How Will They Learn? (Team Work)

push_the_bullseye_400_clr_18524If the school system seems inadequate to the task of instilling problem solving skills surely they will do better at team building. All those young people in the same place with the same goals. It screams team work!

 Would it be fair to assume that in order to teach team skills the instructors must be team players? Since teachers and professors are products of the school system they will only succeed to the extent that the school system succeeded – well you can see the problem.

Academic pursuits are, for the most part, individual journeys. Even when working with others, the goal is to gain personal understanding and good grades. Forced to work in teams, with little to no guidance or mentor-ship, students will generally follow one of two paths. If the individual team members are assessed on their contribution and presentation they will divvy up the work. The final product will be a mosaic – any beauty will be accidental.

More commonly, and in an effort to avoid this outcome, the group will be assessed as a whole – everyone will receive the same mark. Now the best strategy is for the strongest student to take over. Even if the others contribute, the strongest student will fix any short comings.

For the strong student, this is annoying, but necessary for good marks. It does not seem to provide much incentive for weaker students. Any contribution they make will be redone. In order to address this, teachers have devised marking schemes that involve having the group allocate marks to team members as they see fit. Unless there is a built in penalty for giving the weaker students fewer points most groups will play nice with all but the biggest free loader.

I just spoke to a colleague and she said that her evaluation is based on how well the group presents their argument. The lesson, intended or otherwise, is one of persuasive communication, not how well the group worked together. It seems that while colleges and universities often have students work in groups (we seldom call them teams) we reward for communication or report writing or case analysis – not team work. Perhaps we believe that the lesson is subliminal.

In general, most students hate group work. It is not unusual to have at least one student complain that they did all of the work. They tell you that they had to nag, cajole and threaten to get the others involved. The usual response is that this replicates the “real world” and that they are developing leadership skills. Neither is true. I have been involved in many projects involving many people and overwhelmingly, the individuals worked hard to make the results better than any one individual could achieve. 

And good leaders do not nag, cajole and threaten. 

Strong individual performers have to be given good reasons to sublimate their abilities in order to achieve the benefits of the collective. In the workplace, individuals have been vetted by the hiring process, nurtured in the corporate culture and know their roles. They are more likely to seek complementary and compensatory skills in others. Not that workplace teamwork is problem free. Far from it. But it is different than class group work.

Team work – what exactly does the “real world” envision when we say that the ideal candidate should be a team player? Do we mean that they should be able to “take one for the team” – in other words put aside their own goals in order to ensure group success? How do we describe the team? Do we mean all employees should follow the corporate mandate because the corporation is the collective? Do we mean that we don’t want individual expression? Or do we really expect the employee will work with people from other departments in creative endeavors?

Maybe we simply mean that people should be able to “play nice” and not aggravate their fellow employees. This is more of a social maturity issue or an element of emotional intelligence.

Should we expect the education system to teach how to work in teams when it is not even clear as to the needs of the workplace?

Maybe this is the reason that some employers scan resumes looking for indications that the candidate played team sports. Maybe, although I don’t think team sports is the answer. From my limited observation sports teams seem full of individuals who aggressively strive for individual glory while saying – it is all about the team. Team sports is about winning – not about creativity, collaboration or collective wisdom. And team sports require coaches and training both of which are in short supply in the average workplace, or post-secondary institution. 

I asked my colleague how she thinks we can teach team work. She said that she does not see this as her role. She felt that her somewhat loftier goal was to help students learn how to find answers. That’s in keeping with the accepted role of universities – the place that teaches how to learn (while colleges teach how to do.) But of course this begs the question – do they? 

So I am still left with that same question. How will they learn teamwork? If not here – where?


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