Why Teamwork is a Future-Proof Skill for All Students

Effective teamwork and collaboration are skills that will be part of every student’s future career. Most people work in teams, not on their own. This goes for small business owners, who must cooperate with their suppliers and their customers, as well as scientists, who have whole teams of researchers they collaborate with. As such, collaboration is a valuable skill to hone within the classroom.

There are certain skills that are technology-proof, meaning that they will be valued no matter what technological advances humans make. In addition to creativity, the first skill discussed in our future-ready skills series, teamwork will be essential in any job function over the coming years.

Collaboration is Valued From Pre-K to Retirement

If you ask almost anyone in any job function about teamwork, they will point to valuable team members who help them accomplish their goals. The same teamwork lessons that students learn in school through group projects and class collaborations extend well into their careers, regardless of the field they enter.

“Building on a foundation of poor teamwork can quickly become problematic for the whole of your company – affecting all levels of the business to varying degrees,” writes the team at IT solutions provider ScopeLogic. The same can be said for a group project at school: Classmates who refuse to work together or won’t listen to the ideas of others will have a harder time getting a good grade. Uneven groups place more pressure on high-performers while struggling students don’t learn as much.

In the workforce, teams experience several benefits from working together, explains Michele Bossart at Patriot Software. Groups are more productive, develop better solutions with the help of others, and are more committed to the task and company. Those who develop collaboration skills early on can become assets with any team, organization, or company they connect with.

The development of teamwork skills in class can prepare students for healthy careers—or at least help them navigate different teamwork environments as they advance their education.

Collaborative Students Become Collaborative Employees

Most managers don’t actively create space for employees to work together, which means it’s up to the individual to develop team strategies. Students who embrace group work in class are more likely to successfully work collaboratively once they graduate. Unfortunately, negative group experiences in school can actually make some adults get defensive when faced with a team effort.

Executive leadership coach Lisa B. Kwan, Ph.D., explains that some employees become defensive in collaborative situations because they feel like they will have to give up their resources for another project or lose their freedom by working with a group. This is especially hard if employees are praised or rewarded at an individual level, and so don’t see the benefits of working together.

“The lack of incentives and rewards is the most common and powerful barrier to effective collaboration,” says Kevin Martin, chief research officer for the Institute for Corporate Productivity. “Yet, most talent management systems are designed to reward individual achievement, not team accomplishments.”

You might already see this in your classroom. When you pair a high-achieving student with a struggling peer, the more advanced student might get frustrated because working with someone who hasn’t caught up with the material slows them down. And unless grading reflects each student’s contribution (and not just the group product), the high-achieving student feels teamwork is a risk to their own grade, rather than an opportunity to work with other students.  

Collaboration is Developed From Other Soft Skills

Teachers often expect students to work well in teams and employers assume workers will tap into teamwork to get projects done. However, teamwork itself isn’t a stand-alone skill. It’s not something a person either has or doesn’t. People develop the ability to work in teams by fostering other soft skills. This means that students who don’t successfully participate in group work at school will already be behind the curve when they enter the workforce.  

Some of the skills needed to work in teams effectively are set out by Alicia Wyant, enrollment counselor at Cornerstone University’s Professional and Graduate Studies. In addition to being reliable and respectful, these include:

  • The ability to communicate clearly with everyone involved.
  • The ability to listen in order to understand others and consider their opinions.
  • The ability to manage conflict in order to help two or more people come to an understanding.

Teachers can help students who have a hard time working in groups by determining which elements of being a good team player need to be improved.

Designer and illustrator Ted Leonhardt, who advises creatives in the marketplace, agrees that focusing on traits and developing a set of guidelines for working with teams can help people get along better. Too often, teachers and then managers instruct students and employees respectively to be team players. They expect their students or staff to fit a certain mold and behavior pattern. However, by focusing on concrete tasks and traits, each team member can shine in their own way.

