Teamwork skills had been identified as one of the most important and crucial skills for the 21st century learners. The skills consist of the ability to socially engage with others, negotiate with teammates, leading and following instructions, communicating ideas, convince others and sharing resources for similar purposes or outcomes. For all we can remember, even when these 21st century skills had not been introduced yet, we had already acknowledged the importance of teamwork. However, most of the time, despite having a very clear learning outcome of nurturing the students with teamwork skills, our actions usually go astray.
Imagine that a 14-weeks semester of teaching, we give the students a project to be done and submitted to us, for the sake of building teamwork skills. We give the project in week 1, we ask them to form the group of 6-7 students by themselves (because we’re lazy to do it ourselves, and because having 10 students per group would eventually reduce the number of submissions to be assessed), we never check their progress, but we ask them to submit by week 14.
So, what would be the expected outcome?
First, the students would only remember and realise about the task perhaps after you inform them to submit it by next week (week 13).
Second, the academically excellent students will find other good students to invite them as part of the team. The weakest one will be the last to be chosen by mercy.
Third, they will divide their task accordingly during that time, and every and each individual in the group to prepare their own section without checking others’ work.
Fourth, they will frantically rush to do it. The good quality one remains to be good. The free riders give excuse for their inability to complete their task and somebody else had to do it. However, the team had to ensure the free rider’s name to be written at the front cover of the report, afraid of hurting each other’s feeling.
Fifth, they send their work without checking the quality of the work as a team, and claim they had achieved teamwork!
And finally, we keep complain that the students’ works are of no quality, and the vicious cycle continues. And each and everyone within the group receive the same grade.
There have been some strong and grounding research works by the educationists that have been carried out for the past decades about nurturing teamwork skills, but unfortunately they were not picked up well by other educators. As an example, cooperative learning strategy(Johnson et. al.,2000) is a very effective pedagogical approach to nurture teamwork skills. Cooperative learning is supported by 5 principles:positive interdependence, individual accountability, face to face promotive interaction, appropriate interpersonal skills and group processing. These principles had to be adhered to ensure the teamwork is achieved.
For a project that is aimed to nurture teamwork skills, it should have a certain complexity that this particular work cannot be solved alone. Therefore, the students had to be positively dependent to each other to complete the task given to them. Cooperative learning also requires the team members of a team are assigned by the lecturers or teachers, usually consisting the maximum of 5 members per team, mixing them up according to their ability, gender and other criteria. It has been proven that for a team of 6 or 7 or more will lead to the born of free riders, which we want to avoid in the first place.
It is also important for the students had their own section to be completed but also equally important that each and individual work to be checked by other team members. This is to fulfill the second principle, which is individual accountability. Each of them can hold to one role in the team apart of completing the task given. The example of the roles are moderator, accuracy checker, recorder or devil advocate who will always need to question their decisions or outputs, avoiding groupthink syndrome. From one project to another, the students may interchange their roles.
With the third principle in place, the students are required to meet regularly to discuss their assigned task. The face to face promotive interaction will also need the educators to check their students’ progress, thus they shouldn’t be anymore complaints that the students are doing their work last minute. The students are also required to peer-rate each other’s performance for few cycles and this will allow them to constructively comment on their team members’ performance, which fulfill the group processing principle.
And along the way, the students had to use appropriate interpersonal skills throughout completing the project. They had to explain, deliberate, discuss, convince and negotiate with each other to come out with the best solution for their team.
It seems that cooperative learning is a very difficult strategy to be used by an individual educator. This can be done for a maximum of 50 to 60 students per class, but it can be exhaustive and burdening, and thus initial planning is essential.
In UTP, we discovered that the best way to deliver this approach is by collaborating among the academic staff. One of the most typical reasons given by the students for not be able to come out with good quality work is because they are rushing through the deadlines. This happens when all the lecturers require their students who happened to take the same courses to submit their projects within the same dates. Ironically, we aim to produce students with teamwork skills, but we work in silo. We never knock each other’s door to ask about collaborating in teaching and learning, but we keep it to ourselves, within our own secret garden.
This silo mentality among the educators can be avoided in the first place if these lecturers can sit down together prior to the start of the semester and discuss what are the outcomes to be achieved, what would be everyone’s approach in their own class and how and what kind of the assessments could be done to avoid overlapping of outcomes. This is what I call as Collaboration 1.0.
On the second level of collaboration, if the lecturers are teaching similar course, why don’t we develop similar materials for teaching? For all we know, we can cut down most of our time preparing the teaching materials when we share them together.
For the third level of collaboration, for the course owners who teach similar batch of students and wanted to attain similar learning outcome such as teamwork skills, wouldn’t it be good if they collaborate with each other, such as giving the students an integrated project? This is what we had been piloting and implementing at UTP for the past 3 years. We found that apart from allowing the students to work together to solve some complex problems, they are able to acquire the needed teamwork skils and importantly able to connect the knowledge that they obtain from one subject to another, and see how it fits well in the body of knowledge. The good news for educators is, we are no longer needed to suffer alone doing this kind of complex approach. An integrated project allow each of us, the educators to play our own roles: one as the communicator with the students, one as the rubric creator, one as the motivator and etc. This shall allow each of us to have ample time working together to achieve greater good for our students.
I strongly believe that collaborative educators will produce collaborative students. And if you are still in denial and keep saying that I will continue to do as what my previous teachers did (such as giving non stop lecture or give ‘divide and compile’ project approach), and expect wonderful outcomes, please do ask ourselves back, are we teaching for the sake of our students, or just for our own convenience?