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Learning to thrive: Why we still struggle with collaboration

Updated: Mar 24

I recently read about a group of students using a shared Google Doc to take lecture notes. The notetaking was simultaneously taken in a collective file and students would mark where they were confused. This allowed fellow students to observe the misunderstanding and help explain it in real time. This collective file became the basis of these students’ examination notes. I remember thinking, “Wait, why did we never do this at University?” I distinctly remember paying for my notes in Law School. So why is the following experience such a rarity? Shouldn’t the collaborative sharing of notes to support ALL students to achieve be the norm?

There’s only so much achievement to go around.

Law school was cutthroat. The story of the students above contrasts greatly to the horror stories of leaving your notes in the library only to come back and find them destroyed. Yes, in both the medical and law faculties, note sabotage was really a thing. But why? Because there were only 300 limited spots in the second year.

For one of us to succeed, someone else had to fail. This is because these spaces were designed to facilitate the scarcity mentality. The scarcity mentality refers to people seeing life as a finite pie, so that if one person takes a big piece, that leaves less for everyone else. When you have a course that culls their numbers by three-quarters in the second year based on grades, you create a finite pie. Limited spots, limited pieces of the pie. In this framework, resources are limited, people hoard information, and it is every person for themselves.

A new way forward

One of the big changes from School Certificate to NCEA was the move to a standards-based system. Under the old model, assessment was norms-based meaning that students were tested and measured against a bell curve. The problem with a norms-based system is that it guarantees a 50% failure rate. For one person to do well, someone else must do poorly. NCEA, however, assesses students against standards. The beauty of this system is that my achievement in no way hinders your ability to achieve. But that doesn’t solve the problem of a niggling question - Why would I help others achieve?

Individualism and capitalism argue that the way forward is individual economic advancement. However, this idea that we are in it for ourselves doesn’t ring entirely true. The truth is that we regularly engage in small acts of selflessness on a daily basis. We share parks and plazas, music and stories, beaches, and beds.[1] Psychologists refer to this as ‘everyday communism’, in which we share resources amongst one another for the common good. Deep down, I think we want our classmates to achieve. This might cost me my time and effort but there is an added benefit to me. I get to learn during the process.

In his popular book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey argues that we need to adopt what he calls a win-win mindset. This is where we do not compromise on both parties winning. When we operate through a win-win mindset, each party mutually benefits from the transaction and is able to thrive.[2]

Despite being a revolutionary idea in the Western world, communal success has been part of indigenous cultures for years. Take the whakatauki, Na to rourou, na taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi (With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive). It is the notion that while working in isolation might result in survival, working together can take people beyond survival and onto prosperity.

The great battle of assessment vs pedagogy

So why don’t we operate with a win-win mentality in our classrooms? If we did, stories like the one above would not be so remarkable. In the case of my university experience, the competitive nature was built into the design. It was no wonder that once our positions were guaranteed in the second year, collaboration went up. But we’ve changed the design, haven’t we?

Well, not really.

The shift to a standards-based assessment in schools, has not been accompanied with a shift in thinking or a shift in pedagogy. Most classrooms still reflect the old system. We teach as though advancement comes at the cost of another. I’ve literally heard kids exclaim that if another student gets Excellence, that might impact their own achievement. The fabric of norms-based assessment is still deeply ingrained in our psyche – both student and teacher. Even NCEA has echoes of the norms-based testing, arguing that percentages of students are likely to achieve at a certain level. We cannot entirely kick our habit of individual advancement, but we can start to engender a culture of everyday communism in our classrooms.

5 ways to build collaborative classroom culture

· Build positive Interdependence into our tasks

· Reinforce the message that student success is both dependent on & independent of others

· Use collaborative platforms to ease workload

· Use classroom design to engender collaboration

· Tuakana Teina

In Part 2 of this blog post titled ‘5 ways to build collaborative classroom culture’ I will go in depth on the suggestions above and discuss how to create a classroom where everyone can achieve together.

[1] Rutger Bregman (2019) Humankind: A Hopeful History [2] Stephen Covey (1989) Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

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