Building a Culture of Collaboration

The following is a typical example of a road trip scenario from the 1990s:

Driver:  “I know the way to our destination.”

Passenger: “Are you sure?”

After more time elapses and there is a feeling that the car is going in circles,

Passenger:  “Why don’t we stop here and ask for directions?  He/She looks like a helpful person.”

Driver:  “No, I am sure I have it now. I know how to get there.”

Repeat the last few lines several times over the course of the next half-hour, ending the scenario in frustration and despair.

photo by ellie truitt ‘18

Although any number of apps rescue all of us from this type of archaic pathfinding, it remains the perfect illustration of our proclivity to do things on our own and without help.  Why are we so resistant to asking for help? In educational terms, why are we so resistant to working together for a solution?

I think if we inserted two Harpeth Hall students into the above scenario without the modern convenience of a smartphone, they would come to a solution more happily and quickly than the driver and passenger described above. Our girls are accustomed to working together both in and out of the classroom. How do we solve this problem? Plan this project? Clean up this mess? The answer always points to collaboration.

Research touted by the National Coalition of Girls Schools indicates that girls prefer an atmosphere of teamwork and find it most beneficial in math and science. “According to the Center for Research on Girls, studies have identified several benefits of collaboration for women in STEM.” One that resonates with our students and teachers is the fact that collaboration leads to “higher quality work produced in less time than when working alone, improved understanding of course material, improved performance on exams, and increased enjoyment of activities.”

I know what you are thinking. You are remembering several dinner table conversations, which revolved around complaints that Suzy, your daughter’s classmate, was not holding up her end of the bargain on the most recent social studies project. Your daughter ends up doing all of the work. You also know that our girls are so over scheduled; it would be so much easier if they could just do their work by themselves without having to work with classmates who have their own schedule challenges.

It can be a slow process to learn how to collaborate successfully. We must keep in mind our goal of teaching our girls to think critically in the 21st century. When we turned the corner on this millennium and century 16 years ago, collaboration was exalted as one of the essential skills for success in our daughters’ lifetimes. Yes, it is seemingly a lot of trouble, especially for our younger students, but in the long run, collaboration cultivates a diversity of opinion which is how we make the best decisions as leaders and how we engage the most people in the learning and decision making process. It takes work to develop a culture of collaboration, and we are pushing it in age appropriate ways in each grade, fifth through twelfth.

Adam Grant writes in a recent New York Times article about why grading on the curve, can create a “toxic” environment. He describes an atmosphere that is “pitting students against one another. At best it creates a hyper competitive culture, and at worst, it sends students the message that the world is a zero-sum game: Your success means my failure.” At Harpeth Hall we work to cultivate the opposite of that culture. When the tide of learning and understanding rises, all boats rise.

Our older students know that the best way to gain a fuller understanding of a concept is to teach it to a friend. Increasing feelings of belonging, social connection, and a team spirit is what blossoms so beautifully by the senior year. The notorious cut-throat atmosphere of law schools or even undergraduate pre-professional programs are brought up short with the power of collaboration.

In our jobs and careers, we seldom work in silos. If you are part of a team of people who bring different opinions and skills to the table, the end product is always superior.  Furthermore, modern day evaluations assess the ability of the employee to work on a team and communicate effectively with colleagues.

Mr. Grant writes that he “spent a decade studying the careers of ‘takers,’ who aim to come out ahead, and ‘givers,’ who enjoy helping others.” While short term results put the takers in first place, “as the months turn into years, the givers consistently achieved better results.” Everyone wants to be on a team or work on a group project with a giver.  “Takers believe in a zero-sum world, and they end up creating one where bosses, colleagues and clients don’t trust them. Givers build deeper and broader relationships – people are rooting for them instead of gunning for them.”

By the time a girl makes her way through the upper school, I hope she will learn to ask a teacher or a friend for help whenever she needs it. I hope she will learn to work effectively on a team with both strong and quieter personalities and see the value that each brings to the process. And finally, by all means, I hope she will seek help with directions to her destination.


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