“It took me a while to shake [my egotism] – and learn not only that teamwork makes everybody’s work better, but also that you don’t have to surrender your personality to be a team player,” Leonhardt says. “As a manager, I’ve since learned how to ask employees to focus more on their team without having to downplay their individual strengths and quirks.”

Instead of thinking that working in a group made him less, Leohardt sees the value of each person’s contributions and how together, the group has better results than they would if working separately.

Technology Doesn’t Teach Teamwork (Or Replace It)

Technology isn’t going to solve our collaboration problems. There are apps and websites galore meant to help teams work better together. As a teacher, you likely have a half-dozen resources from email to messaging apps meant to make communication easier. However, without strong team skills, these tools aren’t going to do much.

“If you want your organization to be more collaborative, technology alone isn’t enough,” Mike Guerrieri writes at DelCor Technology Solutions. “Just like using Microsoft Word doesn’t make you a writer, technology that supports collaboration doesn’t make your organization collaborative.”

In fact, in some cases, your collaboration apps might even hinder your efforts.

“For all their benefits, [technological advances can] also undercut a group’s success,” explains organizational  psychologist Alexander Alonso. “We’ve all been there: straining to hear conference calls, struggling to share files, and dealing with version-control issues in documents. Promoters of these innovations assumed that key collaboration processes happening outside their systems would ensure that everyone was on the same page.”

Even if technology does improve for greater call clarity and draft-sharing, the basis is the same: Good technology can’t replace strong team collaboration. In fact, one of the jokes about collaboration technology is that you spend so much time “collaborating” that there’s no time for actual working.

Teamwork Isn’t Something Students Inherently Know

Adults have a hard enough time working on teams, so how can we expect our students to immediately understand the concept of collaboration and the steps necessary to work effectively in group projects?

Most adults fail at group projects because they don’t know what collaborative working means or how to implement it, says Pavel Naydenov at management software company Kanbanize. Students who don’t grasp this concept won’t be able to use it, either. The Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards both expect students to understand collaboration, but this isn’t a skill that can be taught as easily as long division.  

Most methods to teach students collaboration fall short. In group projects, students often divvy up the work into separate tasks and then come together to cobble them together. They don’t use a lot of creativity and they usually don’t really work together.

“The elephant in the room when you have students work in groups is, if you don’t explicitly teach them how to collaborate, they are not going to do it,” says Susan Kelly, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “If you just put them in groups and give them a task, that’s not enough.”

Emily Lai, Ph.D., director of formative assessment and feedback at Pearson, encourages teachers to lead discussions about the meaning of collaboration before assigning collaborative assignments. Give examples of what collaboration looks like and explain the various elements that go into it. Then, as students work on their assignments, teachers can observe both verbal and nonverbal behaviors to see how teams work together.  

The projects you assign can also determine whether students collaborate or decide to work alone. Elizabeth Mulvahill of We Are Teachers compiled a list of eight activities to promote better collaboration in the classroom. One is to introduce the language for collaborative discussion, which helps the quieter kids get involved, and she links to cooperative classroom games to promote the idea of teamwork.

Finally, Michael Niehoff, director of career services at the College of the Sequoias, challenges teachers to “walk the walk” when they teach collaboration. “We ask our students to collaborate, or partner, but do we truly do it ourselves?,” he asks. It’s much easier for students to mimic or recreate behaviors than to develop them on their own. As a solution, Niehoff provides a few suggestions for how teachers can collaborate:

  • They can trade classes for an hour or day to see how each educator develops lesson plans and leads their classroom.
  • They can co-teach a lesson or project. This is a great way to show how seemingly unrelated subjects actually connect.
  • They can organize school-wide or grade-wide projects that allow teachers and students to work together to achieve their goals.

Developing opportunities for collaboration doesn’t have to be difficult. Your grade can start small with a one-hour lesson and then move on from there.  
It doesn’t matter whether your students grow into engineers or artists, graphic designers or caretakers, they will have to work well with others. Those who truly understand the concept of collaboration and how to apply it will thrive, no matter how technology changes our society.

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