Collaboration: More Than Herding Sheep

Posted on April 24, 2012 by


“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The ability to collaborate well is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills to possess. Knowing how to work together to achieve a common goal will serve anybody well in school, jobs, and life in general.  Many great discoveries have been made through partnerships between intellectuals, and many more will follow. The teachers at my school emphasize the importance of cooperation in and out of the classroom, regularly integrating group projects into the curriculum to develop our skills of organization and cooperation.

Fine. I’ll admit it. I dread working in groups. Whenever a teacher trots out the next collaborative project on Latin American poets or statistics, the rest of the kids in my class sigh with relief, taking comfort in the fact that they’ll be able to commiserate with their peers, or, better yet, rely on somebody else to do the work. They frantically make eye contact with their friends, already anticipating a few laid-back, stress-free weeks with their partners. I, on the other hand, feel like banging my head against the table.

My mom tried to teach me about accepting new ideas when I was three years old. She calmly explained that I needed to listen to other peoples’ thoughts and take them into account, that I couldn’t control every aspect of the game. The next time my dad and I were playing with fake food, he suggested that we use a green plastic plate instead of my favorite, the blue one. Using my new-found open-mindedness and acceptance, I serenely replied, “That’s an idea. And we’re not going to use it.”

Obviously, I don’t act like a three-year-old anymore, and I’ve worked hard to acknowledge new ideas and to realize that I’m not the most important person. I’m not as bossy or uptight as I used to be, but my independent streak remains. From creating kaleidoscope patterns out of blocks in kindergarten to researching the Romanovs in high school, I like to do my own work. I don’t feel comfortable telling people what to do anymore, but I can order myself around as much as I want. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to handle everything on my own, but I can set my own schedule based on how comfortable I feel with the topic. I can critique my writing in every sentence. I can reject my own ideas whenever I feel like it. I can release my raging perfectionism from its cage and let it run free. There is no way that I can display my rampant fastidiousness in a group project, and this barrier has been my greatest difficulty in cooperation.

I have a diverse, humorous history class, and I genuinely respect my classmates. We are funny, intelligent, and skilled in many different areas, but somehow, when we work in groups, we find it difficult to get motivated.  Many students feel uncomfortable taking on the typical authoritarian leadership role, as do I, but seem unable to function without someone telling them what to do. More often than not, I feel like I’m being forced into that position, and I’m not the right person for the job. Instead of encouraging my group members to find facts or write scripts, I end up doing most of the work myself while they play around on Facebook or Tumblr. This path is not the solution for any of us.

In my dreams, a collaborative project provides an opportunity for everyone to participate equally in different areas, with their wide-ranging skills contributing to a sum that is more than its parts. I hope for a project where everyone can rely on everybody else to do quality, punctual work without being cajoled into focusing. Group projects should be a supportive network where each person can supply his or her talent, not a leader trying hopelessly to herd a group of sheep.

Every person in my class has a responsibility to help reach this dream. We’re starting a two-month documentary on the Boston Tea Party in our history class, and I hope that my peers who are generally a little more laid-back about the research process will find the leaders within themselves. This project is not going to succeed if only a few detail-obsessed, stressed-out kids power through the process while the others watch movies on their computers. Everybody must contribute for the sake of the group.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
-Helen Keller

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Posted in: Learning, Projects