Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Teamwork: The Softer Skill?

In a recent Radio 4 programme , “In Business”, Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the OU, was asked what business wants of the education system. He replied that what employers often say they are not getting from graduates is:

“21st century skills or the softer skills that are really about people. The ability to collaborate, group problem-solve. The ability to communicate effectively, verbally. The ability to work in teams…”

How often do our students practise these skills in our education system. How often are they taught the skills of teamwork? Our current Transmedia Storytelling project is as much about developing this skill as any “hard” IT skills.

Based on my experience this week I would say the team-working skills of many students are poor and some very poor indeed. The project began last week with a team-building challenge. It was exciting, fun and engaging. We had a great time.

This week we got down to serious business. We have left the ICT suite with its rows of computers and are working in two of the largest rooms in the school with plenty of flexible space to work in. Teams were given a  Google Docs template (like this) to help plan the plot outline for their e-safety stories. They were given a brief explanation and then asked to go away and begin planning - with the brief for one student to share the template with their team.

Not one team began planning their story or even thinking about planning before the document had successfully been shared. In one team in the first class I taught,  every student grabbed a laptop and began trying to write a story on the template – seven of them  at the same time barely using the power of speech to communicate – except to shout at each other when they had a problems.  Unsurprisingly, they found this rather difficult… I limited laptops to one between two students for the  groups after this. I had deliberately created a table on the template so that there was some fairly mindless form filling to share between team members to start. I pointed this out in my introduction but only one team in five actually shared the task. Groups often seated themselves in rows. They had not considered sitting round their tables.

One pair managed to delete the entire template. The response of the “owner” of the document (the Google Apps term for the person who shares a document)? I’ll just stop them editing…

One team of rabid individualists ended up sitting in a circle with a circle time-style  “talking object” and instructions to only speak if they had the object. I also instructed them to begin their contributions “Yes, and…”IWB team

One interesting success – remembering Sugata Mitra’s ideas about learning in groups -  students really enjoyed working on the interactive whiteboard but even so many could not resist fiddling with pens and generally making each others’ life difficult.

All in all, in terms of output it was deeply unproductive. Large swathes of students simply sat back and allowed others to run the show, contributing little or nothing. The relative unfamiliarity of working this way led me to expect them to find this difficult, but this was a vivid reminder of the difficulties we will be facing.  It’s not surprising group working is avoided. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Next week I’ll begin sessions with a circle time to model the expected behaviour. I’ll also introduce a key teamwork skill each week to focus on and a plenary to share successes.

Any other ideas?