about this question after reading an article from The Economist that popped up on my Twitter feed entitled The Collaboration Curse.  The article considers the true cost of collaboration in terms of the actual expense of constant communication, commenting, and feedback through various forums of email, meetings, social media etc. More importantly though the article claims that collaboration prohibits deep work:

Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem. Many of the most productive knowledge workers go out of their way to avoid meetings and unplug electronic distractions.

Deep work sounds a lot like “deep learning” in education (not to be confused with deep learning in the progress and development of artificial intelligence), yet we continue to constantly push the group work and peer connections at a rate that might be detrimental to further learning. I’m not saying we should remove all collaboration from classes, but there is a comfort zone of appropriate collaboration. Every teacher has  probably witnessed instances when collaboration is working, when all students are contributing and participating, offering ideas and feedback. However, there are always those times when one student is powering through dragging the rest behind. While the one student understands, the others are nodding their heads feigning comprehension. So then we might consider ability grouping where students can work at an appropriate pace with students who are at a comparable skill level.  ALAS, WE ARE STILL GROUPING.

I believe it’s okay to stop grouping in certain situations.

Students need to learn how to work independently and productively.  They need to understand how they as individuals learn best and it is difficult to see how this can happen if they are always moving from one constructed social situation to the next. There is definite and necessary skills reaped from collaborative group work, but it can also add another layer of compliance for some students who are “pleasers”. Their first motivation is to please their teacher and now their second motivation is please their group members. When we do finally ask students to work independently, many  will continue to work in groups because they thrive on the attention of the social connections and  we haven’t necessarily created a school wide environment conducive to true independence where students have the ability to do what is best for their own depth of learning.

There may also be a fear of providing time for independent work, because if students are working alone on a variety of tasks and someone of importance walks into the classroom, will it look like learning is happening? Collaborative adventures are easy to point at and assume students are making progress in their learning, compared to time spent independently. Because of this, we see collaboration as more valuable and we instead expect them to do “deep learning” at home. Many students are successful doing this, but a large majority are not.  Consider for a moment how much of our lives are really driven by independence and how much of our success as adults relies on our need to truly understand our personal requirements that allow us to continually learn and improve. Skills of independence as well as collaboration are vital to the future of learning and business.

What environment does promote the intense concentration necessary to fully grasp a complex concept or solve a challenging problem?

I believe this environment is unique to the individual.  In nature, each species has an ecological niche which describes its unique position in an ecosystem and the critical limits and conditions necessary for that species to survive. Some species have a narrow niche and are specialists because they depend on a specific resource to thrive. (Ex. The panda requires bamboo, while the koala requires eucalyptus.) Others are generalists and have very broad niches and can thrive in various environmental conditions like the coyote and raccoon.

Like other species, some people are also generalists and have the ability to focus in a variety of environments, while others are specialists requiring unique conditions in order for learning or productivity to occur. My optimal place for creative and complex tasks is at a coffee shop or café (with slight background noise and natural light), where I can feed off the energy of the atmosphere and gain some focus from caffeine. I appreciate subtle music and quiet conversation while I work, as long as there isn’t that one person who decides his conversation is important enough for the whole room to hear. In fact, silence will usually distract me, because I’ll pick up on the slight buzz of fluorescent lighting or another slightly audible and annoying background noise. I appreciate natural light and the less industrial atmosphere of most coffee shops compared to traditional schools and offices. There is often a range of seating choices, from a more comfortable place to read to a table-chair combination for one (or a small group). When the weather is nice an outdoor patio area is especially appealing. Each person can most likely describe an ultimate environment for productivity and focus. Some people prefer a certain style of music while others prefer complete silence. Some people are most productive sitting upright, while others might find a lounging position more comfortable.

Now imagine a typical classroom or office space. While new designs are much more flexible, they still often lack the spaces of solitude necessary for some individuals. Most classrooms today also lack general aesthetic appeal in terms of seating and color. The walls are white and the desks and chairs designed for a small person, not for the wide range of body types present in schools today. Teachers do their best to make it a welcoming space, but for me it’s still not Starbucks.

Now even at Starbucks, the one item that impedes my ability to focus is my iPhone, my beautiful distraction.  I love my iPhone, because as a piece of technology it’s not only sleek and appealing, it’s very useful. The iPhone functions as the internet, GPS, camera, recorder, planner, personal trainer, step-tracker, mobile music DJ, and restaurant guide–oh and as a phone–wrapped into one device. At the same time though, it’s an addiction. I find myself having to continually refocus over and over again. (In fact right now, I just got a twitter notification. @cleteus_smith is now following me so I’m going to have to read this paragraph again.) I am constantly conflicted about this form of technology. In some ways it’s helping me to connect with people I wouldn’t normally keep in touch with or even meet, and in other ways it’s destroying my ability to connect with people who are five feet away.

Cell phones in schools are also a beautiful distraction, because they can be a great learning tool (an entire computer in your pocket) for students to use. The various apps make tasks like research and movie-making easily accessible. However, it’s obvious that for a large part of the time the students are experiencing a common addiction, and instead of listening to a classmate or considering the challenge of the moment,  they are focused on their next SnapChat connection. While there is a range of responses schools have to cell phones from prohibition to an open door policy, the trend of cell phone use is increasing and technology is not going away. (It might drastically change if Elon Musk extends his neural lace concept to somehow connect the human brain directly to an iPhone. Given his recent work, it’s not improbable.)

So how do we help ourselves and our students navigate a world overdosing on collaboration and iPhones?
While I don’t have a ground shattering answer, I think it lies somewhere with the foundational importance of reflection.

If we encourage students to be more reflective and provide them the time to do so, they will better understand themselves as individuals and their connection to the world around them (both physical and digital). They will begin to identify how they learn and grow, what works and what doesn’t. They might then have the self-awareness and motivation to seek out an environment conducive to their success, or make a personal decision to put the iPhone away (wishful thinking I know…) Reflection might be the one tool that will help students navigate an unpredictable future involving constant connection, artificial intelligence, and whatever Elon Musk has in store, without losing sight of their essential ability as humans to continue growing and learning.


One thought

  1. Our school is looking at updating our building/classrooms and I keep thinking of how we can redesign a classroom to include those separate work spaces. I like the animal analogy; it’s as if we need different habitats for different children in each room.

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